(The universal symbol for “I’m choking, and I’m a habitual steroid user.”)
On Friday’s edition of SIRIUS Fight Club, I referred to Josh Barnett as “the most notorious steroid-user in MMA history.” At this point, after two high-profile, career-fucking steroid busts, that statement is pretty much indisputable. But let’s not forget that Barnett’s latest positive test — which sent a stake through the heart of Affliction’s MMA promotion — only wound up hurting Barnett, Affliction, and the handful of fighters on Affliction’s roster who didn’t immediately find new homes. For literally everybody else in the world of mixed martial arts, it was the best thing that could have possibly happened. Seriously. Think about it…
1) Affliction’s collapse saved “Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg” from being one of the most cursed events of all time. On July 7th, we were OMG’ing over the fact that Strikeforce’s 8/15 fight card was going to feature four title fights. By last Thursday, it had lost three of those title fights. Alistair Overeem was out with a hand injury. Joe Riggs was out with a mysterious drug reaction. (In the absence of any other information, we’ll just assume it was a heroin overdose. Get well soon, Joe.) And Josh Thomson was out with a bum toe. It would be a nightmare scenario for any promoter. But instead of a buckshot, ragged-ass event patched in with replacements from their own roster, Strikeforce was able to improve their card using Affliction refugees.
Jay Hieron coming in for Joe Riggs actually made that title fight more legitimate, when you consider that Hieron floats around just outside the welterweight top ten, and Riggs is nowhere near it. Overeem vs. Werdum was another title fight that only made sense due to personal history. (Anybody want to explain how Fabricio Werdum, a guy who has never fought in Strikeforce and is currently riding a zero-fight win streak, became Strikeforce’s #1 heavyweight contender? Because Brett Rogers would really like to know.) At the very least, Renato Sobral vs. Gegard Mousasi is a fair trade — more so if you feel, as I do, that Mousasi is going to do very well for himself at 205 pounds. As for Mitsuhiro Isihida coming in for Josh Thomson, that had nothing to do with Affliction or Josh Barnett — but one relatively unnecessary rematch is just as good as another, so good job on that one, guys.
2) Affliction’s collapse flooded the UFC with talent that it wouldn’t have otherwise acquired. Good Lord, can you believe that we were about to sit through Rich Franklin vs. Dan Henderson again? Now we get to see Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort, while Henderson gets a pretty well-deserved rematch with Anderson Silva. Meanwhile, the UFC’s heavyweight division gets Ben Rothwell, the welterweight division has to deal with Paul Daley, and the WEC’s featherweight class secures its spot as possibly the most talent-rich division in MMA. And hey, Joe Lauzon’s little brother is back! None of this would be possible without Josh Barnett. And it’s no stretch to say that Tito Ortiz wouldn’t be returning to the UFC if Affliction didn’t fall apart. In January, he was part of Affliction’s broadcast team, and telling anybody who’d listen about the dream fight he was going to have against Fedor as soon as his back was healed up. Once Tito saw that the Affliction ship was sinking, he wisely began rebuilding relations with his old boss.
3) Barnett’s positive test for Drostanolone proved that random testing is for real. In terms of making a statement about performance-enhancing drugs, this couldn’t have worked out better. California’s first random drug test netted a whale, became major news for two weeks straight, and sent an important message to the MMA community: If you’re a fighter who competes in the state of California, and you use steroids, it might be time to stop rolling the dice unless you want your livelihood taken away from you for a year. “Cycling off” doesn’t cut it anymore when the tests can come at any time. Through his example as a cautionary tale, Josh Barnett may have struck a blow for healthier fighters and a more level playing field.
(Quick digression: As for those who don’t use steroids, please understand that “accidental ingestion” has never been a valid defense, and it’s nothing more than a punchline at this point. So it’s time to start being extra diligent about what you put in your body, because maybe the CSAC does make mistakes sometimes, and maybe guys like Sean Sherk and Vitor Belfort and Ruben Villareal have been wrongly accused. At any rate, you are not a chemist — neither is your trainer, or the teenage part-timer at the GNC — so if you don’t know exactly what goes into that “proprietary blend” or “thermogenic blaster,” then stay away from it.)
So what did we have to sacrifice to get all this good stuff? Well, we weren’t able to see Josh Barnett fight Fedor Emelianenko at “Trilogy.” (Spoiler alert: Fedor would have won.) And Affliction, which gave us two very entertaining fight cards, is no more. (Then again, their business model made their failure a “when, not if” kind of thing, and their existence diluted the talent pool.) And Tom Atencio has to go back to being just a well-paid t-shirt guy. All in all, a pretty small cost for the windfall that Barnett’s bust provided for MMA. So if you ever come across the Babyface Assassin — at an anime convention, perhaps — shake his hand and thank him. I won’t go as far as to say the man died for our sins; that would be Kimo, obviously. But Barnett was a fall guy at a moment when MMA needed one, and the sport will be stronger because of him.