The long-awaited epic showdown between two of the most accomplished heavyweight Mixed Martial Arts warriors has another unique angle: Soon-to-be arch rivals Fedor Emelianenko and Josh Barnett are close friends, sometime training partners and long-time mutual admirers.
Fedor and Barnett will clash on August 1 at “Affliction Trilogy” for the WAMMA Heavyweight Championship at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. Former UFC champ Barnett sees no problem putting friendship aside on fight night. “This is a fight that a lot of people have been expecting for a long time, press, fans alike, fighters actually. But make no bones about it, just because we’re friends doesn’t mean that we don’t take fights very seriously. This is going to be a very serious endeavor. I think because of the nature of this bout between the two of us, because of the mutual respect that we have for each other, in terms of our status as professional athletes in our respective division and in the world of mixed martial arts, this fight will live up to a greater expectation than any other heavyweight bout that I can think of in history.”
“He’s a good friend. I consider him to be a true friend,” says the 32-year-old Fedor. “But every day I fight with my friends in training. It’s a sport, we’re athletes, we’ll be in the ring to compete. And I feel confident that our friendship will continue after the fight.”
The entire MMA culture will be tuned into Anaheim on August 1, including recent convert Donald J. Trump. “The last Affliction show was one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever seen,” said the man who sat front row for prime Mike Tyson matches against Buster Douglas, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes, among others. “I think that Fedor vs. Barnett can go down as a very, very important evening in sports. It’s really exciting stuff. I’m so proud it’s taken off, everybody’s watching it.”
31-year-old Barnett from Seattle, a big fan of Japanese animation, admits that Fedor will be favored to beat him.” Oh, sure I’m an underdog. But I don’t give a damn [smiles].” However “The Baby-Faced Assassin” believes he is capable of handing the seemingly unbeatable Russian his first loss in almost a decade (Fedor’s only loss resulted from head bleeding via a wild elbow in :17 to Kohsaka in 2000). “The key is imposing my will and taking control of the fight. Always owning the rhythm. He always owns the rhythm of the fight. And, honestly, he who controls the rhythm is bound to win the fight. So that’s what I gotta do. So for me, I just need to be in the best shape I can. Because I know I’ve got all the tools I need.”
The devastatingly powerful Fedor, an extremely calm, kind and gentle soul out of the ring, who enjoys drawing pictures for his young daughter as a hobby, radiates extreme confidence about facing Barnett. “There’s really nothing that worries me about him,” he says, without a trace of arrogance. “I look at this with a level-headed, and look at his strengths and look at his weaknesses. And just look at things very even keel, without getting too nervous or too emotional about it. The key to winning is the training, the preparation for the fight.”
After accomplishing so much in the most dangerous sport on earth – including 30 victories over the likes of Ricardo Arona, Mark Coleman, Mirko Cro Cop, Tim Sylvia, Minotauro Nogueira, Kevin Randleman, Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, and Renato Sobral – what is it that still inspires Fedor to keep fighting? “The biggest inspiration is that I represent my country and the sport. I help people see that I fight for my country and that’s what drives me. The sport has given a lot to me and I fight not only for my country but for my people, for my orthodox heritage and background in religion. And I am very proud of that. And when I go into the ring I have the entire country and my people behind me.”
Will there be mixed emotions on fight night for Barnett, as he wages war against his pal? “No,” he replies, firmly. “Here’s the thing. If anybody is going to beat him, I want it to be me. And vice versa. I don’t want to sit out there in the arena and watch somebody that I don’t like defeat Fedor. I’m gonna be upset. If there’s any time I think he’s having trouble – I’m upset. I don’t want to see anybody else beat my friend. If I do – it’s okay. But not anybody else.”
Fedor struggled at times in his last fight and absorbed some hard shots – but eventually scored a one-punch KO victory over Arlovski in 3:14. Did Barnett have any feelings of being upset at seeing Fedor show vulnerability in that contest? “Yeah. But you know what? It was only 2 1/2 minutes of a 25-minute fight. So even if he lost the first round, I have faith in my friend. I knew he was gonna win.”
Though every great gladiator is said to be beatable by someone, Fedor’s incredible dominance may be the rare exception to that age-old axiom. Of course, the humble Russian does not agree. “I never think about the fact that I’m unbeatable, in any way. I understand that at any moment I can lose a fight.”
Barnett, who has wins over Dan Severn, Randy Couture, Minotauro, Pedro Rizzo, Gilbert Yvel and Hidehiko Yoshida on his 24-5 record, is known as an intelligent, analytical fighter with world class submission and wrestling skills. A big, strong and dangerous striker also, Barnett tends to prefer to dominate his opponent on the mat with the intent to score a submission victory. Fedor, known as “The Last Emperor,” fights with incredible, furious perseverance and an unbreakable will. He served in the Russian Army as a military firefighter, and his dedicated training regimen earned him titles as “Master of Sport” in Sambo and Judo. Always on the attack and never in retreat, Fedor executes a relentless ground and pound technique which annihilated Sylvia in :36, Conceicao Martins in :26, Ogawa in :54, Nagata in 1:02, and Goodridge in 1:06.
So we have two dear friends, respected rivals, mutual admirers who will do battle, in one of the most anticipated contests in the history of MMA, despite the fact there exists not an iota of grudge or tension between the two. Is it really true? Come on Josh, there has to be something you don’t like about Fedor? “No. Not really,” he says with a chuckle. “I think he’s a great, overall human being. And we really get along well and I’m really proud to call him my friend. But liking and disliking don’t have anything to do with it. I’ll just as soon beat up a family member as I would a total stranger. It’s about business right now. And it’s also about doing what the sport demands, in this case. And we’re both sportsmen. So this is where we go.”
Well, if you think there’s been a little too much respect and benevolence in this article about two of the most decorated and violent Mixed Martial Artists in the world, we agree. Let’s close this fight preview in style, with a Josh Barnett quote from the archives. “I like to crush faces. That’s what I love.”
Fedor vs. Barnett, August 1, “Affliction Trilogy.” Like Donald Trump said: This fascinating battle has all the makings and elements to be one of the greatest nights in modern sporting history.