Photo via Sherdog.com
For as small as our sport really is, it's odd how some of the best fighters have never fought.
We never got to see Fedor Emelianenko take on Randy Couture back when it matter. And we only just now saw how a Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields bout plays out -- not in speculative editorials chock full of analysis, but in real life.
One such fight that almost eluded fans was "The Babyfaced Assassin" Josh Barnett going toe-to-toe with the living legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- "Big Nog" as he's known as to fight fans around the world.
Both fighters -- despite being top ranked heavyweights and having fought since the late-90s -- only found themselves in the same promotion at the same time once.
But they finally locked horns in 2006 in the semi-finals of the openweight grand prix Pride was holding that year. A brilliant match-up on paper, it somehow managed to jump off the page and into the ring, playing out as perfectly as it could.
Before "The Babyfaced Assassin" steps into the cage to face Brett Rogers this Saturday (June 18) at Strikeforce: "Overeem vs. Werdum" as part of yet another grand prix, let's take a look back at his classic battle with "Big Nog."
When Barnett signed with Pride Fighting Championships in 2004, it marked the end of a two-year exodus from the pinnacle of the sport. He had left the UFC in disgrace, stripped of his heavyweight title due to a positive steroid test and spent the next two years of a soldier of fortune, taking fights with Pancrase or K-1 -- almost anywhere that would have him.
His debut went almost as badly as any debut could.
He was matched up with feared kickboxer Mirko Filipovic -- "Cro Cop" to fans -- in a classic grappler vs. striker match. But less than a minute in, an awkward landing on a takedown caused a shoulder injury to forced Barnett to quit.
It would be almost an exact year before he stepped back into the Pride ring and who was there to greet him? None other than "Cro Cop," seeking a proper fighter after their aborted attempt in 2004.
The Croatian kickboxer got the closure he desired when he dominated Barnett en route to a unanimous decision. The former UFC champion was now 0-2 in his Pride career.
He bounced back in February 2006 with a submission win over Kazuhiro Nakamura, a fighter who fluctuated between middleweight and light heavyweight. A size mismatch for sure but it gave Barnett a confidence boost while clinching his participation in that year's grand prix.
Starting in 2000 with heavyweights, Pride's grand prixs were a mixture of skill and spectacle. The promotion would gather around some of the best fighters in the world and let their fights play out over the course of a few months.
Take a three year reprieve, the tournament would return in 2003 with 205-pounders. Heavyweights got their second chance to shine the following year while light heavyweights got their second in as many years in 2005.
Throwing a curve ball at fight fans in 2006, Pride announced an openweight tournament for that year. Combatants of all shapes and sizes were allowed to enter in an effort to find out who was truly the greatest fighter in the world.
"The Babyfaced Assassin" was matched up with "The Last Emperor's" little brother Aleksander Emelianenko and secured a submission win in the second round. His quarter-final bout with Mark Hunt ended in similar fashion.
On the opposite side of the bracket, Nogueira quickly submitted "Zuluzinho" and won a unanimous decision over Fabricio Werdum to earn his spot in the semi-finals of the tournament.
After a combined 57 bouts, Barnett -- a former UFC heavyweight champion -- and Nogueira -- a former Pride heavyweight champion -- finally met in September 2006.
Let's take a closer look.
"Big Nog" immediately takes the center of the ring and begins to dictate the pace with his Cuban National Boxing team-honed striking. An overhand right finds its mark and crashes against Barnett's jaw.
The American closes the distance and clinches with his opponent, hoping to put his wrestling to use to get a takedown. No such luck as Nogueira is quick to shove him off.
Circling around the cage, Barnett clinches again but quickly breaks it himself, throwing a knee to the abdomen of his opponent and following it up with a low leg kick,
A jab from the American snaps "Big Nog's" head back and it appears as if the UFC champion is starting to find his form.
Another clinch from "The Babyfaced Assassin" and his gameplan is starting to become apparent: clinch the Brazilian up and attack of the break.
It's been working pretty well so far and it's executed perfectly when the American breaks off of a clinch and lands a looping hook that cracks Nogueira on the jaw and sends him tumbling towards the mat.
This situations is all too familiar for the durable Brazilian and he is quick to recover and defend himself from the ensuing onslaught from Barnett.
Sitting in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu's (BJJ) half-guard, "The Babyfaced Assassin" begins to pepper the head and body with punches and elbows. A tactical error his part, though, allows Nogueira gets to his feet where he executes a takedown.
Working from sidemount, "Big Nog" grinds his forearm across his opponent's face while landing short punches. Halfway through Pride's patented 10-minute first round and the fight is pretty much even.
Barnett is able to regress his opponent in half-guard before busting out a beautifully executed sweep and finds both fighters back on their feet.
"Big Nog" shoves Barnett against the ropes working towards a single-leg takedown but the American threatens with a standing guillotine. The Brazilian thwarts the attempts and backs away and we're back to where we started as the Japanese audience cheers in approval.
Trading punches for a minute or so, Nogueira is able to get behind his opponent and drag him down to the mat. He finds himself in sidemount, teasing an arm triangle choking before slipping into mount like a cobra.
He begins raining down punches while Barnett covers up and bobs his head from side to side to avoid the barrage. And in a display of BJJ that only comes with the years of training that "Big Nog" has had, he immediately transitions into an armbar and the crowd erupts.
Barnett defends perfectly but it's a tense last minute until he's able to slip out of the submission attempt and lands in sidemount. He begins smashing the Brazilian's skull with hammerfists until the end of the round.
The second round opens and "Big Nog" almost immediately finds himself on his back with Barnett on top, attempting to pass into sidemount. The American's concentration on his own legs lapses and Nogueira is able to trip Barnett down and reverse positions on the former UFC champion.
But just as quickly, the catch wrestling expert sweeps his opponent and lands in his guard. Both fighters are landing short punches -- Barnett from on top and Nogueira from his back. "The Babyfaced Assassin" postures up and lands two devastating punches that bounce the Brazilian's head off the mat.
The fights concludes with "The Babyfaced Assassin" still on top of the Brazilian, attempting to pass into a more favorable grappling position while "Big Nog" tries to sweep or at least get back to his feet.
Scoring the bout was difficult. What held more weight? Barnett's knock down early in the first or Nogueira near-finish with the armbar? For every reversal the Brazilian accomplished, Barnett had one of his own.
The judges, it seemed, shared this thought process as "The Babyfaced Assassin" was awarded the split decision after 15 grueling minutes.
He went on -- even in his exhausted state -- to take on "Cro Cop" in the finals later that night but would come up short.
Josh Barnett is notorious in the sport and for good reason. I won't delve into all the details about why because that's not what this piece is about.
It's about fighting.
And no matter what, Barnett can fight.