Anaheim, California. The 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound heavyweight known as the “Babyface Assassin” leaps up onto the ropes of the ring, snarling, drawing his thumb across his neck, and staring down 15,000 screaming fans with an executioner’s glare. His opponent, Pedro Rizzo, is still laid out, motionless, behind him. Big John McCarthy asks the Babyface Assassin whom he’d like to fi ght next: Andrei Arlovksi, Ben Rothwell, Tim Sylvia, or Fedor Emelianenko? “Those guys are all bad-asses,” he growls. “But they ain’t me.”
The sun bakes freshly paved asphalt streets that wind around a Starbucks in Southern California. Inside, a dozen customers seek refuge from the dry desert heat. Josh Barnett, the 30-year-old mixed martial artist with his larger- than-life heavyweight’s frame, his chiseled good looks, and blonde hair of a matinee idol, is nowhere to be found in this crowd. This is puzzling because, according to the dictates of his manager, he is supposed to be somewhere nearby. There goes a skater kid chugging his iced latte. A suntanned dude wearing an Affl iction tee shirt patiently waits for his order to come up. Some Blockbuster Video clerks gather around the Splenda dispenser, sweetening up their post-shift caffeine jag in this sea of anonymity. This is strange, as prizefi ghters who hold victories in no-holds-barred combat over the likes of UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture, UFC interim heavyweight champion “Minotouro” Nogeuira, Aleksander Emelianenko, Mark Hunt, and Dan Severn simply do not go unnoticed in small gourmet coffee franchises.
“Hey,” says the suntanned dude in the Affl iction tee. He’s holding a Frappuccino and looks, as so many people say after they’ve met a public fi gure, somehow smaller in person. And yet here he is, the man who many think is the only true to threat to Fedor Emelianenko’s reign as the greatest heavyweight on the planet. “I’m Josh.”
In an era of mixed martial artists who are still unused to the spotlight of fame, who still – after eight seasons of follies on The Ultimate Fighter – drink all the free alcohol that is provided to them on national television, who are still trying to master the art of giving shoutouts to sponsors, who prostrate themselves at the contractual altar of Dana White, Josh Barnett is an elder statesman. He commands $300,000 per fi ght. Thanks to an illustrious career in the Far East (PRIDE, Pancrase, and World Victory Road, among others) he cannot walk down the street in Japan without being stopped by rabid fans. His schedule is micromanaged down to the hour by his manager. In the world of mixed martial arts, the Babyface Assassin is, without question, an upper echelon fi ghter. And following his explosive knockout of Pedro Rizzo at Affl iction’s debut show, the man has all the tools to become one of the sport’s biggest mainstream stars.
If the party-loving Chuck Liddell is MMA’s Tony Stark, the enigmatic Rampage Jackson its Wolverine, the mercurial BJ Penn its Spider Man, and the pious Randy Couture its Captain America, then Josh Barnett may be its Superman: He represents an ideal; he has the courage to challenge authority; and he has a reserved, highly cerebral side to go alongside his outsized alter ego. Today, on the patio of this Starbucks, the blustery proclamations prone to leave his mouth when in the presence of a microphone (a talent infl uenced by Barnett’s love of pro wrestling, an arena in which he still performs regularly in Japan) are nowhere to be heard. His voice is crisp and clear, but there’s also something soft about it, something reminiscent of Clark Kent, far removed from the beast that lurks within him. There are no tight trunks, no wrestler’s kneepads to be seen today. There is no crowd to please, no soaring heavy metal entrance song, no villain to vanquish. Therefore, there is no Babyface Assassin. There is just Josh Barnett.
Every hero has his origin story. The Babyface Assassin was born meting out his unique brand of justice in gyms and weight rooms. “It all started when I saw UFC 2,” he says. “I was in high school, in Seattle, where I wrestled. Back then, if you wanted to get involved in the sport you had to fi nd a way to make it happen. I trained in Muay Thai, boxing, Judo, karate. I’d meet a guy on the Internet and he’d say, ‘I’m this size and I’ll be in your area, do you want to fi ght?’ We’d meet up and beat the crap out of each other. I’d fi nd a guy acting all gnarly in the weight room and I’d say, ‘You ever see the UFC? You want to fi ght?’ We’d fi ght on the wrestling mats right next to the basketball court. People would stop dribbling the ball and start cheering as I beat these guys up.” Barnett estimates he had 20 of these sorts of fi ghts before his fi rst big payday, which was his reward for winning the SuperBrawl tournament in 1999. “I won $8,000,” he remembers, “but then I had to pay for my trip out there, and then pay my coaches and trainers. But it was the fi rst time I had a wad of cash in my hand. It felt pretty good.”
March 22, 2002: Las Vegas, Nevada. Midway through Round Two, the Babyface Assassin sweeps UFC Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture and, in a show of brute force, slams him on his back, jamming Couture against the cage. Couture tries with all of his might, but he cannot get up, he cannot escape. The Babyface Assassin rains down blows, snapping the champion’s head back down against the ground, completely manhandling him. Couture’s face splits open in different places. Finally, the referee calls an end to the fi ght. The Babyface Assassin howls in the throes of victory. At 24, he is the youngest Heavyweight Champion in the history of the UFC.
And yet, watch any UFC broadcast. In the discussion of the world’s top heavyweights, the Babyface Assassin’s name goes unmentioned. I watch Josh Barnett sit there as he squints in the sunlight and considers this, the Kremlinology of the world’s largest and most successful promotion, the way they’ve done their best to airbrush him out of the history books. “I’m not the one with the problem, the UFC is the one with the problem,” he explains in a measured, patient tone. “But if they try to demean my accomplishments or my abilities or my stature, I’m going to say something. I’ve been in this sport longer than Dana White. I’ve booked fi ghts, I’ve made matches, and I’ve promoted fi ghts. I have created rules for organizations, managed fi ghters, and trained them. I’ve been doing this for 13 years.”
Clearly, the UFC believes it doesn’t need Josh Barnett to bolster its heavyweight division. But even to the casual fan watching the big men battle in the cage, it’s hard to take Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan at their word when they proclaim that any of the participants in the weight class’s increasingly slow, plodding bouts are future superstars. Established names like Minotouro (who had one loss and one victory against the Babyface Assassin during their PRIDE days) and promising up-and-comers like Cain Velasquez notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe that any of the UFC’s talent, – even the still-developing force of nature that is Brock Lesnar – currently represent the very best the heavyweight world has to offer.
“I’m not someone who’s gonna hold a guy down for three rounds and just try to walk out with his hand up,” states Barnett, not specifying which fi ghter, if any, he is thinking about at the moment. “I’m going to fi nish the fi ght in spectacular fashion.” Of his 26 wins and 5 losses, 15 of those wins have come by submission and six by knockout. “In fact, I want soccer kicks and stomps to be allowed in the United States,R
21; he continues, speaking of the strikes to the head of a grounded opponent that are legal in Japan but illegal in this country. “No one has ever been seriously injured by them. They make the fi ght more dynamic, you really have to open yourself up to throw those kinds of strikes versus crowding a guy and elbowing him, a strategy I consider to be playing it safe. But hey, I’ll fi ght with head-butts if I’m allowed. I think fi ghters should be given more tools, not less.” Barnett watches a group of teenagers stroll past, tapping away at their iPhones. One of them glances over, does something close to a double take, but then shrugs and keeps on walking because he didn’t see whom he thought he saw. Josh Barnett is not wearing a baseball cap or sunglasses to his hide his face. These accoutrements of celebrity are unnecessary. Not because the Babyface Assassin is not famous, but because at this moment he walks among the people. At this moment, he is one of us.
“Babyface Assassin? Yeah, right,” he scoffs, as if referring to a storied hero or an urban myth that no longer exists. “You ever see Edwin ‘Babyface” Dewees?’ he says, mentioning the younger, bleached-blonde UFC veteran. “Put us in a ‘Babyface’ contest and I’ll come in third out of two.”
March 5, 2008: Tokyo, Japan. The referee stands between the Babyface Assassin and a gi-wearing Judoka named Hidehiko Yoshida, going through the routine of explaining the rules of their fi ght that are beyond familiar to combatants of this caliber. The Babyface Assassin towers over Yoshida by a good four inches, his eyes burning holes through his opponent, his head bobbing up and down, unmistakably prepared for the war that will follow the pomp and circumstance…until the referee mentions that strikes to the groin will be (as they are in any organization across the world) illegal. The Babyface Assassin immediately looks up, jolted from his stare-down, a look of surprise on his face. “What?” he says to the referee, shocked. “Come on!”
An awkward pause follows. The crowd goes silent. Yoshida looks horrifi ed. The ref is confused. Then the Babyface Assassin chuckles and winks, letting the rest of the arena know that he’s just having fun with them. As usual, the spectators erupt in laughter and applause. Three rounds later, Yoshida submits to a heel hook mere moments before the Babyface Assassin would have ripped the appendage clean off and taken it home with him as a souvenir.
Although Barnett always dreamed of fi ghting in Japan (“the Mecca of mixed martial arts,” as he calls it), his extended journey there happened unexpectedly when controversy followed his victory over Randy Couture. The Nevada State Athletic Commission announced that, following the championship bout, the Babyface Assassin had tested positive for the anabolic steroid Boldenone, a banned performance-enhancing drug. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and the NSAC suspended his license to fi ght. Strangely, the NSAC had tested him four months before – Boldenone remains in a person’s system for up to 18 months following the last use – and cleared Barnett to fi ght, but the Committee now claimed that he had in fact tested positive at the time. Barnett and his trainer, Matt Hume, vigorously disputed the results of both tests, pointing to NSAC violations of testing protocol that rendered the results meaningless. Barnett then paid an expert from the International Olympic Committee out of his own pocket to conduct a third test, which he passed conclusively.
Either Barnett was a steroid user whose 18-month cycle of Boldenone ended exactly between his fi ght with Couture and his self-fi nanced test by the IOC expert, or the NSAC bungled its responsibility to test athletes in a consistent and effective manner (one imagines that the UFC’s Sean Sherk and EliteXC’s Nick Diaz could empathize with Barnett). Either way, after many months passed without any word from the NSAC or the UFC, the Babyface Assassin packed his bags and set out for Japan.
“Performance-enhancing anything is popular in any sport on all levels, anywhere,” says Barnett. “People have such a short life span to do this and everything they do is based on their body. You have to deal with the rules and how they’re written, but where do you draw the line? Is Creatine performance-enhancing? Is caffeine? If something works and it makes you bigger, faster, and stronger, or if it makes you heal faster or just plain feel better, does it get banned? If a fruit elevates your testosterone naturally, does it get banned? Certain energy drinks will make a fi ghter test positive for meth. A percentage of legal supplements are tainted; they’ll yield a positive test result if you get one of those bad batches.” Barnett’s voice does not rise during this exchange. His body language stays relaxed, casual. He doesn’t, now or at any other time on this day, ever ask for someone’s validation or affi rmation in the form of “You know what I mean?” or “Do you see what I’m saying?” He just relays a confi dent, mild-mannered smile.
Certain parts of what he’s saying are true and other parts sound suspiciously like a slippery slope argument. However, he’s not dodging the issue entirely, he has clearly put some thought into this issue, and he has never tested positive again, at a time when increasing numbers of mixed martial artists show up to compete with traces of everything from traditional steroids to painkillers to methadone in their bodies. For years now, there have been whispers and rumors within the MMA community about the widespread use of performance-enhancers in Japan. Indeed, there are many fi ghters who have migrated from PRIDE to the UFC only to seem physically less imposing than they had in the Far East. “All I know is that we all peed in cups,” says Barnett. “They said they were testing us regularly and I never saw anyone dump any urine. Someone came, someone handled it, and someone took it away, so as far as I’m concerned we conformed to the laws of Japan.”
September 10, 2006: Saitama, Japan. Before a capacity crowd of 49,000, the Babyface Assassin strides to the center of the ring to stare down fellow PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix fi nalist Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. This is the second of two fi ghts for each of them on this night. In the previous round, Cro Cop – in his prime and the most feared striker alive – brutally knocked out a valiant but undersized Wanderlei Silva while the Babyface Assassin ground out a long, brutal split decision over Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira. The Babyface Assassin steels himself for this challenge. He’s looking to avenge two previous losses to Cro Cop (one by injury, the other by a tough decision), and casts his executioner’s gaze upon him in the moments before the referee sends them back to their corners for the opening bell.
“Uh, you got an eyelash right there,” says the Babyface Assassin. Cro Cop just stares at him, in a trance, mentally preparing himself for the combat ahead. “Hey! I’m serious, right there! An eyelash!”
Cro Cop fl inches, then lifts his gloved hand to the side of his face, brushing away whatever seems to be bothering his opponent so much. “No,” says the Babyface Assassin, motioning to his own face, “the other eye.” For a split second, time stands still and Cro Cop starts batting at his eyelashes with his fi ngers, the victim of a surreal type of Jedi mind trick at the hand of the Babyface Assassin moments before the most anticipated heavyweight bout of the year.
At 5:32 of Round One, the Babyface Assassin submits to strikes at the hands of his noticeably fresher opponent. It’s his third straight loss to Cro Cop. But even in defeat, he is gracious and glib.
After all, every hero needs a villain.
“I was really disappointed to see how those guys did when they got to America,” says Barnett, discussing how the Japanese organization’s biggest stars – Cro Cop, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and Dan Henderson, among others – suffered defeat at the hands of their counterparts in the UFC after Zuffa bought out PRIDE from its owners. “They didn’t perform up to their potential. It really sucked to see them go out there and stink it up.” To consider Barnett one of the last true icons of that particular era of MMA seems somehow unfair, as he’s just entering his prime as a fi ghter, and has fi nally returned to the shores of the country he loves after a long exile abroad.
For now, he is focused on the future, on his fi ght against the resurgent Andrei Arlovski in the main event of Affl iction’s “Day of Reckoning” event this October in Las Vegas. Many fans of the sport believe he’s facing the wrong Russian, that this articulate man in the tee shirt and shorts, sipping his Frappuccino on the patio of an anonymous strip mall, is the only real threat to Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko (even if a certain litigiously engaged heavyweight, whom some people like to call Captain America seems to have fi rst dibs). Not that it’s possible to coax someone as respectful and humble as Josh Barnett to admit that he has his eyes on any fi ght other than the one that is in front of him. Provide his alter ego with a microphone and a screaming crowd of thousands and perhaps there would be a different response, but today, the Babyface Assassin’s supernova glow isn’t anywhere to be seen. Today there is just the man.
“Don’t ever be a mark for your own gimmick,” are the last words I hear Josh Barnett say. Then he fl ashes a grin and walks back into the crowded Starbucks, disappearing into the anonymous throngs of everyday people. And just like that, he’s gone.