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|Josh Barnett is ready to take a bite out of the American MMA fight scene.|
While Strikeforce was in the process of putting together its heavyweight tournament, some high-profile participants requested specific opponents. No one requested a fight with Josh Barnett.
It wasn't that the higher-profile fighters -- including Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem -- sought to avoid him. In their minds, they simply had bigger fish to fry.
Emelianenko will take on Antonio Silva on Feb. 12 in Newark, N.J. Overeem is slated to face Fabricio Werdum on a date that has yet to be determined.
When the brackets were finalized, Barnett found himself in the less appealing group. That he isn't in the same group with Emelianenko, Overeem and Werdum reveals how much Barnett's star has dimmed.
Eight years ago, he was among the most recognized mixed martial artists in the United States. But the sport wasn't nearly as popular as it is today. Barnett was a young, dominant heavyweight at the time. He even beat Randy Couture to capture the UFC heavyweight title in March 2002.
But after winning that title, things quickly fell apart for Barnett. He was stripped of the belt after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Barnett's reputation would suffer immensely, forcing him to take his talents to Japan. The Seattle native has fought just three times in his native land since.
The number of fight fans who now follow mixed martial arts has increased exponentially, and it is often called the world's fastest-growing sport. But only longtime MMA fans or the most ardent observers are familiar with Barnett's accomplishments.
Out of sight, out of mind: That's the price Barnett paid for not being part of MMA's rapid rise in the United States. He's almost a forgotten man in his homeland.
While most attention is being paid to other fighters, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker believes it is a mistake to overlook or underestimate the dark horse Barnett.
"Josh hasn't fought in the United States for a while; the other fighters are probably fresher on the fans' minds," Coker told ESPN.com. "Josh Barnett can easily win this tournament. He's one of the best fighters in the world."
Barnett was 24 when he won the UFC heavyweight title; he's 33 now, and determined to make up for lost time and opportunities. Sometime in March, at a yet-to-be-named location, Barnett will get his long-awaited chance to remind MMA fans just who he is and the high-level skills he possesses.
With all that has happened in his career, Barnett is not a very happy man these days. It's not a good time to be fighting him. He is scheduled to face Brett Rogers, and will enter the cage with nothing but destruction on his mind.
I need to put my stamp on [MMA] and make it everlasting. Those who do the most horrific and brutal things [in the cage] are the ones who make the longest-lasting impression. I'm willing to do that.” -- Josh Barnett, on his intent to make a name for himself in American MMA circles
"I want to make this a nightmare for anyone who has to deal with me right now," Barnett told ESPN.com. "I want this to be my crusade, my dark ages. I want to be as brutal and unrelenting as possible.
"I need to put my stamp on [MMA] and make it everlasting. Those who do the most horrific and brutal things [in the cage] are the ones who make the longest-lasting impression. I'm willing to do that. This is my chance to even the odds a little bit; there is nothing I can do to change my past, at all."
Interest in this tournament is high, and Barnett knows it. Barnett is also aware that he's an afterthought. Most of the talk has centered around Emelianenko, Overeem and, to a lesser extent, Werdum. Barnett plans to have some of the spotlight directed toward him.
To get the attention he craves from today's MMA fans, Barnett intends to put on an unforgettable performance against Rogers.
|The majority of Josh Barnett's work has taken place overseas and away from an American audience.|
"I don't care what [the fans are] looking at now, what they're thinking now, because I'm going to make them pay attention," said Barnett, who is 26-5-0. "And they're not going to be able to turn away or forget what they see."
But Barnett won't be the only fighter in the cage with some making up to do.
Rogers (11-2-0) was once a fast-rising star on the Strikeforce roster. However, he's fallen on tough times, having dropped his two most recent Strikeforce bouts to Emelianenko and Overeem.
Despite a decision win in October over Ruben Villareal during a non-Strikeforce event, Rogers remains haunted by the losses. He too is motivated to get fans interested in him again.
"I have a lot of pressure on me," Rogers told ESPN.com." Fans have high expectations, and when they aren't met [fans] are quick to jump off the wagon. I don't want anybody to jump off me that quick.
"I shouldn't be underestimated because I've already proven to the world that I can get in there and knock people out. Josh Barnett knows that because I've rolled with him in the past in training."
Barnett doesn't acknowledge having any difficulties with Rogers in the gym. Besides, none of that will matter when the real battle begins in the cage. For Barnett, nothing matters other than achieving his goal: to make up for lost time. Josh Barnett now fights for his place in mixed martial arts history and to restore his name.
"My motivation has always been to be the best," Barnett said. "This is my chance to do that, or at least to cement my legacy. And try to make up for some of the black marks on my past."
Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.