Photo via Sherdog.com
Ask any fan of mixed martial arts (MMA) what they think of Josh Barnett and you'll likely get one of two answers.
Either he's a cheater and a proven steroid user who never owned up to his past transgressions or he's a hell of a fighter and one of the best heavyweights to compete in the sport's history.
The truth about Barnett is that he's isn't one or the other; he's both. And neither statement paints a full picture of who "The Baby Faced Assassin" is and what his legacy consists of.
A major part of that legacy are his accomplishments during the 2006 Pride FC grand prix where he took on four different heavyweights, finally succumbing to the last one in the finals.
Barnett returns to the United States tomorrow (June 18, 2011) to take on Brett Rogers at Strikeforce: "Overeem vs. Werdum," so we will take a look back at his fights in 2006, an impressive run that is overshadowed by the sins of his past.
Josh Barnett hadn't had a great time in Pride.
He lost his first fight for the promotion after he suffered a freak injury against Mirko Filipovic. One year later, in his rematch with "Cro Cop," he was battered en route to a one-sided decision loss.
Suffer an injury, rehab for a year, and then get beaten up for 20 minutes for all your trouble? It would be enough to make a lesser man give up.
But "The Baby Faced Assassin" entered 2006 with renewed vigor and was eager to get back to his winning ways. He matched up against the smaller Kazuhiro Nakamura and submitted him easily in the first round.
With his first Pride win under his belt, he entered into the openweight grand prix the promotion was hosting that year, ready to complete turning his bad luck around.
Barnett uses level changes and head movement to stymie the striking of Emelianenko. While the Russian was the aggressor early in the first round, he began to fade in the second half of the 10-minute round.
The American was able to survive an early onslaught including an uppercut that snapped his head back. He stayed true to his game plan, though, of using speed to avoid the stand-up game of his opponent while causing damage in the clinch.
Almost on cue, at the five minute mark, the Russian's hands were nearly sitting at his waist and he began throwing single punches as opposed to the combinations he was known for.
Able to take advantage of this, Barnett cracked the younger Emelianenko across the jaw and backed him into the corner. Gasping for air, the Russian appears to have nothing left in his gas tank.
In fact, within two minutes of the second round, Barnett is able to get his opponent to the ground and submit him with an americana, a variation of the kimura.
One opponent down, three to go.
The next time around, "The Baby Faced Assassin" wasted no time getting the fight to the ground. He faced off against former K-1 World Grand Prix winner Mark Hunt who was as good at striking as he was bad on the ground.
It only took the American two minutes to get the Kiwi on his back and slap on a kimura for his third submission win in a row in as many fights.
Two opponents down, two to go.
At Final Conflict 2006, the remaining semi-finalists had to fight twice in a single night to earn the grand prix crown. Across the bracket, "Cro Cop" was paired against Wanderlei Silva. The Croatian brutally knocked out "The Axe Murderer" with his patented left high kick.
Barnett was matched up with living legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In a battle for the ages, the American earned the split decision and the right to face Filipovic for the third time.
I broke down Barnett's fight with "Big Nog" fight in a previous History in the Making as it was a classic back and forth battle, one of the best fights I had ever seen.
Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:
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.
Three opponents down, one to go.
"The Baby Faced Assassin" already have two losses on his record at "Cro Cop's" hands. The first could be explained away and refuted as being the result of a fluke injury but the second?
That was a beating that left no doubt that -- at least on that night -- the Croatian had Barnett's number.
Now, just hours removed from a thrilling but assuredly exhausting bout with Nogueira, Barnett found himself back in the ring with a relatively fresh Filipovic.
The impressive run that Barnett achieved en route to the finals of the grand prix was about to come to a quick and brutal halt.
Both fighters were wearing the bruises and welts from their previous bouts as they might in the center of the ring. The kickboxer immediately became the aggressor, landing strikes while backing Barnett up.
Barnett answered back with a low kick that swept "Cro Cop's" leg off the mat. Then another that landed with a resounding smack.
Tired but not dead, "The Baby Faced Assassin" wasn't going to make this easy for his opponent.
"Cro Cop" was still aggressive, however, and backed the American into the corner while landing punches. Barnett was forced into survival mode, doing nothing but covering up.
A slight reprieve in the action allowed him to get a Thai clinch on the Croatian. Yanking Filipovic's head down while shooting his own knee up, Barnett does his best Anderson Silva impersonation before slipping on a second attempt and falling to his back.
"Cro Cop" followed him down and moments later, the action is stopped to check out a cut that has opened up over his eye.
First blood goes to "The Baby Faced Assassin."
They were placed in the same position in the center of the ring and both fighters got back to work. Filipovic landing short punches and elbows while Barnett attempted to defend while working towards a submission.
They spent several minutes on the ground until a triangle attempt forced the Croatian onto his feet. Barnett followed suit and we're back to square one.
"Cro Cop" landed a stiff jab and then connected it up with two lightning quick uppercuts that had Barnett reeling. It's dreadfully obvious that the previous bout plus the damage he's already taken in this fight are beginning to be too much for "The Babyfaced Assassin."
He clinched up his opponent and landed a couple of good knees to the body but more uppercuts from the Croatian found their mark perfectly as the American dropped to his back.
The crowd was going absolutely crazy at this point as "Cro Cop" did everything he could to finish Barnett off while the former UFC champ did everything he could to survive.
An impressive display of survival from Barnett but his left eye is bad shape. Ironically, it wasn't that eye that caused the fight to end.
Filipovic postured up and landed a punch -- one that Barnett said included a finger going into his right eye. True or not, we can only go by what is seen and heard.
The punch lands, Barnett immediately recoils and audibly screams, "Ah, shit!" and immediately taps out.
And just like that, "The Baby Faced Assassin" is out of the tournament.
Josh Barnett is a good -- no -- a great fighter who has done more than his share to sully his name outside of the ring or cage.
Can he put the past behind him and help us forgive and forget with his future performances?
He had one chance in Pride. It seems he has another in Strikeforce. One more chance to make the mixed martial arts world care again.
Your move, Josh.