In defeat, Barnett makes case for UFC return

Conventional wisdom told us the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix might be a win-or-go-home proposition for Josh Barnett.

Given the fighter’s notoriously frigid relationship with Zuffa, LLC, we suspected all along the only way he might get back into the UFC was by force; by winning a tournament that had already begun by the time the organization bought Strikeforce last March.

In the past, Zuffa brass has occasionally invoked Barnett’s name as an example everything that is wrong with MMA and when news broke a few months back that the long-awaited GP champion would have yet another fight in Strikeforce before being allowed entry to the Octagon, at least a few conspiracy theorists wondered if it might be akin to “Barnett Insurance” for the UFC.

Now we might never know. Barnett’s bid to win the Strikeforce heavyweight tourney fell painfully short on Saturday night, as he was summarily out-struck and out-wrestled (pretty much out-everything’ed) by Daniel Cormier en route to a lopsided five-round unanimous decision loss in the grand prix final.

When at any point a 6-foot-3, 250-pound man gets scooped off his feet, turned upside down and unceremoniously slammed to the canvas during a fight, it’s a pretty clear sign that things didn’t go his way.

Funny thing about this sport, though: Sometimes even in defeat you come out looking better than before.

Fine, maybe not better -- not exactly -- but if there are any tangible takeaways from Barnett’s performance this weekend they are that the 34-year-old can still go, that he should still be solidly ensconced among the heavyweight top 10 and that he deserves to continue fighting the best in the world.

Now we just have to wait and see if Zuffa will give him the chance.

Prior to entering the Strikeforce tournament, Barnett had spent the last four years splitting time between professional wrestling in Japan and making sporadic appearances in any independent MMA promotion that would make it worth his while. He ran off six straight wins, but did so largely against nobodies like Geronimo dos Santos, spectacles like “Mighty Mo” Siliga and oldsters like Pedro Rizzo.

As a result, we didn’t know quite what to expect when he dived into the ambitious and star-studded GP draw. His first two bouts -- short and sweet submissions over Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov -- didn’t tell us a lot, either. It wasn’t until Saturday's final against Cormier that we truly got to see what Barnett still has in the tank, and it was impressive stuff.

Despite claiming to have broken his hand landing a hard left hook in the first round, Barnett hung in there with Cormier for the duration, continuing to fire off crisp punching combinations to the last. In the fourth round, he threatened the former Olympic wrestler with a leg lock and if not for 15-plus minutes worth of exhaustion, sweat and maybe that broken meathook compromising his grip, who knows what might’ve happened. He fought with the sort of guile and complete disregard for his own face that -- while troubling, if you worry for Josh Barnett the person -- was obviously not the showing of an apathetic, disinterested guy who was just there to get a few paychecks.

Finally, here was Josh Barnett. Here was the guy who crashed onto the scene with a submission victory over Dan Severn in 2000. Here was the guy who defeated Randy Couture to win the UFC title in 2002. Here was the guy who fought his way into the final of the Pride open weight grand prix in 2006 and the guy whose only previous MMA losses came to in-their-prime versions of Rizzo, Mirko Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

With his career possibly on the line here, finally, was Barnett, putting out the kind of effort we've been waiting to see from him since the fall of Pride. Yeah, he came up short against a man who could well prove to be “the next great heavyweight” or whatever the over-the-top Strikeforce broadcast declared Cormier on Saturday, but he did it with considerable style.

Simply put, Barnett looked like a UFC heavyweight. In the late stages he looked arguably better than some UFC heavyweights might after 25 minutes at a whirlwind pace, after taking a fairly hellacious beating and after breaking his hand in the early going.

Here's hoping he gets the the opportunity to actually become a UFC heavyweight again. Here's hoping that the baggage of the past does not obscure his future, that he and the UFC can ultimately find some common ground.

Barnett's effort against Cormier proved the 265-pound class would be better for it.