Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight roost-ruler and submission master, Josh Barnett, is set to throw down with the heavy-handed, Andrei Arlovski, this Saturday (Sept. 3, 2016) night in the main event of UFC Fight Night 93 inside Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg, Germany.
Barnett could very easily be among the division’s top contenders right now. Following his long layoff, Barnett returned looking better than ever opposite Roy Nelson, and he seemed to be heading toward a victory opposite Ben Rothwell as well. That is, until Barnett suffered the first submission loss of his career. Now, "Warmaster" has the opportunity to rebound against another former champion. If Barnett can get back into the win column, he’s not all that far off from the title picture once again.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Barnett has never been known as much of a striker, as he historically has wrangled his opponents to the mat and tied them up in submission holds. However, the best striking performances of Barnett’s entire career have come in his recent UFC performance, showing that the 38-year-old is still adding tools to his game.
The most surprising of which is the consistent use of the Southpaw stance.
While Barnett has flirted with fighting as a leftie before, most notably in a shift step left hook knockout of Pedro Rizzo, it’s become far more common for him. Opposite both Roy Nelson and Rothwell, Barnett did quite a bit of work as a Southpaw. While his strategies differed for both opponents, he found success nonetheless.
In his five round battle with Nelson — in which Barnett set the Heavyweight record for strikes landed in a fight — Barnett used Southpaw tactics to close the distance and avoid the overhand.
Barnett did an excellent job of pressuring Nelson into the fence, where he’s an expert dirty boxer. To do so, Barnett walked his foe down as a Southpaw, controlling his opponent’s lead hand and hiding his chin a bit from the overhand. Since he wasn’t jabbing with his left hand, he was not vulnerable to Nelson’s favorite overhand that loops over the jab.
Since kicks are more open in opposite stance engagements, Barnett made great use of kicks as well. A few times throughout the bout, Barnett would punt his opponent in the mid-section, cutting into his gas tank and pushing him towards the fence (GIF).
In his match up with Rothwell — who blends his stance between Orthodox, Southpaw, and square — Barnett instead looked to keep his range from the physical brawler. Opposite "Big Ben," Barnett did an excellent job of jabbing with his right hand, bloodying Rothwell’s face and stopping him in his tracks with body jabs.
He ended up getting submitted, but Barnett showed a strategy very similar to the one Junior dos Santos used to defeat Rothwell.
Barnett is one of the best in the world at technical clinch work. For a man never gifted with the one punch power of most Heavyweights, this is a brilliant tactic, as it allows Barnett to wear on his opponent without being in much danger.
While there are many nuances that make a fighter successful in clinch striking/wrestling, head position stands above the rest as far and away the most important. Whenever Barnett pushes his opponent into the fence, he immediately begins driving his head into their jaw.
This is important for several reasons. First and foremost, it allows Barnett to control his opponent, as the body follows the head. If his opponent’s skull is trapped along the fence, he’s not going anywhere fast. Plus, since his opponent is trapped, Barnett knows where he must strike. If he chooses to create some space to land a hard blow, Barnett doesn’t have to worry all that much about missing.
It’s also worth mentioning that Barnett is very determined to maintain his head position. Even if his opponent tries to frame or roll under, Barnett will fight for underhooks and regain head position.
Another important weapon of Barnett’s is hand control. Barnett uses a number of different tactics to tie up one of his opponent’s hands, from cross arm grips to two-on-one control. Once one of his foes’ arms is under control, that side of his face is suddenly very vulnerable (GIF).
Barnett really debuted his clinch work against Frank Mir, as Barnett muscled his opponent into the cage before destroying him with uppercuts, elbows and knees (GIF).
At range, 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. He’s able to do this largely because he rarely overextends, keeping his weight on his back foot and not giving away easy shots. Plus, Barnett's ability to roll under punches often grants him a strong position in the clinch or on his opponent's hips.
In addition, Barnett has always loved to hand fight on the outside. From that range, Barnett will step into quick elbows or occasional knee strikes.
Though Barnett does have a background of scholastic wrestling, most of his training has come as a catch wrestler under Erik Paulson. Barnett has never been a truly dominant wrestler, but he succeeds in sucking foes into his grappling game more often than not.
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 (GIF).
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 (GIF).
Defensively, Barnett is a pretty solid wrestler as well. The only exception in recent years was his fight with Daniel Cormier, which is hardly a real cause for concern. Roy Nelson did manage to land a couple of single leg takedowns, but Barnett scrambled back
Barnett is a catch wrestling specialist, which involves many of the same submissions as any other grappling art. He's also successfully competed in notable Brazilian 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.
Barnett is a top control specialist. He's a very heavy top player -- and unlike some 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 (GIF). 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 (GIF). 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 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 opponents 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 (GIF).
Despite a less than ideal record in his current UFC, Barnett has showcased a deeper skill set than at any point prior in his career. If he can continue at his current level without dropping off, he’s still a threat in the UFC title picture. To prove that he’s still at that high level, Barnett needs to start a new win streak on Saturday with an impressive win over "Pitbull."
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.