When the Affliction: Banned media tour came to the Trump Towers in New York City, it was hard to say who the fans were lined up to see. With so many international MMA stars on one stage, it was a toss-up. But by the time they left there was no question who had stolen the show and cemented himself in the minds of all those present. As soon as Josh Barnett took the microphone in hand, it was almost a foregone conclusion.
Now the talented heavyweight and star pro wrestler in Japan talks to Cage Potato about his career in the U.S. and abroad, about his upcoming fight against Pedro Rizzo, and much more.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with me, Josh. Pedro Rizzo seems like an interesting opponent for you right now. What have you been doing to get ready for him?
Same thing I always do, training really hard in all aspects of mixed martial arts. I’ve got some really good sparring partners, like Babalu, Jamie Fletcher, and Ben Jones, who are in here every day, helping me out. I’ve also been working with a couple of boxing coaches, too, just to help work on some of the standup aspects because I wouldn’t mind knocking [Rizzo] out. So a guy named Oscar Muniz and Marvin Cooke have been helping me, and it’s just a pretty steady training camp.
Are you worried that if you go in there planning on standing and striking with him that you won’t use your grappling, where you seem to have the edge?
There’s no reason to worry. There’s no place for worry or doubt in anything that you do in the fight. I know I can fight smart. I’m going to go out there and see what’s available. I’m not going to force any particular game plan on to the fight. But I will make things go my way. There’s no worries, no concerns.
Affliction has mentioned having the winner of your fight face the winner of the Fedor-Sylvia fight at their next event. Do you think that’s really going to happen, and are you going to be paying close attention to all the other heavyweight fights on the card, just in case?
I don’t know what’s going to happen until it all comes together. But I consider it part of my business to know what everybody’s doing and how they’re fighting, so I’ll be paying attention to all the bouts, the winners and the losers. You never know who you’re going to end up fighting. It’s always good to get a feel for someone in case you run into them later.
You’ve fought in a number of different MMA organizations. How does your experience with Affliction compare to some of the other companies you’ve fought for so far?
For me it really hasn’t been all that much different from my relationship in the past, so it’s been pretty easy.
I have to say I was a little surprised at the huge fan response to you in the New York press conference. You’ve spent so much of your career in Japan, people don’t often think of you as a big draw here. Do you think your fanbase here comes from your time in Pride, pro wrestling, what?
I think a little bit of that could be that I’m kind of a cult icon type of fighter in some ways. I bring a certain kind of die-hard fan that a lot of other fighters don’t have, the kind of fan that’s going to be there through thick and thin, a Josh-maniac, so to speak.
But also, it’s my job to get everybody hyped up and excited. If you stick me in front of a crowd I’m going to work them over. I’ll bring them up, I’ll bring them down, and I’ll bring them back up again, then I’ll end on a high note. That’s part of what it means to be a pro wrestler and working the crowd is one aspect of that. There are some other individuals in MMA who can do that, but I believe pretty strongly in my ability to win people over.
That ability, where do you think it comes from? Is it just something you have, or did you learn it as a pro wrestler?
A little of both. My normal, everyday self – I’m not a shut-in – but I mostly keep to myself. I don’t always have a lot to say, and I do whatever’s on my mind to do. But when I’m at a press conference or in front of the fans it’s not necessarily my time because these people came out to see something, to hear something, to be a part of something and experience it. So I’m going to go out there and give them what they want.
A lot of fans seem to relate to you. Your love of video games and comic books and anime, does that make them identify with you more? Do you feel you’re different from other fighters in that regard?
Well, I’m probably higher on the nerd scale than most fighters, I’ll admit that. A lot of fighters do play video games or partake in various other aspects of nerd culture. But I sort of take the cake, I guess. I’m something of a triumvirate with role-playing games and video games and anime. You name it, I’m into it. People can relate to that kind of stuff.
But also, I think it’s because I don’t have a problem going out and saying what’s on people’s minds and what’s on my mind. Not in a way of people who just say ignorant things and justify it by saying, ‘Hey, I’m speaking my mind, I’m telling it like it is.’ That’s just an excuse to go out there and say something retarded because you think you can get away with it if you use that hackneyed cliché. But a lot of times something happens where some guys would be too shy to say something about it, but I’m not.
With all the money Affliction is spending on this show, there’s a lot of concern about their long-term viability. Are you concerned about whether they’ll be around this time next year?
I’m not an accountant, that’s all I can say. I’m not looking over their books so I can’t be too concerned with that. The only thing I can do in regards to that is to make people want to buy tickets and merchandise and pay-per-views and all that stuff. If I can be successful at that then we get to keep doing it. If they go away I stop getting paid, so I don’t want that to happen.
Does it appeal to you that they seem to be building themselves as a destination for top heavyweights?
Sure, it’s not often you get the chance to have so many good heavyweights all in one place, so it’s a great opportunity. I would say it’s also a very likely situation that the person who comes out at the top of the heap in Affliction’s heavyweight division is going to be considered the best heavyweight in the world.
Do you think that’s a viable strategy for an MMA company, relying on one weight class?
I don’t think I’d ever put all my eggs in one basket. But I think that the heavyweights are the number one attraction for the most part, and they’re always going to be a big draw, so I do think it’s smart to build up the division. I also think it’s great to be in an environment where I’m not dealing with the same MMA crowd. Not that I’m in any way against that circle, but there are a lot of other avenues that haven’t been explored and people who haven’t been exposed to MMA on a large scale, so if we can broaden that it will only help the whole market.
Speaking of the MMA crowd, you’ve been known to get on message boards and debate with fans and other fighters, and the internet is where that MMA crowd really exists. Do you find that, as a fighter, you want to hang out in those places, or does it get too negative?
For the most part I, and most other fighters, should really just stay away from that. In some aspect I think that it’s sort of [the fans’] space. It’s their place to go on about the topics they want to talk about. They all say they want to interact with us, but really they often just want to go out there and get in an argument or be a total idiot or have a serious conversation, and that’s their place to go and do it.
Perhaps it’s just best for us to keep our distance and fuel the flames my giving interviews and having comments here and there but not so much interacting. Personally, I kind of like to talk to some of the people because that’s where I started off. I was on those message boards a long time ago trying to get information on MMA myself.
When you think about yourself and how you were in the beginning of your career, what are the major differences that you see in how you are now?
Just better trained, more experienced. I’ve come into my game a little better and I’m a lot more polished. Just way more technical all around.
Do you think about those old fights or do they all blend together to some extent?
No, I think very long and deep about all my fights and try and correct things that I did wrong and fix those problems for the next fight.
What would you say you did wrong in your loss against Rizzo?
I was overly aggressive, didn’t really think about the pacing of the fight, and I walked into a trap.
Other than your fight, what do you think is going to be the most interesting fight on the Affliction: Banned card?
Well, Fedor and Sylvia, obviously they’re the headliners and people know that either one of them can end the fight at any time, so that’s always interesting. Also the Babalu-Mike Whitehead fight is going to be a great one, too.