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Josh Barnett doubted Fedor Emelianenko would sign with UFC out of retirement

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to his announcement on Saturday night in San Jose at Bellator 142: Dynamite, speculation about where former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko would end up as he returned from mixed martial arts retirement ran rampant in the sport.

Would it be UFC? Perhaps Bellator, since he was in attendance at one of their events? Was there another player involved fans and media hadn't considered?

In the end, he chose to return (at least for now) to Japan under the auspices of former PRIDE honcho Nobuyuki Sakakibara for a co-promoted show with Bellator that will eventually air on Spike via tape delay. For many MMA fans who were awaiting Emelianenko's debut in the UFC, the news came as something both surprising and a touch confusing.

However, for UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett - a PRIDE veteran who has spent long stretches of his career in mixed martial arts and pro wrestling in Japan - the news isn't all that surprising.

"I haven't done any press about it, but that's what I've been saying since the minute he said he was coming out of retirement, that he was not going to go to the UFC," Barnett told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "In fact, I bet Juliana Pena that he wasn't going to go to the UFC to begin with, that he was going to go to Japan. So, she owes me $20, I believe.

"I've been telling everyone that if he's coming back, there's going to be a big Japanese show attached to it," he continues. "It's all going to line up for him there first. And if he decides to go to the UFC or do something else, I'm sure that he will. That option will exist, but his draw, his value in Japan is monumental. There's no way he's going to pass this up."

According to Barnett, there are too many factors making the choice to go to Japan very easy for Emelianenko. It's not that the UFC couldn't or didn't make what many would regard as a generous offer, but Emelianenko's value to Japan and his value to Sakakibara there means he'll be able to earn and be treated beyond compare.

"I just think that the draw to be in Japan is that much stronger, to begin with. The amount, the way he's going to get paid, how he's going to get treated. I suppose the UFC technically could rival that or exceed that, but it's unlikely. It would be them stepping out of bounds maybe beyond what they do for anybody else. They probably do it for Ronda and Conor, who knows? But it's just too easy to do so."

That said, Barnett's also not necessarily ready to close the door on a UFC run for 'The Last Emperor. "Him going over there and doing a fight doesn't necessarily mean he won't end up in the UFC. I wouldn't imagine he's going to be signing some sort of long-term fixed contract. He'll probably just go over there, do his match and then go to the next location or maybe call it quits. Maybe say that was good enough.

"As far as his drive to want to continue to compete and try to add to his legacy, I really couldn't say. I think overall he's pretty satisfied with what he's done as a fighter. He has a right to be so. Obviously he still has some competitive juices flowing otherwise I don't think he'd take that fight."

The larger question is whether it all can work. Sakakibara has tenure in Japan, which helps, but he's also attached to the ignoble fall of PRIDE, which itself was connected to deep financial mismanagement as well as yakuza involvement. Emelianenko's involvement is helpful, but will it matter in the end? Barnett's not entirely sure.

"Today is not yesterday," he notes. "What used to work, I don't know if it will again. The big thing that Sakakibara has going for him besides experience is that he has relationships prior with the paid television stations and that is a massive component to being able to put your product into try and become successful in Japan. You have to be on terrestrial Japanese TV and a good time slot and he has the potential to do that. But does he carry with him a stigma of a fallout of PRIDE before with some of the more scandalous aspects, I don't know entirely and I'm not really paying that close attention to what's going on behind the scenes, but I hear things and I've been hearing about this show coming around for the better part of a year.

"I think there's a possibility [success] will happen, but I don't know, maybe the Japanese fans' tastes have changed to such a degree he's out of date."