JoshBarnett was a directionless college student at the University of Montana when someone first mentioned the name Jim Harrison tohim. It wasn't exactly arecommendation. It was more like, here's someone you might get along with, now leave us alone.
"I was just studying general college bulls--t," Barnett says now. "I hadn't reallyfigured out what I wanted todo, but I knew for a fact that I wantedto fight. That had been something I intended todo since I saw UFC 4. I told myself I
but I was going tomake it happen."
He'd wrestled and studied a little bit of kickboxing before leaving his home in Washington to come to Montana for school, but he was having trouble finding anyone in the small townof Missoula or in the university martial arts clubs who were as serious about fighting as he was.
Or, as Harrison, puts it: "He was just meaner than everybodyelse. One of the instructors [at the University of Montana] told him, 'Whydon't you go workout with Harrison? He's a barbarian too.' We shared a laugh over that."
If you're looking for the 75-year-old Harrison now, you canfind him anynight of the week inside Sakura Warrior Arts at the base of the south hills of Missoula. He doesn't move quite like he used to, thanks to knee surgeries and a life full of combat sports. His face bears years worth of scar tissue, andwhen he puts his hand down flat on his desk, his gnarled fingers all seem to point in different directions -- leftover reminders of the days when he trained on thin, horsehair mats in makeshift gyms, he says.
Sakura is a small gym with a distinctly Japanese feel to the architecture, but just inside the front door is a yellowed reminder of the school's most famous student.
"Congratulations Josh Barnett," reads an ad that Harrisonplaced in the local newspaper, the Missoulian, backin 2002, after Barnett defeated Randy Couture for the heavyweight title. "World UFC champion. United Fighting Challenge."
By the time Barnett first walkedintothis gym in 1996, Harrison hadalreadydone enough living for several lifetimes. As a child in California during World War II, he saw a judo demonstration where a little girl threw her older, bigger brother aroundthe mats, and he decidedthat he had to learn whatever it was that this little girl knew.
told me, 'No round-eyes,'" he chuckles now. Though his family moved aroundduring the war, following one manufacturing job after another, Harrison always made it a point to find alocal YMCA where he could pick up some new martial arts skills, often from teachers who had themselves only just learned the techniques. They learned judo from Japanese populations that hadbeen moved around bythe American policy of internment, and learned karate out of abook.
Or at least, theythought they learned it, mostly byimitating the pictures.
"One day this big guywalked in and said, 'Does anybody here do karate?'" Harrison recalls. "We said, 'Hell no, we can't even say it right.'We'd beencalling it kay-rate, because that's what it looked like in the book."
He eventuallysettled at one gym inSt. Louis, but in order to become a blackbelt the school required him togodown and help out at a local biker bar where the head instructor worked as a bouncer. There, Harrison says, is where he learned toput his martial arts skills to practical use.
"You can imagine, I was about 19, skinny kid, walking upto a table full of bikers and telling them that theyhad to quiet down. I finally learned youhad tohit two guys first, quick as you could, then hope the rest of the bouncers got there intime to pull the others off you."
Because of his martial arts background, Harrisongot a jobas a bodyguard for the mayor of St. Louis, whichlater ledto him joining the police force as a member of a special felony warrants squad.
"Our captain toldus, 'When we send youout on awarrant, we want you tobring them back. You can bring them backon their feet or you can bring them back feet first. Just bring them back, and be careful because some of youwill get brought back feet first too.'"
Harrisondidn't know how serious he was until one day when he and several other officers went toserve a warrant on a particularly dangerous suspect. He was said tobe taking refuge in a bar, but theycouldn't find him anywhere as theysearched the place. Harrison went tocheckthe bathroom, and as he reached to turn the doorknob four .45 slugs came tearing through the door and into his chest.
Harrisonwas slammedagainst the wall behind him and slid down as four more slugs flew just
saw the dim shadow of a second suspect coming tofinishhim off.
"I couldn't get to my .38, but I had my.25
I just saw a blur andI caught him in the throat and right below the eye."
The other suspect ranout the backdoor and was shot downby one of Harrison's partners. Once the paramedics arrived on the scene, Harrisonseemed all but dead already.
"I can remember kind of an out-of-body experience, looking down and watching them work on me. I remember hearing them say, 'Well, the cop's had it. Wheel them both down to the morgue.' I was trying to say, 'Hey, I'm not dead you sons of b----es!' But of course I couldn't say anything."
Harrisonwoke up in the hospital later, alive "but not exactlykicking," he says.
Harrisonwouldeventuallyfind notoriety on what he terms the "blood-and-guts era" of the American full contact karate circuit. He was a three-time national karate champion and a light heavyweight kickboxing champ before he eventuallyrelocatedto Missoula toopen his own gym. That's where in 1996, he first met Barnett.
"We reallyconnected, almost the very first night," Harrison says. "He came towatch class and afterwards he told me, 'I can't afford topay for your classes, but I'll mow the grass, mop up, clean toilets, dowhatever I have to do to train here.'"
Barnett trainedwith Harrison "as much as I possiblycould," he says. When he went backto Washington over winter break, he managedto get his first MMA fight through AMC Pankration in Seattle. He was still one of the least experienced fighters there, but he won via rear naked choke and raised a few eyebrows in the process.
"I went backto school and started fighting anyone I couldfind under any circumstances --of course, an agreed-upon fight -- but basically bare-knuckling it up at the [Universityof Montana] Rec Center."
The school gym had some old mats laid out next to the indoor basketball courts, mainlyfor the school's judo club to use.
"I wouldjust sit there and fight people onthose mats all the time. People would stop playing basketball and would just hang on the nets and watch. Surprisingly, no one ever said anything. ...For some reason, noone thought twice about guys picking up and slamming eachother and landing 12-to-6 elbows to the back of the head. Just university athletics, I guess. I just wanted to fight as much as possible andget as much experience as possible."
But as school held less and less interest for him and he got more offers to fight, Barnett stood at acrossroads. If he wanted to be a real professional, Harrison told him, he needed to train with other professionals. Harrison
Seattle, andBarnett eventuallytook his advice.
"He told me that if I wanted tobe a professional fighter, that's where I needed to be," Barnett says. "I needed tobe in a gym withother like-minded people, learning those techniques and making those connections. So I went there with his blessing and started training in Seattle."
Once there, Barnett tookhis training andhis fighting career tothe next level. He had three fights in his first year as a pro, winning them all, but he never forget what he'd learned at Sakura, he says.
"Mr. Harrison has been so influential on me as a fighter. It's the mentality. The training mentality, fighting mentality. Just that focus and, I hate to saymeanness, but yeah, he's a guy people are scared todeath of, and he's alsoan amazing person. He's a person I really look up to."
Harrisonfollowed Barnett's career as best as he could while still being "computer ignorant," he says. "I'm still using smoke signals and the pony express," he jokes.
He watched Barnett through the ups and the downs, including the failed steroid test after his victory over Couture, which Harrison still insists ontaking some responsibilityfor.
"I had all my guys taking DHEA [supplements]," he explains. "That can come up positive in steroid tests, but I didn't know that then."
RecentlyBarnett reconnected with Harrison whenhe was back in Missoula for a friend's wedding, and the two sharedanemotional reunion.
"It was a very personal moment for me. It had
muchhad happened," says Barnett.
As they sat down todinner one night, what Harrisonwantedto know was what had happened in Barnett's secondfight with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in Pride.
"He looked at me and said, 'You know,'" Harrisonsays. "I said, 'Yeah, I know. But youtell me.' He said, 'I got myshoulder fixed, trained real hard, workedhardand came back, didn't take any warm-up fights. Then I got myass kicked for real.'"
Ever the sensei, Harrison couldn't resist telling his former student where he'd gone wrong.
"You don't take a fight like that with no warm-up," he says. "You just don't do it."
With Barnett set to fight in the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prixon Saturdaynight in Cincinnati, Harrison says he'll watch"evenif I have to breakintoa TV store."
And while he likes Barnett's chances towin the whole tournament, he's still not sure if that will landBarnett backin the UFC, considering the rocky relationship betweenBarnett and UFC president Dana White, whoHarrison has very few kind words for, even now.
Wherever Barnett's career leads him, Harrison says, he's proud to have playeda role in his development. He just hopes he remembers the mixof humilityandbrutality he tries to instill in all his students.
"Like I tell my guys, if you're good, you don't have to go around telling everybody," he says. "You can let them tell you."