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‘Huggy Bear’ is big in Japan, but his laughter belongs to the world

IGF

Before he came to be known as "Huggy Bear," Chris Barnett spent some time as "Beast Boy," a nickname people gave him for his uncanny ability to emulate wildlife. He was called "Big Black Country" there for a while, back when Alistair Overeem asked him to come to Albuquerque to help him prepare for Roy Nelson. Now a regular at Jackson-Winkeljohn’s, you can sometimes hear his teammates calling him "Fat Bones," because -- even at 5-foot-9 and a sharp spike north of 265 pounds -- he throws spinning stuff like a compressed Jon Jones.

But Huggy Bear ended up sticking, and not (necessarily) because he’s a cult follower of the original Starsky and Hutch. He calls himself that because who doesn’t love a cuddly big dude in a bear suit, especially one that’s constantly smiling right up to the moment he punches somebody’s face?

"We switched it up to Huggy Bear because the persona of an MMA fighter," he recently told MMA Fighting, pointing out that he’s a happy yet shrewd contrarian. "Every time you think of an MMA fighter you think tattoos, muscle, angry. Those are the top three if you did a survey that would be on the board. So we took it completely the other route. Even when I was coming out as ‘Beast Boy’ I was always happy and cool with who I was. That’s who I am as a person. Life is too short to be angry. That’s how I look at it. So we spun it."

Barnett, who fights Kirill Sidelnikov at Rizin on April 17, is a big hit in Japan. Over the course of his last few fights in Inoki Genome’s IGF, he has bonded with the fans with a confection of costume, demeanor, attitude and dance moves. When he makes the walk for "Baby Fedor" at the Nippon Gaishi Hall, he’ll be in his teddy bear ensemble, looking like the strange apparition that Jack Nicholson encounters in The Shining.

It’s unsettling. And fun.

"You look at the whole Hello Kitty thing, you’ve got grown men who are into that story in Japan," he says. "So we came out in the costume to Pharrell Williams' ‘Happy’ song, and you test the feedback. As soon as that song came on the crowd was like, ‘ooooohhh!’ They went bananas. It was instant. Literally people stood up to just shake my hand. Once they heard that, they liked me. It worked. I got in there, got the job done. I did a couple of kicks and then cartwheel, and they were like, okay, not only is this guy happy, but he can fight…and he can dance. So I hit them with a boom from the get go."

It should be noted that Barnett can also fight. He’s 14-2 overall, with a dozen knockouts. His style is best described as...interesting. Wide, overhand power shots when he gets his man in trouble. Cartwheels at intervals. Spinning kicks and punches. All of this from a compound heavyweight who embraces the comedic aspects of what he’s doing. When he wins, his celebrations take on a life of their own.

He’s forever happy about his job.

"One thing I’ve been taught since I was young and got into combat sports is, anger clouds the mind," he says. "You could stop me in the middle of one of my matches and I could tell you a joke. I can’t say I’m out there to get punched in the face. I get punched and I think, hey hey, hold on now."

Huggy Bear, like so many others who end up in prizefighting, has traveled a curvy road. A Georgia native, he was into Tae Kwon Do from the age of four, and he's always had the rambunctious gene. He got a wrestling scholarship to Campbellsville University in Kentucky, where he used to play spring football as well. One day a defensive tackle coach from South Florida took notice of the wrecking ball on the field. Next thing he knew he was a defensive tackle and fullback for the Bulls.

"I remember Ray Rice running me over," he says, remembering those collegiate days. "At the time they had this scouting report, and I was like, okay, Rutgers has got this little running back…can’t wait to hit him in the hole. He’s going to come through A-gap, and boom, not today. But man, he’s Ray Rice for a reason. That guy is a little buffalo.

"I kind of knew that whole NFL dream, me being 5-foot-9 on a good day, was kind of out the window."

His segue into MMA was equally serendipitous. He was on a dance floor when somebody noticed how deft and nimble he was for a big man. He was invited to the local MMA gym, and never looked back. Barnett trained in Georgia, and still does for his cardio and general upkeep.

But these days, when he needs to get down to the "nitty gritty," he goes to Jackson’s gym in New Mexico. He spends four to six weeks there training for his upcoming fights, and he's planning on keeping that schedule through his fight with Justin Willis at WSOF 31 in June.

"I came out here when Alistair fought Roy Nelson, and that’s when I got the chance to feel the team out," he says. "The vibe out here is immaculate. You walk into greatness. They have a sign on the wall that says, ‘the greatest fighters have walked through this doorway.’ So as you walk through, you’re like, yeah, I’m one of those now. The list goes on with names, Holly Holm, Jon Jones, John Dodson, just the top of the top echelon fighters you get to train with and pick their brain."

Recently he had an occasion to train with Dodson, who he calls a "little squirrel." But he loves helping his teammates. Not only did he grow out his beard to emulate Nelson for Overeem, he sacrificed his chin, making himself a Guinea pig as Alistair got his timing down on landing a big knee.

"Literally all I did was throw that overhand right," Barnett says. "I ate so many knees it wasn’t even funny, but the end result was we got that W."

But heading into his fight with "Baby Fedor," the most lovable fighter going has found a coaching staff that is more than happy with his creative striking game.

"I’m not going to be able to triangle anybody anytime soon with my short legs, so I might not be able to use that but I can use the triangle escape to get to where I need to go," he says. "Being out here you definitely get different looks and outlooks to make you a better fighter. They let you be you, but they just give you different tools."

In Sidelnikov, a Starry Oskol stoic just like his mentor and training partner, Fedor Emelianenko, "Huggy Bear" feels he has an accommodating dance partner for his special brand of gravity-defiant ass kickery.

"I love it. I absolutely love it," he says. "I see why they call him Baby Fedor. You put them side-by-side in a video, they throw the same stuff. That big overhand right. They wait for kicks to throw that overhand right. They use constant pressure. I would say that Fedor’s ground game is better, but Kirill’s not far behind.

"I’m fighting a complete fighter, and therefore I need to be complete myself. There’s no real holes in his game. And where I’m at now, I’ve been working on wrestling, jitz, striking and everything with these guys out here, and I feel there’s no real holes in my game. I think the only person who’s going to beat me out there is going to be myself."

For everything that the name Fedor conjures in his dead-emotion, cathedral calm (things his protégé Sidelnikov shares), "Huggy Bear" is the opposite. No fighter out there can rival him in sunny demeanor and levity.

"I’m sure there will be people out there who will mix it up, thinking, oh man! Huggy Bear just beat Fedor!" he says. "And you know what? I’m going to run with it."

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