RondaRousey.com’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.
RondaRousey.com has profiled, covered, and interviewed several MMA fighters-turned-pro wrestlers (in addition to Ronda herself), but none have had a career quite like that of Josh Barnett. From the largest stage that Japanese wrestling has to offer to the American independent scene, the former UFC champion has left a unique mark on the wrestling scene.
After spending his teen years playing football and practicing judo, kickboxing, and wrestling, Barnett began his MMA career in 1997. His profile rose significantly in November 2000, when he made his UFC debut at UFC 28. His significant accomplishments in the following years included becoming the youngest-ever UFC Heavyweight Champion when he defeated Randy Couture at UFC 36 in March 2002. But the 24-year-old Barnett’s career took a surprising turn when he was stripped of the title after testing positive for banned substances. This led the young fighter to part ways with UFC and take his career to Japan.
As Barnett continued his MMA career in Pride FC and Pancrase, the latter of which he has called “a full-on shoot version of a pro wrestling contest,” he also began his professional wrestling career. In the early 2000s, he was a natural choice for an addition to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), which was trying to capitalize on the popularity of MMA in Japan at the time by putting on more realistic-looking matches and picking up MMA fighters as guest stars. Barnett made his NJPW and pro wrestling debut in the main event of Wrestling World 2003 in the Tokyo Dome, challenging Yuji Nagata—one of the promotion’s top stars—for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the promotion’s top title.
This debut match was the highest-profile of Barnett’s wrestling career and his only shot at a world championship for over a decade. But he remained a regular fixture in NJPW throughout 2003 and 2004. He tagged with Perry Saturn, defeated some famous junior heavyweights including Jushin Thunder Liger and Tiger Mask, and, at Summer Struggle 2003, beat Scott Norton in a “Strongest Foreigner Decision Different Style Fight.” In his final New Japan match at NJPW Nexess, Barnett defeated Ken Shamrock, one of the very few other men with history in Pancrase, UFC, and pro wrestling, by disqualification.
Between 2005 and 2014, Barnett wrested very sporadically, and mostly in Inoki Genome Federation, a promotion created by NJPW founder Antonio Inoki that frequently featured performers with shoot fighting backgrounds. In the IGF, Barnett wrestled the likes of Don Frye, Giant Silva, Tank Abbott, kickboxer Jerome Le Banner, Bob Sapp, and Bobby Lashley.
Meanwhile, in Barnett’s MMA career, he fought for Sengoku and Affliction Entertainment, faced more legal issues related to tests for banned substances, and signed a multi-fight deal with Strikeforce in 2010. He returned to UFC in 2013, where he was knocked out by Frank Mir at UFC 164 and by Browsey Acres’ own Travis Browne at UFC 168.
Following award-winning bouts against Roy Nelson and Andrei Arlovski and his first submission loss in 2016, Barnett was granted his release from UFC in 2018. He signed with Bellator MMA in April 2019, where he has yet to have his first fight of a multi-fight contract.
Through all the developments in his MMA career, Barnett has been open about his love of pro wrestling. He put on a pro wrestling exhibition match while preparing for a 2011 Strikeforce fight and cut a promo after it. In 2016, a wrestling match broke out during his workout for UFC on FOX 18, as you can see above. He’s talked about what he thinks MMA can learn from pro wrestling and advised Shayna Baszler to build a memorable persona to help her career as a fighter. Barnett also maintained a connection to the most prolific period of his pro wrestling career as an English-language commentator for NJPW alongside Jim Ross from 2015-2018.
Barnett finally returned to the ring himself for the first time since 2014 in 2017, kicking off a phase of his career that would see him play the role of both performer and promoter. He began by working two matches for Impact Wrestling at the beginning of the year. After defeating Bad Bones in his debut for the company, he unsuccessfully challenged Bobby Lashley, another wrestler/MMA fighter with whom he had worked before, for the Impact World Heavyweight Championship. Barnett also wrestled former Olympian, current Ring of Honor star Jeff Cobb at an independent show in California and Shinichi Suzukawa in a return to the IGF in Japan.
After dipping his toes back in the pro wrestling water in 2017, Barnett fully dived back in in 2019 when he got involved with Game Changer Wrestling. GCW is an independent promotion that features a variety of wrestling styles but is best known for its deathmatches, often bloody bouts in which wrestlers can legally use weapons including barbed wire, light tubes, and even scissors. But Barnett would bring a different kind of violence to the promotion.
In 2018, GCW produced a show for former UFC fighter, then-indy wrestler, and current NXT star Matt Riddle called Bloodsport, on WrestleMania weekend. Named after the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme action classic, Bloodsport featured wrestlers either known for brawling or with backgrounds in MMA or other combat sports. They wrestled under unique rules, with no ropes, no pinfalls, and matches only won by knockout or submission. The event was unique, memorable, and well-received by fans.
When WrestleMania weekend 2019 rolled around, Riddle was signed with WWE and couldn’t lend his name to the show, so another MMA fighter-turned-wrestler in Josh Barnett took up the project. Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport was, like Riddle’s, a crowd-pleaser. It featured a showdown of catch wrestlers in Hideki Suzuki vs. Timothy Thatcher, the pro wrestling debut of Frank Mir against Don Frye, and Barnett himself in the main event against Minoru Suzuki, one of the co-founders of Pancrase and a well-known pro wrestler. When the event was well-received, Barnett and GCW weren’t content to keep it a new annual tradition.
Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport II took place in Atlantic City on September 14, 2019, now with both men’s and women’s matches, where the previous Bloodsport shows featured only men. Allysin Kay took on Nicole Savoy, Davey Boy Smith Jr. (fka David Hart Smith in WWE) took on Bellator fighter and pro wrestler Tom Lawler, and Timothy Thatcher wrestled Ikushia Minowa, the Japanese MMA fighter also known as Minowaman. The main event was supposed to be even higher profile match for Barnett than on the previous show against Jon Moxley, who had been known until recently as WWE’s Dean Ambrose. However, when an injury caused Moxely to pull out, Barnett wrestled indie star Chris Dickinson in a match that featured some realistic grappling.
What Barnett brings to pro wrestling may not be for everyone, but it’s undoubtedly unique. Throughout the years, he’s shown passion for MMA, catch wrestling, and pro wrestling, and for bringing them together like few others can.