Josh BarnettJosh Barnett will be returning to the UFC after an 11-year absence to take on fellow former heavyweight champion Frank Mir in Milwaukee on Saturday night.

With nine wins in his last ten fights, Barnett is clearly still a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division. More than that, he believes he is still the champion because he hasn’t lost a fight in the Octagon since winning the title at UFC 36.

“When I walk in the ring, in my mind, I’m making my first title defense. That’s the way I see it,” he said on a recent episode of MMA’s Great Debate.

Barnett’s last UFC outing was in March 2002 when he stopped Randy Couture in the second round to win a belt that he would subsequently be stripped of after testing positive for a banned substance.

Barnett went on to fight for Pride, where he faced the likes of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Mark Hunt and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The 35-year-old compared Mir’s career fighting in the UFC unfavorably with his own, while he competed in Japan.

“We’ve always been in different places, even when he was fighting for titles. No one ever took my belt from me, so I don’t know what belt they were swinging around, but that wasn’t the UFC heavyweight title as far as I was concerned and I was off at Pride fighting the top dudes in the world at the time.”

There is no doubt that when Mir first won the belt by submitting Tim Sylvia at UFC 48, most of the top heavyweights in the world were competing elsewhere. Zuffa’s buyout of Pride changed all that and Barnett is looking forward to testing himself against the division’s elite.

“I’ve come back to the UFC and the UFC is now the premier place to be for MMA,” Barnett said.

He feels that Mir is past his prime, but says he will not be taking this fight lightly.

“At this point Frank’s best days have already occurred, but you can’t underestimate people because you set yourself up for a downfall and I don’t think of Frank as being a bad fighter. A fighter might lose ten in a row, but they got a history of winning 30 before it and any moment there could be the one fight where they manage to pull it together and come back to their championship best and it only takes one fight.”

At this stage, Mir would be entitled to point out that he is almost two years younger than Barnett, but the “War Master” feels that, stylistically, this is a very good match-up for him.

“I think he’s very good (on the ground). He doesn’t have a very ‘jiu-jitsuesque’ style of grappling, but he’s a big dude, explosive and I believe he wrestled high school. So when it comes to grappling, there’s not a whole lot that he hasn’t seen before, but when it comes to application and putting things together, I don’t think he’s going to be able to find training partners that grapple the way I do. If it does go to the ground, I can shut down his offense and make him pay for being underneath.”

The official UFC rankings have Frank Mir at No. 6, while Barnett sits at No. 10. After fighting for Sengoku, Dream, Affliction and Strikeforce in recent years, Barnett is happy to finally be getting the recognition that comes from competing for the leading MMA promotion on the planet.

“For quite some time after Pride folded, anyone who was in the UFC got ranked higher than me and a lot of Frank’s relevancy was based on being in the UFC. I want to see how much potential there really is there by fighting him and, honestly, I don’t really care too much about rankings, but you see it and you think ‘this idiot thinks that?’ It gives you that much more motivation when you are getting your workout done.”

Like many fighters, Barnett has done double-duty in Hollywood. He was recently enlisted as a fight coordinator on the soon to be released Keanu Reeves movie “Man of Tai Chi.”

For the time being, however, he is fully focused on UFC 164 and while Barnett did make some disparaging remarks about Mir’s cardio, he added that he has no intention of trying to grind out a decision victory.

“I’m a finisher and I don’t want to be in there 15 minutes; I’d rather be in there five or less.”

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