The date: March 22, 2002. The place: The MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. In the main event of UFC 36, a fast-rising star from the Seattle area named Josh Barnett rolled over Randy Couture and claimed the UFC heavyweight title.
Way down on the preliminary card, 22-year-old Frank Mir improved his record to 4-0 with a quick submission victory over veteran Pete Williams.
Somewhere down the road, the duo seemed destined to collide. But little did anyone know at the time that the showdown would be 11 years in the making.
Barnett, as it turns out, hasn't fought for the UFC since. An acrimonious parting of the ways between the hard-headed star and strong-willed promoter Dana White, a scene that would be repeated more than once over the years, kept one of the sport's best heavyweights off MMA's biggest stage for more than a decade.
But MMA's most successful lone wolf goes back to work for the big machine on Aug. 31 when he meets fellow former champion Mir in the co-main event of UFC 164 in Milwaukee.
"Well, first time around, I went all the way to the top and won the heavyweight championship of the world," the 35-year-old Barnett (32-6) said. "I don't expect any different, other than to probably get paid a lot more money and get a lot more stardom and fandom out of this whole thing."
In the interim, Barnett was content to do his own thing. Few fighters played the business end of the game as well as Barnett as he stayed a step ahead of the game and moved from one big contract to the next: From Japan's legendary PRIDE promotion, to high-paying wannabe promoters Affliction, to Strikeforce. Barnett even did a stint as a pro wrestler in Japan along the way.
As promotions came and went, though, the options for Josh Barnett to get paid were whittled down to the UFC and, well, the UFC. So Barnett let the practical businessman inside him win out over the sand-kicking contrarian.
"It's just negotiations, like anything else," Barnett said of his return to the company.
"There's really nothing special to it. One person says I'll give you five fights, another says I want 10, and it all gets worked out eventually in the end. A lot of paper gets pushed around, pencils are moved, some are dropped if there are hot chicks in the room, and you want to see them pick them up."
How would this fight have gone back in the day? Even Mir is willing to concede he was a far less complete fighter in 2002 than he became during his prime.
"I think if we would have fought back then, I would have given the fight to Josh," Mir said. "I think mentally I wasn't as prepared and as strong as Josh having a very strong mindset."
As for today? Well, that's a different story.
Both fighters were tossed around by Daniel Cormier: Barnett for five rounds in losing the Strikeforce heavyweight title tournament in May 2012; and Mir for three rounds in April, for his second straight loss.
So both will likely come out with a sense of urgency in this fight.
"The winner, I guess if they want they can brag all the way I suppose, if that's the route they want to take," Barnett said. "But when it comes to the heavyweight division there's, you don't really know how things are going to turn out until after the fights have all been done and the dust has settled."
Barnett, inevitably, is asked to compare the UFC of today, a network television property in which the most successful fighters earn endorsements from top-line companies, to the bad old days, in which the sport was banned from pay-per-view television.
"I fought when there was no money for fighting, really," Barnett said. "I fought when you couldn't even buy MMA gear at your local sports store or whatever. We had to make it ourselves. I fought when most of the time we didn't even wear gloves. ... there really wasn't audience hardly, there wasn't much fame. The only reason to do it was because you just had a never-ending desire to bathe in blood."
That's a bit of Barnett's pro wrestling-style schtick, which flashes through to the point of corniness from time to time. But Barnett is dead serious about the change in motivation he's seen from fighters today, as opposed to when he broke in.
"I think that a lot of guys fight not for the reasons that we used to fight for," Barnett said. "And that there's a lot of guys that get in here and they just want to get in and think they're famous, make a lot of money, what have you. They fight for the glory and we fought for blood and for honor."
Fair enough. But what about his old boss and antagonist, White? Barnett says he's looking forward to a rendezvous.
"I haven't seen him in a little while, he's been busy traveling around," Barnett said. But I think we've got a tentative date to go out and maybe catch a movie and hang out and get a couples massage."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA
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