josh-barnett-13.jpg(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)

Josh Barnett isn’t shy about his standing in the UFC’s heavyweight division.

Despite an 11-year absence from the promotion, aided by a rocky relationship with its executives, the 35-year-old thinks he’s picking up right where he left off when he beat Randy Couture in 2002 and won the title.

The way he sees it, other fighters who held the belt were merely carrying interim titles.

“It’s about reconquering lands I let go,” Barnett told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com).

When he meets Frank Mir (16-7 MMA, 14-7 UFC) in the co-main event of Saturday’s UFC 164 event at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center (pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET), Barnett (32-6 MMA, 4-1 UFC) says he’s defending his title for the first time in more than a decade.

“It’s another guy signing on the dotted line, giving me the opportunity to go out there and wreck his face,” Barnett said. “I’m going back to the UFC. The back story behind the relationship between myself and the UFC, it all makes for a pretty monumental story.”

The story is one you probably won’t read about often in MMA, especially when you consider Barnett’s history with the promotion.

Barnett was at the peak of his career when, after his fight with Couture, he tested positive for a trio of steroids and was stripped of the title by the UFC. After a nasty breakup, he followed an opportunity overseas to Japan, where he became a champion in Pancrase and a star in Pride Fighting Championships.

When UFC parent company Zuffa acquired Pride in 2007, it might have provided an opportunity to reconcile with his former employer. But Barnett cut his own path through a series of UFC competitors and racked up win after win before landing in Strikeforce.

When Zuffa also acquired Strikeforce in 2011, Barnett finally made amends and eventually signed a contract with the UFC.

With no clear No. 2 contender in the heavyweight division, he is poised to regain his standing with a victory against Mir, who fought on the preliminary card when Barnett beat Couture in 2002.

Mir, 34, became one of the UFC’s best heavyweights, winning the title in 2004 before a motorcycle crash forced him to relinquish it. Although he has failed to regain the title and lost a recent bout to Strikeforce standout Daniel Cormier, Mir’s submission game has left several opponents with injured limbs.

Barnett, who has won no fewer than 19 fights by submission, thinks he can beat Mir where he’s best.

“Even if it was a grappling match, I would not intend for it to go 15 minutes,” Barnett said. “If it goes for 15 minutes, I didn’t do my job.

“He’s been ranked above me. I would argue that I’ve had a lot more accomplishments. It does gnaw at you. People asked for the matchup based on the expectation of what a fight between us would entail. I just want to get out there and put my hands on him and see how it goes.”

For more on UFC 164, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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