Submission ace and former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight champ, Josh Barnett, is set to square off with knockout artist, Roy Nelson, this Saturday night (Sept. 26, 2015) at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
Barnett was brought into UFC along with the rest of Strikeforce back in 2013, but he hasn't fought very frequently since. He earned a technical knockout finish of Frank Mir in his re-debut, but the brutal elbows of Travis Browne ended his night early a few months later.
Since then, Barnett has watched from the sidelines. While he successfully competed in Metamoris, coached Japan's version of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), and has been doing commentary, it's been nearly two years since he last fought.
Let's take a closer look at the veteran's skill set:
Barnett has never had a ton of power for a Heavyweight, and he generally focuses on getting the fight to the mat in quick fashion. That said, Barnett has a few tricks up his sleeves and definitely does have some pop behind his shots.
Barnett's striking game is certainly a tough one to examine. In a lot of fights, he simply relies on a couple crafty set ups to land strikes -- and he doesn't often repeat these tactics -- before inevitably taking the fight to the mat. Then, when he is forced to stand for an extended period of time, it's usually against a superior striker who's not going to let Barnett show off his stand up (such as Mirko Filipovic).
With that in mind, there are a few consistencies to Barnett's stand up game. For one, he's rather comfortable in the pocket and pretty sound defensively. After throwing a couple of punches, Barnett does a nice job of incorporating head movement into his defense. Barnett's ability to roll under punches often grants him a strong position in the clinch or on his opponent's hips, and he's also pretty skilled at covering up to block punches.
Barnett is also more of a boxer than kicker, largely relying on two and three punch combinations mostly consisting of his hook and cross. Outside of the occasional low kick, Barnett rarely tries to kick his opponent.
However, Barnett makes rare, but solid, use of elbow and knee strikes. Both were notable in his fight against Daniel Cormier, the most recent lengthy display of Barnett's kickboxing. For example, Barnett did a very nice job hand fighting with the shorter man only to step in with a hard elbow strike.
While Barnett couldn't afford to clinch with the Olympian, he managed to work a few nice knee strikes. He had trouble catching Cormier coming in, but Barnett managed to dig a few hard, stepping knees to the body after walking his opponent into the fence. He also managed to bust up Cormier's eye at the end of the first with another step knee.
Barnett will also toy around with working out of the southpaw stance. He doesn't stay in southpaw for very long, choosing to throw a couple punches or a kick/knee before switching back. It's also definitely worth mentioning that Barnett avenged an early career loss with a shift-step left hook into the Southpaw stance opposite Pedro Rizzo.
Finally, Barnett is a very solid clinch striker. He really likes to work with uppercuts, and "Warmaster" can do plenty of damage when able to bully his opponent into the fence. This was particularly clear against Frank Mir, as Barnett muscled his opponent into the cage before destroying him with uppercuts, elbows and knees.
Barnett began wrestling in high school, but he's done most of his training as a catch wrestler under Erik Paulson. While Barnett has never been a truly dominant takedown artist, he's been successful in dragging a majority of his opponents to the mat.
For the most part, Barnett excels in the clinch. He's very good at getting beneath his opponent's center of gravity and cinching his grip, allowing him to force his opponent to the mat. He's simply very skilled in that area, which grants him plenty of opportunities to land trips and throws, even if his opponent technically has better position.
When Barnett shoots, he's generally pretty successful with both the single- and double-leg when he's able to get in on his opponents hips. However, he's not the most explosive athlete, meaning more skilled fighters are often able to get their hips down and away or move completely out of position before Barnett gets a good grip.
Barnett does have something of answer for this. Much of the time, Barnett shoots only to get close to his opponent. Once it's clear he's not going to get the initial takedown, Barnett will abandon the leg(s) and work up into the clinch instead. Then, he's back in his wheelhouse.
Defensively, Barnett is a pretty solid wrestler as well. The only exception in recent years was his fight with Daniel Cormier, who's one of the best wrestlers to ever compete inside a cage. Besides, most fighters are usually too afraid of his grappling to take Barnett down anyway.
As mentioned, Barnett is a catch wrestling specialist, which includes a large number of submission holds. He's also competed in notable jiu-jitsu competitions such as the no-gi worlds and Metamoris.
While Barnett does not like to fight from his back, he's capable from that position. From the guard, likes to get an angle and roll up on his opponent, usually attacking an arm or triangle choke. If he his opponent pulls away, Barnett can either attempt to scramble to his feet or roll up into a leg attack, which is a specialty of his.
On the other hand, Barnett is a top control specialist. He's a very heavy top player -- and unlike many catch wrestlers -- is truly skilled at passing the guard. Keeping heavy pressure on his opponent's hips, Once his opponent's hips are stacked, Barnett can circle around and safely move into a dominant position.
Check out one example below, as well as a slick neck crank finish:
Once Barnett has moved past the guard, he'll often circle all the way into north-south. Not only does this open up a number of submission options that most fighters do not look for, but it makes it much more difficult for his opponent to recover from guard.
One of the submissions Barnett likes to hunt for from the north-south is the kimura. Once he isolates one of his opponent's arms with an underhook, Barnett will transition into the figure-four grip. From there, he'll pin his opponent's head between his thighs, ideally forcing his foe's face into the mat. In this position, his opponent is very much stuck and forced to rely on his grip to defend, which Barnett can fight with both of his hands and his entire upper body.
In addition, Barnett will often leap onto his opponent's legs from the north-south/reverse mount. From either position, Barnett can fall onto both of his opponent's legs and keep them in place by squeezing his own legs together. Usually, Barnett will hunt for a twisting footlock/toe hold, which cranks on the small bones in the foot or ankle. Alternatively, Barnett can transition into a heel hook or knee bar.
Barnett's attacks from the mount are a bit more standard. He'll hunt for the rear naked choke from back mount, but Barnett's most recent submission success has come from the arm triangle choke, which he's finished three times in his last six fights.
Since being flattened out from back mount is likely the worst position in mixed martial arts (MMA), most fighters will either try to get back to their knees -- which is difficult when a heavyweight and excellent grappler is trying to stop them -- or spin back into mount. When his opponent's do spin back to mount, Barnett looks to catch their head and an arm.
Once he's isolated the head and arm, Barnett immediately flattens himself out, preventing any movement or escape. Then, he can either move into side control and squeeze or simply try to finish from mount. Either way, his opponent is in a very bad spot.
Best Chance For Success
Barnett's main key to success is pretty simple. Nelson may only do one thing, but he does it pretty well and is quite dangerous.
Barnett must avoid the overhand.
Of course, it helps that Barnett knows it's coming and that "Big Country" usually has about 1.5 rounds of conditioning. For those eight or so minutes, Barnett needs to focus on circling away from Nelson's power, rolling under the punch when he does throw it, and forcing his way into the clinch.
In the clinch, Barnett should be able to jam Nelson up and prevent him from throwing any real heat. Even if he can't keep him there for too long or score a takedown immediately, he can essentially stall until Nelson is much less of a threat.
While Barnett is no marathon runner, he's a fairly well-conditioned athlete and proved just a couple years ago he can fight for five rounds. Once Nelson has gotten tired, Barnett should be able to take control of the bout and begin landing takedowns.
Will Josh Barnett return from his layoff with a big victory or can Roy Nelson find a home for his right hand once more?