In the worlds of both combat sports and heavy metal, former UFC heavyweight champion, Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett, is a name familiar with millions of fans. As an athlete, a twenty+ year career has seen Barnett compete at the highest level in disciplines from judo to MMA to, more recently, bare-knuckle boxing while, as a metal fan, Barnett has been known to walk out to eardrum-shattering anthems from Bolthrower and Behemoth, and includes Swedish war metal titans Amon Amarth amongst his friends.
Bringing the two worlds together, The Warmaster recently announced the return of his blood, spit and tears professional wrestling show Bloodsport. Taking place with two shows on February 13th and February 20th, MMA meets professional wrestling for two events which Barnett promises will be “the most intense, physical, and groundbreaking event in years.”
Ahead of the events, we had a chat with The Warmaster about a whole range of subjects from his love of death metal, how he got into combat sports, working with Josh Middleton from Sylosis on the soundtrack and, of course, what fight fans can expect from the shows in February.
Thanks for your time Josh. How’re things going at the moment?
Josh Barnett: “Going pretty well at the moment, all things considered. Last year was the busiest I’ve can remember in I don’t know how long, and this year is shaping up to be pretty damn busy itself.”
You’ve just announced your Bloodsport 4&5 shows in the next few weeks. What can wrestling fans expect from the events and how will they differ from other wrestling shows?
“It’ll differ from other wrestling shows in the same we always have. We are stripped down. We are almost entirely gimmick-free. We are just raw. It’s just the wrestlers out there letting their fists do the talking for them. This is a return to a more pure state of professional wrestling and I truly do feel like that this is the hardest hitting wrestling event in the world. It’s that kind of knock-down, drag-em-out smash mouth, whatever adjective you want to use, it applies to this event. With Bloodsport 4 & 5, the difference being with the pandemic and everything, we took a little bit of a different route on the presentation and the aesthetics but it’s still in line with the purity of combat as it always has been.”
You say you’ve taken a different route, could you expand on that a bit?
“Well, we weren’t able to have an audience so, that being said, while you lose out on the benefits of having an audience, it also allows you to conduct things in a different environment. That is exactly what we did. With our ability to control the environment a lot more, we figured we take advantage of that and it allowed us to put together two shows that way.”
You’ve hand-picked the wrestlers again. What was your criteria?
“I want people with proper backgrounds and capabilities in combat sports. I also want to see people with the right mindset and the right guts. It’s got to be the heart. If you don’t have the heart to go out there and see your own blood coming across your eyes but keep charging forward then this really isn’t a place for you.”
Have you looked beyond the two shows coming up? What are your long-term plans?
“Keep pushing forward and keeping booking events. I do intend to have events with an audience again but that also depends on what is going on in the world at the time. This isn’t a permanent change in terms of audience or no audience so, whenever we can, and the capabilities to make this a bigger and better product, we’re going to do it. That’s not just a matter of the aesthetics, it’s also being able to have a larger audience, more cards throughout the year, then we’re going to do it.”
Any plans when life returns to normal to take it outside the U.S and bring it to Europe and the U.K?
“There are actually plans to take it to the UK and possibly Japan. We would love to bring Bloodsport to as many places as we can. There is lots of great talent over in Europe at large.”
Going back to the beginning of your sporting life, what was your introduction to combat sport?
“My initial introduction was watching professional wrestling on television and boxing. As an amateur wrestler and training in Judo really opened my eyes to the idea of being a competitor in combat sport, not just someone who was a passive watcher. From there it just blossomed because, as much as I could see where this road could take you, I was willing to keep travelling. I kept going with as much as I could and, even at twenty-four years, I just had my first bare-knuckle boxing match in October last year so the adventure, the want to keep travelling the world and find myself in different environments and go to war with folks is still there whether it is wrestling, bare-knuckle boxing, MMA, whatever.”
I watched that brutal bare-knuckle fight the other night. Was that your first bare-knuckle fight?
“It was my first bare-knuckle boxing fight. Back in the day, there was the early MMA stuff, stuff that’s not from any formal events or sanctioned, so I’ve fought bare-knuckle before. This was my first bare-knuckle boxing match though. What did I get from it? The feeling of being alive and being in something that had such stakes involved. I called the person the night before I went into the ring. I told him I was glad it was a video call because I might not look like this next time you see me. To me, that was what was worth doing it. I loved it.”
Any plans to follow it up?
“Yep. I’m open to it, it just depends on how things and timelines are and what else is going on around me.”
Speaking of other plans, you recently threw your name into the octagon to fight Fedor Emelianenko in his final fight. What was the reaction to that offer from Bellator and Fedor himself?
“I’m not aware of what Fedor or Bellator think about it but, to me, it was the only fight worth making. We’re both obviously long in the tooth but we’re both people who have been orbiting each other for a long time so it’s about time it finally happens and if it happens before either one of us calls it good. My understanding is that he caught COVID-19 and I hope he is feeling a whole lot better and already at the end of that difficulty. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t fight to be honest and, if it doesn’t work for him or his management then it is what it is. He doesn’t owe me anything, it’s just simply a desire of me.”
Finally on the sports side of things, you gave your thoughts about Conor McGregor’s retirement from MMA a couple of years ago, I just wondered what your thoughts were on his return last month?
“The thing about Conor is, and it’s often overlooked, is that it’s not even his fights per se. It is his pushing on the standards of the restrictions of the contractual base of things. By him going out there and being allowed to box it was an illustration of not only someone being allowed to have control over their own career path but also the fact that there are different ways of monetizing fights. When it comes to the difference between boxing and MMA, there are times when the pay scale is sometimes better in MMA than boxing but, at the upper echelons, it is far more in the boxing favour because you don’t just make more money, you make more money because you’re allowed to monetize the things that are based on participation. So, if more tickets are bought, more PPV’s are bought, more merchandise is bought, more drinks and food are eaten at the arena, you get paid for it. That’s the point. You’re promoting a match between Fighter A and Fighter B and, if that fight drives up the interest of the people, then pay the fighters for it. I think that is the most important part of what Conor has done is to have enough leverage to break out of the restrictive paradigm that is the general MMA contract and contractual business side of things in MMA.”
Do you think part of the problem is that no matter how big brands like UFC get, MMA is always seen as a niche sport and will never have the mainstream appeal of boxing?
“I think that the problem is that, if they don’t build up the people as much as they build up the brand, it stays more niche. You also run the problem of over-saturation which I think it has hit at for a while now. That’s not just UFC, that’s MMA in general but, hard to say. The UFC was purchased for like two billion dollars so, it can’t be that niche.”
Let’s talk about your other passion. Metal. Linking in with Bloodsport, you worked with Josh from Sylosis. How did that partnership come about?
“Yes, that would be all to do with Adam Foster and 5B Artist Management and that’s also a huge reason for the production level and some of the aspects of Bloodsport being taken to the next level is due to Adam and 5B Artist Management. To have such a talented artist like Josh from Sylosis create music for these products is really incredible as you don’t normally get access to things like that. I’m lucky that in my own history I’ve had Joel from Toxic Holocaust do stuff for me and I’m also friends with a lot of people in the metal industry so I’m very fortunate. It also makes me that more appreciative when someone like Josh is willing to put their pen to paper and write something for me. It’s not something you really get access to that often.”
Is it a partnership you can see being built on in the future?
“Yeah, I’m totally down for it. I don’t know who else is going to want to throw their hat in the ring to create music for us but the main thing is that we’re keeping it as metal as possible.”
Absolutely. Your love of metal is well documented. Going back to the beginning, which band was it that turned you on to metal?
“I would probably say Iron Maiden. They were the ones that really got me going. In my youth, I was born in ’77, the first Wave of British Heavy Metal was what really hit us. That really left a lasting impression especially because of seeing things like and Iron Maiden “Killers” t-shirt for the first time and being blown away. I didn’t know what the hell it was but I knew that was cool. I needed to find out what that was all about.”
What about hair metal? Did that get any interest from you at all?
“I liked it at the time, then I grew out of it because I thought it sucked, then I came back to it and realised that this stuff was actually a lot better than people tried to paint it. [laugh]. A lot of the folks involved were way better musicians than people expected or credit. Listening to Dokken or Ratt or something like Motley Crue when Shout At The Devil came out that was terrifying to parents. So, it’s interesting to look at it and think about it from what it was like back then. This was pretty monumental. It was like hearing my parents tell me about seeing Black Sabbath open for Mountain in 1969 and seeing people freaking out at Black Sabbath.”
You also had a childhood passion for Dungeons & Dragons. Couple that with your love of Bolthrower as well as bands like Iron Maiden and Amon Amarth, would it be a fair assumption to make that you like bands that have a strong visual/fantasy element too?
“I think somewhat yeah, it has a strong aesthetic to it which I was drawn to. The first reason I looked at a Bolthrower CD was because one, it said Bolthrower, and I thought that sounded like Warhammer 40K and I looked at the artwork and it was Warhammer stuff so I definitely wanted to listen to it. Then I popped the tape in and, holy shit, that is something else. What the hell is that coming out of my speakers. Same with Iron Maiden. I liked metal from every genre pretty much. Just last night I was listening to Eternal Champion, which I find pretty good. I’ve just found a band called Smoulder, new wave of traditional heavy metal. I also love black metal and death metal and all the extreme variants so, sign me up, if its metal, I’m usually into it.”
What about the new bands, are there any new bands doing it for you?
“Honestly? I’m all over the place. I’ll go and delve through Bandcamp for Black Metal stuff because black metal is still very DIY and still touching the underground in a way that some of the other genres aren’t maybe as much. Then I’ll just go on a classical rampage and be listening to nothing but Mercyful Fate and King Diamond for weeks on end. Recently I’ve sent stuff like Tomb Mold. Void Meditation Cult. Kraft. They’re not necessarily new or anything. Temple Of Void – some death metal stuff there. There is a new Nocturnal Graves album on Bandcamp.”
There has been a bit of resurgence of old-school, traditional death metal bands…
“Yeah, there is a band called Gruesome who sounds like if Death was still making albums. My taste depends on my mood. Something will catch my ear and, boom, that’s where I will end up [laughs]. I do like to cruise Spotify and YouTube. YouTube is handy because there is a couple of accounts – one on Dungeon Synth I listen to. I just discovered a project called Gatemaster which is pretty awesome out of the UK. I’ll get on the channels like there is a black metal channel that constantly puts up albums for you to sample. That’s pretty fun because you can dig through back to their Bandcamp’s and buy the album if you like it which I often do.”
I know a lot of people don’t like Spotify for good reason but their related artist section is fantastic for discovering new bands…
“I’ll agree with that. I get why people get upset with Spotify over the payments and I agree, I’m on the band’s side with that. Discovery is great and discovery on Spotify along with the ease of sharing music is fantastic. I hope that people take more of an effect like I do and go out and buy stuff. I don’t know how much money I spend on music a year but it always exceeds what I get given.”
Given that you grew up in the era of the NWOBHM, were you involved in tape-trading?
“On a small scale, I never got into the mailing stuff off to people but me and my friends would constantly swap tapes. Someone would bring something new to the equation and we’d all sit around and see what we thought about it. I think I did more trading when it came to professional wrestling stuff because it was so hard to get some of the things out of Japan so I would buy tapes. That was of that era. If you were from the ’80s and ’90s you would be digging and searching, trading, you’d do anything you could to get hold of stuff. It wasn’t as accessible. There was also a great used media store in the University District in Seattle and I would find CDs, tapes, I’d find VHS tapes of weird horror flicks, who knows what. I would dig through it all the time to find some gems.”
Going back to UFC for a minute, Dana White was very vocal recently about digital piracy. What is your take on the whole subject?
“I’m absolutely anti-piracy. I want creators to get paid. Technically, whether you love him or hate him, Dana White is a creator, he’s a publisher, he’s a producer so he’s the one putting his money up to put these fights on. Yes, we can get into the details of how the athletes should get taken care of and contractually what should and shouldn’t be happening but, at the very base level of it all, if I listen to a Primordial album on Spotify, I’m gonna go out and buy the CD. I’m gonna buy merch. I’m gonna do whatever I can to support the band or the media or whatever it is I like. Back when we just didn’t have access to certain things, it’s a different story. Someone was buying it somewhere. It was then being sold again and again and again although, back in 1989, if I bought an Anime tape from Japan that would be like seventy-five dollars in Japan. Someone spent that dollar and it ended up in America being sold for twenty dollars. At the end of the day, if I didn’t have access to it in the first place, the tape-trading was creating a market for this stuff. I think you see it these days in the DVD and Blu-Ray releases that come out nowadays and people are buying stuff they watched a long time ago that we had on VHS. When it comes to music and media I buy it. I try to live by the ethos that if I really like something and I really want there to be more of it then I have to vote with my dollar.”
Onto your walkout music then. You’ve walked out to Bolthrower and Behemoth. You’ve also talked about being “in the moment” when you fight. What’s going through your mind as you walk out and those songs kick in?
“Honestly? Nothing fit to print [laughs]. A state of raw being and violence.”
I’ll ask this knowing that you’re far enough away not to smash my face in but, going back to the hair metal scene of the ’80s, were you a spandex and poodle perm man?
“[laughs]. I never had a poodle haircut. I had a bit of a mullet with a bit of a poodle haircut for a bit. I never had any spandex though. In fact, I became more of a spandex man in my adulthood than in my youth. I guess I missed my calling because a good portion of my closet at this point is filled full of spandex for training [laughs]. Born in the wrong era I guess? I was never much of a poodle haircut guy but, everything had its place. Back then it was Maiden, Priest, and AC/DC with Bon Scott and Metallica. I remember Slayer‘s Show No Mercy, that album scared me as a kid. Can you imagine being scared by music these days? I hope some people are but, back then, reading the lyrics in the booklet alongside whatever you’re listening to and thinking “oh shit”, that’s what it was like.”
Okay Josh, it’s been great talking to you, thanks for your time. Just for fight and metal fans tuning in next week, do you have anything you want to say?
“If you guys are fans of professional wrestling in any sense, not just Bloodsport, this will scratch an itch. It is stripping it away and distilling it down to its purest essence. These athletes are really laying it on the line and I really believe we’re putting out absolutely some of the best content and matches in professional wrestling which you won’t find anywhere else so Bloodsport.watch is where you can watch these events and they won’t break the bank either. You can buy both for thirty bucks which is cheaper than any pay-per-view out there and we deliver twice as much.”
For more information and tickets for Bloodsport, visit Bloodsport.watch