By the time Josh Barnett steps into the Octagon at UFC 164, more than 10 years will have passed between appearances.
Barnett started out in the UFC heavyweight division in the dark days of MMA when the promotion was struggling to find a foothold after being banned in several states, and removed from pay-per-view.
He stuck around long enough to see Zuffa LLC buy out the UFC, and made it all the way to the heavyweight title before leaving the organization in 2002. Barnett never got the chance to defend the belt because he was stripped of the title after testing positive for a banned substance after the fight, although he battled in an appeal with the Nevada State Athletic Commission and maintains his innocence to this day.
Two years later the belt passed to a young gun named Frank Mir, and he was considered the new embodiment of grappling excellence in the UFC.
Because both fighters were known as submission artists, Barnett and Mir continued to be mentioned in the same circles over the better part of the next decade. Despite their apparent similarities, however, Barnett doesn't buy into the idea that he and Mir were always on the same career path and just never happened to meet before now.
When Barnett left the UFC and ended up in Japan as part of Pride Fighting Championships, the heavyweight division there—not in the Octagon—was considered the real cream of the crop in MMA.
"I think we've always kind of been in different places for both of our careers really," Barnett said when speaking to MMA's Great Debate Radio. "Even when he was fighting for titles, no one ever took my belt from me, so I don't what belt they were putting around (his waist) but that wasn't the UFC heavyweight title as far as I was concerned.
"I was in Pride fighting the universally recognized top dudes in the world at the time. I come back to the UFC, and the UFC is now the premiere place to be for mixed martial arts in the world, but at this point Frank's best days have already occurred."
Both Mir and Barnett have shared space in the MMA top-10 rankings for most of the last 10 years as well—a rare feat in this sport where fighters come and go quite often and don't usually stick around at the top of a division for that long.
According to the current UFC rankings, Mir is listed at No. 6 while Barnett is slotted in at No. 10. Barnett has always done his best to avoid the entire discussion around rankings because ultimately it's a subjective list, but deep down he can admit there is a fire that gets lit when he sees certain fighters put ahead of him.
"I don't really care too much about rankings," Barnett said. "I definitely didn't get obsessed with it when I saw how biased they were, especially after being out of the UFC. There's a little part when you see it that's like 'That idiot thinks that, really?'. It gives you that much more motivation when you're in there and getting your workouts done."
When it comes to his next opponent, Barnett believes that Mir's constant standing in the rankings has come more from him being in the UFC than actually beating the best fighters in the world while still in their primes, but he's excited to see just what he's all about when they face off in the Octagon.
"I've got to be honest, a lot of Frank's relevancy was based on being in the UFC," Barnett said. "That's the way I see it. I want to how much potential there really is there by fighting him."
Barnett knows going into the fight that Mir's best weapon is his devastating Brazilian jiu-jitsu game. Out of his 16 career wins, Mir has submitted nine past opponents, and was the first person to ever finish Pride legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira by submission.
His record speaks for itself, but Barnett says for all the accomplishments that Mir has had, he's never faced a fighter like him.
"I don't think he's going to be able to find any training partners that can grapple the way I do" Barnett said. "Even still, I believe when it does hit the ground I can shut down his offense and make him pay for being underneath."
A win for Barnett would immediately put him into title discussion for a number of reasons beyond just beating a former UFC champion like Mir.
With Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos already matched up at UFC 166 to conclude their trilogy of fights, the division doesn't have a clear cut contender sitting in the top spot for the next title shot.
Former Strikeforce fighter Fabricio Werdum seems like the most likely candidate, but the UFC has yet to guarantee him or anyone else for that matter as the next person in line for a shot at the belt. Travis Browne also entered the conversation with his win over Alistair Overeem last weekend at UFC Fight Night 26.
Still, Barnett's history, record and pedigree make him an interesting entry into title discussions and while it's virtually impossible to think he'd get a shot at the belt after a win over Mir, his name will be tossed into contention.
Once Barnett's foot is in the door, it's hard to keep him from kicking it down, and he's looking forward to making his first UFC title defense. Yes, you read that correct—since Barnett never lost the UFC heavyweight title in a fight, he believes whoever he faces for the gold now will be competing for the real championship.
"For me if I'm issued a title shot, when I walk in the ring in my mind, I'm not fighting to win the UFC championship—I'm actually making my first title defense," Barnett said. "That's the way I see it."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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