No matter the audience, Josh Barnett can work a room. It's a required skill for a man who splits his time between Japanese pro wrestling and mixed martial arts.
Shortly after being announced for Saturday night's Affliction:Banned (on pay-per-view at 9 p.m. ET) against Pedro Rizzo, Barnett made a rare appearance in front of American MMA fans for the organization's New York City press conference at Trump Towers. When he first took the microphone, only a small, hardcore contingent seemed to know who he was. By the time he took his seat a few minutes later, he had the entire room waiting to speak to him personally.
"It's my job to get everybody hyped up and excited," Barnett said. "If you stick me in front of a crowd I'm going to work them over. I'll bring them up, I'll bring them down, and I'll bring them back up again, then I'll end on a high note. That's part of what it means to be a pro wrestler and working the crowd is one aspect of that. There are some other individuals in MMA who can do that, but I believe pretty strongly in my ability to win people over."
Such are the talents of "The Babyfaced Assassin." He mugs for the cameras, cracks jokes at the expense of his fellow fighters, and generally ensures every public appearance is a certified event. It's enough to make you wonder, why the talented, charismatic heavyweight isn't a major superstar in the United States?
If Affliction has anything to say about it, he soon will be. As the upstart organization vies with the UFC for the attention of MMA fans they do so mostly with a cast of foreign fighters and ex-UFC stars who the promotion has let slip away out of fear that their price tag is no longer justified by their drawing power. It's Barnett who could end up being the exception.
His days in the UFC ended before the organization and the sport exploded in popularity. He spent most of his career in Pride, where his skills in the ring and reverence for Japanese culture made him an icon. But now that Affliction has brought him back to the States he may be their easiest sell, if only they can figure out how to get him front and center.
On paper, it should be a simple task. The heavyweight division in MMA has floundered since the departure of Randy Couture. Even the most skilled heavyweights on the American scene, such as Tim Sylvia and UFC champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, don't have Barnett's looks or his charisma. Even Fedor Emelianenko, who Affliction is billing as a nearly indestructible fighting machine, generates about as much heat as a houseplant in press conferences.
However, introducing new fighters to a fan base that largely pays attention only to the UFC is a real challenge for Affliction. If they had a reality show, Barnett might become an overnight star. But since that's not the case, it's going to take a little more work from promoters and more patience from fans. Fortunately, Barnett has delivered at every opportunity.
That's just part of the reason Barnett could be the essential piece to Affliction's puzzle. Beyond his abilities on the microphone, he also has the talent in the ring to make him a major player in the organization that's becoming a destination for top heavyweights.
Though many American MMA fans may never have seen him fight, his Affliction debut against Rizzo could be the perfect opportunity to show what he can do. Rizzo may have knocked Barnett out in 2001, but both men are very different fighters these days.
Barnett's become more polished and more technical, while Rizzo has mostly just grown older. Barnett should roll through "The Rock" with relative ease, and then a match-up with the winner of the Sylvia-Fedor bout (regardless of how it turns out) would make for a perfect main event on Affliction's second offering.
The key, of course, is making it to that second show. Fedor and Sylvia might give Affliction the boost they need to get out of the gates, but a fighter like Barnett -- whose appeal goes beyond just wins and losses -- could be the force they need to hype future shows and put the promotion on the map with the casual fans.
Barnett already has the tools. All Affliction needs to do is put him in front of the camera and get out of his way.