For someone nicknamed “The Phoenix”, a reference to the legendary flaming bird of Greek myth, Nick Barnes keeps things awfully cool.
It certainly makes sense once you learn the backstory of the 27-year-old welterweight, who is set to main event Legacy Fighting Alliance 30 this Friday in Costa Mesa, Calif., against Curtis Millender.
Barnes, who now fights out of San Diego, was around 13 years old and visiting from Wyoming when he was involved in a frightening accident that saw him suffer severe burns on his chest and back. During a family gathering, his cousins had lit the top of a bottle of rubbing alcohol ablaze and Barnes’s clothing wound up catching fire, resulting in injuries that would require multiple skin grafts.
This event that could have potentially traumatized the young Barnes instead motivated him to make up for lost time, and once he recovered and able he dove into athletics with a previously unforeseen passion. It was a surprise to his friends and family to see Barnes excelling in football, wrestling, and other sports, though he attributes it to his father’s blood. Literally.
“My father, he was always kind of the sporty type, he was into athletics. And he actually had to give me some of his blood after my accident, so you can maybe blame him for me changing after,” Barnes joked while speaking to MMA Fighting.
Barnes’s newfound focus kept him from avoiding the pitfalls of “wasted potential,” as he puts it, as he was previously content to whittle away his days like any teenager without any particular aspirations. It’s not that he was getting into trouble, he just wasn’t getting into anything with any sort of conviction.
Wrestling led to judo, which eventually led to Barnes spending time at the the gym where he was eventually invited to work with the MMA fighters. Even though it wasn’t his plan to go pro, his grappling base allowed for a smooth transition into MMA and he got off to an 8-0 start after starting in 2011.
Aside from his wrestling and judo experience, Barnes is a huge fan of fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and while he is known for being composed both in and out of the cage, he’s starting to consider the possibilities of adding some cartoon flourishes to his performances.
“Ironically, it ends up like, so Mortal Kombat for example, I’ll watch some crazy, over-the-top combo they throw in there and then I take little bits of it and I’ll use it in practice and something will land,” Barnes said. “So maybe I’m on to something.”
Barnes has compiled a 12-2 record overall, with his losses coming to Jesse Taylor and Brian Camozzi, both of whom have UFC experience on their resumes. It was actually Camozzi’s win over Barnes in September 2016 that propelled him to an Octagon booking, a missed opportunity that only provided further motivation for Barnes to step up his game.
He took almost a year off to hone his skills and sharpen his mental game, citing MMA veteran Enson Inoue’s book Live as a Man. Die as a Man. Become a Man. as being particularly inspiring, and returned to outpoint Chad Curry at LFA 20 last August. Barnes is now set for his third straight headlining bout, this time against Millender, another fighter with origins in SoCal, with the hopes that a win will propel him to a title shot against James Nakashima, who is currently sidelined with an injury.
It’s not just a championship that Barnes seeks, but the challenges and platform that come from being a top-ranked fighter. In the future, “The Phoenix” is looking to become more involved with those who have endured similar accidents and help them to persevere.
“I have tried to make myself an example for people who have gone through traumatic experiences, especially for burns, and one time in particular - it was nothing, no grand thing, nothing big like that - but I was in my dad’s neighborhood and this little girl came up to me and my dad introduced me to her and apparently she got burnt when she was a kid,” Barnes said. “You know, she was very timid about it and you could tell physically she was shy about her scars.
“So when I met her I was like, ‘Well check mine out,’ I showed her my scars, I told her what I do, and her seeing my confidence and seeing how it didn’t affect me mentally and I’m still able to overcome it and be happy, you could kind of see it in her physically that she loosened up a little bit and she’s more outgoing, and she started telling me about her scars and we started comparing stories so overall from that little experience, it made me feel good that I could possibly be a light for people to look at and be like, ‘You know, life ain’t that bad.’ We go through bad things, but as long as we pull through it, and we believe in ourselves mentally, we can come back from it stronger.”
LFA 30 airs live on AXS TV on Friday night at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.