March 22, 2002 was the last time heralded heavyweight Josh Barnett set foot in the Octagon. And, like everything about "The Warmaster," he did so under unusual circumstances.
Then in his mid-20's and going by the apt moniker "The Baby Faced Assassin," Barnett became one of the youngest UFC champions by not just defeating the venerable Randy Couture, but by pounding him out with strikes in the 2nd round. The glory was short lived as Barnett would later test positive for anabolic steroids, his second consecutive offense (he was merely warned for the first infraction after his TKO win over Bobby Hoffman), and was subsequently stripped of the vaunted title.
Rather than ride out his suspension in the states, Barnett trekked overseas to start a career as both a professional wrestler and mixed martial artist, later becoming a King of Pancrase and staple amongst Pride Fighting Championship's deep roster of talented heavyweights. Despite debuting in Pride flat -- a TKO loss via injury to Mirko Filipovic followed by a decision defeat in the immediate rematch -- Barnett undeniably established himself as one of the world's best heavyweights, much of which was attributed to splitting two fights with previously unseated champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
The man who overtook "Minotauro's" throne was Fedor Emelianenko, and a collision between "The Last Emperor" and Barnett, then considered the top two heavyweights in the world, seemed inevitable. The pair finally lined up a long awaited collision in the ephemeral Affliction promotion, which sent hardcore fans abuzz. That enthusiasm turned to deep disappointment when their fight was cancelled ten days prior due to Barnett pissing hot for steroids for a third time. The dream fight was lost, the entire event was scratched and the Affliction promotion closed its doors ... and most rested the blame squarely on Barnett's shoulders.
Two years later, Barnett joined the deep stable of renowned heavyweights in Strikeforce and carved through a pair of noteworthy opponents in former Pride slugger Sergei Kharitonov and brawler Brett Rogers, but fell short to top-ranked Daniel Cormier on the finals. Negotiations ensued after Barnett dusted a criminally overmatched Nandor Guelmino by 1st-round submission on Strikeforce's final fight card, enabling Barnett to snap his over decade-long hiatus from the Octagon.
On the same UFC 34 card that saw Barnett finish Hoffman and earn a title shot against Couture, a young Frank Mir (16-7) made his Octagon premiere with just two professional outings under his belt and proceeded to submit Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Roberto Traven with a 1st-round armbar. The feat put fans on notice to Mir's uncanny submission savvy, and the allure intensified when the 22-year-old tapped out hard-nosed veteran Pete Williams with an unorthodox shoulder lock from guard in his sophomore outing.
The hype was deflated when Mir was hammered into a pulp by scrapper Ian Freeman while persisting with a leg lock attempt that left him wide open to strikes. The dip was temporary, however, as Mir would finish off Tank Abbot with a toe-hold and, after a DQ due to illegal strikes, Wes Sims by 2nd-round TKO to earn a crack at champion Tim Sylvia's belt. Capitalizing on a head-scratching strategy from Sylvia, a striker who took the sub-specialist down almost immediately, Mir angled for an armbar and cracked the towering champion's forearm to achieve the apex goal of wrapping UFC gold around his waist.
With horrendous timing, Mir was broadsided by a car while riding his motorcycle in Las Vegas, which broke his femur, prevented him from defending his title and put his entire career in jeopardy. Though the road was long and hard, and the performances of his initial return (lost two of three) were more foreboding than encouraging, Mir rebounded with a 7-4 run in the UFC that was littered with elite competition and has landed him a stable spot in the top-10 heavyweight rankings.
The Match Up
Mir and Barnett are rightfully assessed as among the best heavyweight submissionists in MMA, both presently and of all time. Barnett, under the tutelage of the great Erik Paulson, is a staunch catch-wrestling rep while Mir is more in line with the traditional BJJ style. Neither boast a gleaming set of collegiate wrestling accolades but are highly proficient in grounding the fight: Mir with the recent addition of his Judo-flavored clinch game and Barnett with his eclectic blend of Judo and freestyle/Greco Roman wrestling techniques.
A marked evolution for both competitors was sharpening their stand up to a new level. Barnett was always ultra-game -- perhaps to a fault -- to engage his opponent in a striking match, whereas Mir focused on his grappling strengths until his kickboxing was robust enough to rely on. Nowadays, their striking is respected almost as much as their grappling.
That brings a certain equality to the match up, as both have strong submission grappling roots, solid wrestling and takedown abilities and dangerously functional striking.Their physical proportions are similar as well, as both clock in at 6'3"; Mir weighs in a bit heavier now at 260-pounds while Barnett is a nudge under 250. Though Barnett has a greater quantity of fights, Mir's been embedded in the rough surroundings of the Octagon since his 2nd fight, so his persistence against top-flight competition doesn't lend Barnett an edge in experience.
In fact, elite opposition has been scarce for Barnett, which is an expected problem outside the UFC. Before he met Cormier in Strikeforce, the last top-ranked foe Barnett faced was in 2006 against Nogueira, who also accounts for Barnett's last top-ranked win earlier that year. That means Barnett has faced exactly one top-ranked opponent in the last seven years while Mir is 2-2 against apex competition in just the last two years.
Another evolution worth mentioning on Mir's behalf is his cut physique. He was never scrawny or, save the fights after his motorcycle injury, noticeably out of shape, but the current Frank Mir is substantially leaner and heavier on muscle. In addition to the positive influence on his wrestling and clinch presence, more balance, confidence and overall cage generalship seems to have accompanied the bulk.
Striking wise, Barnett is highly aggressive -- he takes the center of the cage and proceeds to stick a steady stream of rights and left in your face, keeping a high guard and active head movement throughout. Mir has become a little more patient and methodical, either awaiting the ideal time to unload or playing the role of the counter-striker. Though he employs them erratically, Mir's kicks are quite rugged and effective, and uncorked with deceiving grace for such a large heavyweight. His striking, while not as busy as Barnett, is tighter, straighter and packs more power.
Mir will likely address Barnett's pestering stand up with his preference of shuffling right while probing a jab in order to center up his straight left, which he used to nearly behead Big Nog and Cheick Kongo, and stands as his best striking tool. He keeps a fairly lowered stance in order to react accordingly if engaged with a takedown attempt, and occasionally wades forward and commits to a heated combination of alternating rights and lefts.
Honestly, the clinching, wrestling and submission grappling comparisons here are anyone's guess. That might seem like a letdown ... but it's also the reason why everyone is so excited about this match up. We just don't know. Barnett is one of the craftiest heavies in existence and has been more consistent in implementing his grappling and takedowns but, again, has done so against less than prestigious competition lately. Mir surpassed the other heavyweight submissionist legend in Nogueira, and in dramatic fashion by wrenching a nasty kimura, but was wobbled by an early Nogueira flurry beforehand.
I think Mir has the slight edge in punching power and clean technique, but Barnett has a definitive advantage in defense and chin resilience. Fight I.Q. goes to Barnett all day, as Mir was curiously content to stay in unfavorable positions against Cormier and Shane Carwin, but current momentum has to go Mir's way for his phenomenal level of competition.
Really, this is a bit of a toss-up, so go ahead and flip a coin, follow your instinct or pick your favorite.
My Prediction: Frank Mir by decision.