Josh Barnett is a frustrating fighter to support. I'm not among the many who have taken the stance of self-righteous outrage over his failed PED urinalysis tests. I don't care if he did steroids and got caught 3 times -- in which case he sucks at passing tests that the World Anti Doping Agency says are woefully inadequate -- and I don't care if he was genuinely the victim of 3 instances of tainted supplements -- in which case he sucks at being vigilant and educated with his nutritional intake. The onus is still on him in both scenarios.
What frustrates me is not being able to see him fight on a regular basis against worthy competition because he's messed around with applying or re-applying for fighter licenses and playing the dumb card when claiming he didn't know both he and his legal counsel needed to be present at hearings held by representatives of the state government. In terms of his time and money being spent and wasted, again the onus has largely been on him by not having his priorities straight if he wants to focus on a continued, meaningful MMA career.
Now finally on Saturday he'll fight for Strikeforce under the same regulatory body that allowed an otherwise banned for a year Boxer who had been caught with loaded gloves to compete in a world title fight, as well as being one of only 2 commissions that have had a death in Mixed Martial Arts happen under their watch. South Carolina was probably next on Scott Coker's shopping list.
What has also frustrated me is Barnett being one of if not the only notable Western Mixed Martial Artists who willingly represents Catch Wrestling in his approach to fighting. He's not shied away from it and he's not tried to re-brand it as Barnett Submission Fighting, Barnett Shoot Fighting or, god forbid, Barnett-Jitsu. There are other Western fighters out there who can be classed as Catch-based, Catch-influenced or even Catch-esque but Barnett is the only one to come out and say 'I am a Catch Wrestler' while having both the skills, lineage and success to back it up. Otherwise we have to look to Japan where to the casual fan perhaps only Sakuraba is at the most familiar, while names like Tamura, Funaki, Suzuki, Fujiwara, Minowa, Kitaoka, Miyata etc may draw some blanks even among some self-professed hardcore fans.
The reason this frustrates me is if Barnett has taken the mantle of being an ambassador for Catch Wrestling in the most visible competitive landscape -- high level MMA now under the Zuffa umbrella -- his words and actions are going to be seen as reflective of Catch Wrestling. This is essentially one of the main points made but largely missed regarding Joe Rogan's outburst on The Underground forums a couple of weeks back because the environment it occurred in is of public Mixed Martial Arts discussion and Rogan interacting there will have him seen as 'Joe Rogan: UFC Analyst' not 'Joe Rogan: comedian and social commentator' as he is outside of it. Whether he agrees or not, and regardless of UFC trying to brush off the incident with a he's an independent contractor excuse, Joe Rogan as a current on-air analyst is an ambassador for the UFC.
The importance of Barnett being an ambassador for Catch Wrestling is his position to help put American MMA fans and even fighters and coaches back in touch with their own heritage and history. Through European colonisation and immigration Catch Wrestling evolved and became an important part of America's combative, competitive landscape peaking in the early 1900's with events and matches headlining arenas such as Madison Square Garden. It was a time when Professional Wrestling actually meant one could Wrestle, professionally and world champions like Frank Gotch were as revered as Boxing's equivalents. Just prior to the first World War corruption and fight fixing had been rearing its ugly head in both sports and they approached a crossroads in their history: they could clean themselves up and attempt to bring themselves back to legitimacy or they could continue down a path of corruption, deception and greed. Professional Boxing went one way (for the most part), Professional Wrestling went the other and became exiled to the carnivals before eventually reemerging and devolving into the 'Sports Entertainment' product egested each week by Vince McMahon and co.
Perhaps worse still was Amateur Catch As Catch Can Wrestling (as American Folkstyle Wrestling was then known) becoming gradually stripped down and neutered of its submission holds with the turning point happening at the beginning of the 1930's when Iowa State coach and eventual US National Olympic Freestyle coach Hugo Optopalik advised the AAU and NCAA to remove submissions due to their perceived brutality. In the 1930 book 'Modern Wrestling for High School and College' Optopalik writes [with my editorial notes in brackets]:
Six Years ago catch-as-catch-can wrestling was an entirely different sort of affair. The men would mix a choke hold with a hook-scissors [Back Body Triangle - KJ] around the body that would put one of them out for a matter of hours or even days ... the sport was too brutal and we needed a transition. All strangle holds were barred and such bone breaking holds as the full nelson, toe-holds, and twisting arm locks met their doom. The AAU soon took a hand in seeing that more rules were set up. The National Collegiate Athletic Association stepped up and revised and modernized the rules of the game to such an extent that there is now practically no danger to the growing boy in wrestling ...
Any BJJ player or Judoka who has witnessed the various changes governing bodies such as the IBJJF and IJF have made to their competitive sport should relate. Because of these events Amateur Wrestlers were left without a professional competitive sporting outlet to compete in after college or even an Olympic career, and also why still in today's MMA there seems to be this abundance of Wrestling based fighters with an inability to finish. Today wrestlers are trying to piece together their Wrestling with BJJ like a jigsaw but often end up with an incomplete picture. Most learn enough to successfully defend and neutralise submission based opponents but more often then not that tends to be it and we witness a frustrating strategy of control with the minimum required activity to win the fight. I believe putting these wrestlers back in touch with their Catch Wrestling heritage can help them bridge the gap between their Wrestling and BJJ training and can help make them a more effective all around Ground Fighter.
Barnett has an opportunity to represent something more than himself, to be something more than a man who marches to the beat of his own drum and to make more out of being an ambassador of Catch Wrestling than what can easily just be seen as a gimmick on his part. If Barnett can adjust his personality and conduct out of the ring and continue success within it Barnett has the opportunity to help change and improve the sport of MMA and the art of Catch.