"I hope in passing the torch to Josh he will represent the sport in a positive way, and I know he will," Couture said following UFC 36. "He's going to be a great champion."
It didn't work out the way anyone would have imagined, which is why Saturday's fight against Frank Mir at UFC 164 in Milwaukee marks Barnett's first appearance in the Octagon since dethroning "The Natural" 11 years ago.
At ease in a sun-drenched emerald green room with a view on the morning of March 23, 2002, his new belt within arm's reach, Barnett, then 24, believed he should be paid much more than he'd ever been paid in his career.
But his contract was up -- something Zuffa learned not to let happen with future would-be champions -- and rumors were he wanted $1 million per fight from the UFC. Just back on pay-per-view, doing mostly dim numbers on television, the promotion was hardly in position to break the bank. It balked at the young champion's demands.
"I fought when no one was fighting for money, really," Barnett, 35, recalled during a recent conference call. "I fought when you couldn't get MMA gear at your local sports store. We had to make it ourselves. I fought when most of the time we didn't even wear gloves. We were under attack from all angles."
Mir, a two-time UFC champion holding the most victories and submissions of any heavyweight ever to fight in the Octagon, knows this period well. He signed with Zuffa in 2001 -- not something worth bragging about back then, he said -- and was in the midst of starting his career the night Barnett became champion.
"It wasn't something you went and told a girl when you were trying to go on a date with her that you were aspiring to beat people up in the Octagon," said Mir, now 34. "In fact, even if I tried to describe it a few times, it was like no one had a clue what you were talking about. So it wasn't something really to garner fans."
Mir moved to 4-0 at UFC 36 thanks to an iconic shoulder lock against Pete Williams. That win, coupled with his first in the UFC, a fast armbar over Roberto Travern, prompted people to mention Mir as a future champion.
However, he knew he wasn't ready for the likes of Barnett, and showed it in his next fight against Ian Freeman. Mentally, Mir said, he just didn't have it in him then to beat the blond brawler Barnett.
"I think I [would have] had an opportunity early on in the fight to get him, a submission to catch somebody, but if the first couple failed, I would have been in a lot of trouble," Mir said.
Said Barnett: "On paper, I had a lot more fights and experience, but, hey, Frank was going out there and beating plenty of experienced guys, and tapping them out," Barnett said. "I think people would have been interested to watch the fight back then, just as much as they'd like watching the fight now."
Neither fighter is especially hot. Within 11 months of one another, each lost decisions to Daniel Cormier, who's preparing to leave the division and fight instead at 205. They're not kids anymore, either, though Cormier suggested that each man remains capable and because of their styles, the bout should be fun to watch. That could be especially true if they grapple. Mir is thought of as the UFC's best heavyweight submission artists. That may have been Barnett, had he stuck around.
From Cormier's perspective, Barnett's the better, faster fighter right now.
"You know what I think the difference will be, as good a shape as Mir was when we fought, he still wasn't very fast," Cormier said. "Josh Barnett is actually pretty fast, whether he's throwing punches or kicks. Speed will be the real difference."
Any chance of seeing a contest a decade ago between youthful submission mavens took a tumble shortly after Barnett became king. His fate with the UFC was sealed when he became the first fighter to face discipline from the Nevada State Athletic Commission for steroid use. The news came a month after he defeated Couture and shook UFC's heavyweight division. Zuffa stripped Barnett of the title, creating a scenario, by Dana White's own estimation, in which the belt wasn't worth much for a while.
Matt Hume's strong ties to Japan, the place to be in MMA at the time, created a current that carried his charge Barnett overseas. It was a fine fallback: A few months after Barnett bested Couture (a result that stands because NSAC guidelines at the time didn't allow a result to be overturned due to a positive drug test), Pride and K-1 collaborated for an event that drew more than 91,000 fans to Tokyo National Stadium. This was fantastical stuff for U.S.-based mixed martial artists. Also, from a sport perspective, Pride champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was the best heavyweight in the world, and the following year he was eclipsed by Fedor Emelianenko.
Barnett picked up five wins against a mixed bag of opponents before settling into Pride on Halloween 2004. Mir returned to form following his loss to Freeman by defeating David "Tank" Abbott and Wes Sims. This was enough to get him a shot at the beleaguered UFC belt owned by Tim Sylvia. It wasn't the prettiest period for UFC heavyweights, but the Las Vegas native looked to offer salvation when he snapped Sylvia's forearm.
Mir went from winning the title to vacating it after a motorcycle accident kept him sidelined for two years. He has since fought for some version of a UFC heavyweight belt four times, winning once. Barnett took his share of important fights, but lost big ones as well. He also had more run-ins with performance-enhancing drugs, costing him, most prominently, a contest against No. 1-ranked Emelianenko in 2009.
Having finally returned to the UFC, despite intense moments of disagreement with Zuffa that made any reconciliation appear impossible, Barnett's confidence in his ability to win fights and hurt people at the highest level remains strong.
"The first time around I went all the way to the top and won the heavyweight championship of the world," Barnett said. "I don't expect any different -- other than to get paid a lot more money and a lot more stardom and fandom out of this whole thing because of the explosion of MMA as a whole."
As Mir (16-7) and Barnett (32-6) prepare to face off at UFC 164 for a long overdue, yet barely discussed bout, they'll do so in the final stages of successful, though ultimately wanting, careers.