MMA vet Josh Barnett still fighting at a top-notch level entering Strikeforce heavyweight final

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

There is something special about Josh Barnett that is hard to quantify. Athletes rarely stay at or near the top of their professions as long as Barnett has in mixed martial arts.

After a while, the rigors of the spartan lifestyle most athletes have to live wears on them, mentally as well as physically. The body breaks down, no longer able to execute the brain's instructions as quickly or as efficiently.

Barnett began fighting as an MMA professional in 1997, five months before UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture began his career. At that time, MMA was banned from cable television and Dana White was still a bellman at a Boston hotel. Now, it's a multibillion dollar business and White is the head of the UFC, the biggest name in the sport.

Some 15 years and 50-some fights later, Barnett remains at the top of the heap, on the verge of winning the Strikeforce World Grand Prix heavyweight final Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

Barnett will meet unbeaten Daniel Cormier in the final in a bout as unlikely as it is compelling.

The tournament launched on Feb. 12, 2011, amid great fanfare, with Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko the heavy favorites to win. Strikeforce was owned by Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, and Cormier wasn't even in the elite eight-man field.

Since then, Zuffa, the company that also owns the UFC, purchased Strikeforce. Emelianenko was obliterated in the first round and Cormier got a spot in the field when Alistair Overeem was yanked because he said he wouldn't be ready to fight on the date he was required to go.

While the world around him may have changed, it's still the same Barnett in the final. He's a slippery, slithering submission specialist who's won each of his two tournament bouts by arm triangle. And he's still as insightful and clever as any fighter in the sport's long and colorful history.

[Related: Barnett vs. Cormier will answer these three questions]

He's a catch wrestler going against a guy who represented the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics, but he's as confident as he is clever.

"Yes, I'm going to put him on his back," Barnett said. "That is the way I've won my last two fights and I don't see any reason to stop."

It won't be particularly easy to get Cormier down. He's a barrel of a man who has his own ideas about how the wrestling game will play out.

Barnett, whose official record is 31-5 but has many more unsanctioned bouts that occurred when fewer than a handful of states regulated the sport, is anything but concerned.

Wrestlers are always among the most difficult fighters to defeat, and Barnett insists he has great respect for Cormier. Barnett isn't sure how he'll beat him, he's just sure he will. The benefit of all of his experience is that he is utterly sure of himself no matter how bleak the situation.

"It's something I've been doing going on 15 years now, so of course I've got an advantage," Barnett said. "Daniel's got nine fights and I've got, with unsanctioned fights involved, over 50. So, I've been honing my craft longer, but Daniel's an Olympic athlete and that is a big equalizer to any kind of athletic endeavor he's going to do.

"Now, I don't know how great he'd be at rhythmic gymnastics, but he's already an Olympic athlete, so I would still believe that he would do better than others."

Cormier does what he does well enough that all four heavyweights who are competing in the main and co-main events next week at UFC 146 – champion dos Santos, challenger Frank Mir, former champion Cain Velasquez and Antonio Silva – are picking him to win.

[Also: UFC president Dana White diagnosed with Ménière's disease]

"I think Cormier takes this," Mir said. "I can't see Barnett getting him to the ground; [Cormier's] wrestling is too strong. And on the feet, I think Cormier has the power to end things. But with two top heavyweights, anything can happen. That's why this division is so exciting: Anyone who is world-class can beat anyone else with one punch. You can't say that about the lighter weight classes and that's why heavyweight fights are so cool to watch."

Barnett's cool to watch because he wins fights in a way that few others even try. Cormier knows he has his hands full and conceded that preparing for Barnett is unlike preparing for anyone else.

"Fighting someone like Josh who does catch wrestling, it's difficult because there aren't many guys, not only at the highest level of the sport, but big guys who actually practice it," Cormier said. " … We really focus in on some of the areas that we've recognized in Josh's previous fights and focused on them.

"With that being said, I'm not necessarily sure that you could prepare for it because what he does, it does at a level that people can't even emulate. So it's going to be tough. "

Facing Josh Barnett, it always is.

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