Who Takes It? Josh Barnett vs. Roy Nelson at UFC Japan

It’s been just over one year since Roy Nelson last visited Japan, to do battle at the historic Saitama Super Arena in Saitama Prefecture.

That night, the man they call “Big Country” headlined a UFC Fight Night event against something of a hometown favorite in Mark Hunt.

Hunt, of course, had made his name in the Japanese kickboxing and MMA scene of the early to mid-2000’s.  A 2001 K-1 Grand Prix champion, the New Zealand-born and Australia-based Hunt enjoyed a strong following in Japan, dating back to the glory days of both K-1 and PRIDE FC.

Unfortunately for Nelson, Hunt would add to that legend that night in “The Land of the Rising Sun.” The “Super Samoan” Hunt flattened Nelson with a second round right uppercut, handing him the first (and, to date, only) knockout loss of a 30-fight career.

Now, a year later, Nelson finds himself in somewhat of a similar situation. The Las Vegas native will headline UFC Fight Night this Saturday (actually, it’s Sunday on Japan time) against another popular champion of Japan’s fight scene of the early 2000’s: Josh Barnett.

Barnett, a former King of Pancrase who also enjoyed a long career as a pro wrestler in Japan, scored many of his greatest career wins at the Saitama Super Arena. Perhaps most memorable are back-to-back victories over Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira and Mark Hunt in 2006. A Seattle native, now based out of Southern California, Barnett will have the crowd — and perhaps, history — on his side.

Does history repeat itself on Saturday, or does Nelson, who is between a two and three to one underdog by most online betting systems per Best Fight Odds, beat the odds?

The 37 year old, 6’3″ & 252 lb Barnett boasts a 33-7 record in an almost 17 year MMA career, beginning in the wild days of late 1990’s MMA in the Pacific Northwest and rising to defeat Randy Couture to lift the UFC heavyweight championship win in 2002. A failed drug test ended his reign however, and later nixed a showdown with Emelianenko Fedor. The “Warmaster” wouldn’t return to the UFC until 2013.

He’s known for his grappling — the “catch-as-catch-can” style he learned from the likes of Matt Hume and the late Billy Robinson. But in his two most recent bouts, Barnett has lived and died by strikes — especially in the clinch. He blasted Frank Mir with a knee to the head to earn a TKO win at UFC 164, but was stunned by a knee (and then pulverized with elbow strikes) by Travis Browne at UFC 168.

The 39 year old, 6’0″ & 254 lb Nelson is 20-11 as a professional. He’s known as a brawler, who just happens to also have a jiu-jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie. But he showed a bit more fluidity and grace than many expected in that loss to Hunt; arguably winning the bout’s first round. He wasn’t exactly Muhammad Ali, but he out-paced Hunt to begin, moving in and out adn hitting a variety of punches at range. Still, a minute or two into the second stanza, Hunt made the adjustments, and eventually timed the right strike to catch Hunt — and end the fight.

Nelson also lost his last bout, back in March at UFC 185. That night, Alistair Overeem peppered him with kicks to the legs and body; along with a few flying knees — and eventually earned a decision win over three grueling rounds. But that punching power from Nelson almost struck gold late in the fight.

How much can we take from these results? Barnett won’t match Overeem’s Muay Thai acumen or Hunt’s kickboxing; but then, Nelson doesn’t have Travis Browne’s “hell-bows” either. Neither Barnett nor Nelson is a push over; they’re still pressing the top fighters of the day. But neither fighter is a spring chicken. Both are in their late 30’s and have slowed in recent years.

I like Barnett’s overall game and he certainly has the best chance of taking top position over Nelson. But he’s got to avoid that big right hand. Look for Barnett to get an advantage in the clinch and get a late TKO with ground-and-pound — I’ll call it TKO round 4 for the Warmaster.

As always, enjoy the fights!