MMA - Europa

Luke Barnatt: The Fighter's Path

It took the Berlin crowd about one-and-a-half minutes to realize that there wouldn’t be much to see down in the Octagon. Less than halfway through the first round, the electric energy among the eight thousand spectators was gone – boos started to rain down on Luke Barnatt and Sean Strickland as they were engaging in what looked more like a sparring match than a fight with implications for the UFC’s middleweight rankings.

Fifteen minutes later, one judge declared Barnatt the winner while the other two had made their cross next to Strickland’s name. Barnatt had planned to establish himself as the face of European MMA that night, now fans were forgetting his fight as he was walking back to the locker room – upset, disappointed and in utter disbelief. 

He’d have to get used to those feelings. Losing to Strickland in May of 2014 would be the beginning of a tough stretch for Barnatt that saw him drop three straight fights before eventually getting cut by the UFC. All that after winning his first three outings – finishing two of them after getting “Fight of the Night” honors in his debut.

Something obviously had gone terribly wrong to make a career that seemed destined to reach the top come crashing down in a hurry.

***

After a colleague invited him to try out MMA at Cambridge’s Tsunami Gym one day at work, Luke Barnatt found his passion on the mats like so many others who use face-punching and limb-cranking as an outlet after a draining day at the office. Soon, though, Barnatt’s growing interest wasn’t compatible anymore with the 12-hour days he was putting in behind a computer.

The then 21-year-old realized he was in for a tough decision: Continuing to press forward in the PR world that had given him everything he owned after dropping out of school at age 16 and working “a bunch of crappy jobs” to keep his head above water – or leaving it all behind to become a cage fighter.  
Barnatt committed partially at first, taking an amateur fight in which he got his jaw broken but that he won anyway. The experience, as deterring as it would’ve been for most, convinced Barnatt to give this thing a real shot.

He quit PR and moved into the gym, literally sleeping on the mats at night. It was when the eerie quiet set in at the usually so lively place when Barnatt realized that this was now his life. When the everyday hustle started again the next morning, Barnatt was the hardest-working guy in the room. This was everything he had, so every session was vital.

He soon learned that there was nothing glamorous about being a cage fighter: There was no physical comfort. Friends and family thought he was crazy and the relationship with his girlfriend broke under the mounting pressure.

But it paid off when the lights were on: Barnatt stepped into the cage, the ring or on to the mats every month, competing in MMA, Kickboxing, Boxing or Grappling and making up for his late start in a young man’s game.

Five professional fights into his career, Barnatt traded the chilly winds and cold mats of Cambridge for desert heat and a full-blown mansion in Las Vegas. As a cast member of season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter”, the UFC’s longstanding reality TV series, Barnatt got the chance to fast track his path to the top.

A 2-1 record inside the house got him a shot at a real UFC contract at the season finale and Barnatt made the most of it, decisioning Collin Hart: “It was crazy fast how I got to the UFC”, he said, “unbelievably quick.”

Once there, Barnatt took advantage of the big stage. After dispatching Hart at the TUF Finale, “Bigslow” took his fighting back to England, submitting Andrew Craig to end UFC Manchester’s “Fight of the Night” in October of 2013 before knocking out previously unstopped Swede Mats Nilsson at UFC London in February of 2014.

***

The second new start in Luke Barnatt’s life carried even more promise than the first. It would eventually kick him out of the UFC, make him hide in his bed and question fighting as a whole. 
Committing everything you have to a sport and, subsequently, to working with the people you share the same passion with, creates a bond that few can understand, a strange kind of comfort in a business that usually has no place for such feelings. 

That’s what the mats at Tsunami Gym that he trained and slept on as well as the people who punched him on them provided for Barnatt. Until he lost it, right before the first chapter of his career was ended on a nice, warm summer night in Berlin. 

“We were six guys that would come in from all over the country to train together, then one of them opened up his own gym, another one started training somewhere else and, you know, it just fell apart, bit by bit. I lost my home, I had nowhere to train, I lost my core training partners that I had grown up and learned everything with.”

Ever the perfectionist, Barnatt looked to make the best of the situation and secured a sponsorship deal that allowed him to fly out to Alliance MMA in California, home of high caliber names such as Dominick Cruz, Alexander Gustafsson and Phil Davis. As a young, aspiring fighter looking to gain experience for the spotlight outside of the spotlight, the San Diego based training center was more likely to push your limits and make you unfold your potential than any English gym anyway. 

So why did his career crumble in front of his eyes instead of reaching yet another next level?

Tucked in between Cruz, Davis, Gustafsson and the other stars, Barnatt was now one of many UFC fighters at Alliance, dropping in and out of the facility as its extensive class schedule told him to. It was like going from working for a family business to grinding away at a Corporation without any idea what to expect.

“Alliance is a great gym, but I didn’t have the home, I didn’t have the support network. I was living out of a suitcase, training every day in a new environment, new people, new coaches, new everything. I became a better fighter every day […] but my confidence just was shaken a little bit.”

“I won all three of my fights in the UFC that I was training at Tsunami for and I finished two of them and then the Gym fell apart.”

In the cage, Barnatt seemed to lack the killer instinct that had made him the force that he was in his first three UFC fights. 

He didn’t resemble the talented prospect he used to be, the one the crowd in the arena was always watching closely because a) something spectacular was bound to happen at any second and b) it was clear that this was someone who might end up in bigger, better fights a few short years down the road. Cause hey, it’s always nice to tell your friends you knew this guy was good before he made it big. 

Barnatt stopped being that guy when he let go of the wheel and took a back seat. “Bigslow” became another number in the gym and in the UFC, where his future went from shining bright to being an afterthought from the past. After capping off his three-fight losing streak with a defeat to Mark Muñoz in the UFC middleweight’s farewell fight, and subsequently being handed his walking papers, life stopped for Luke Barnatt. 

Publicly, his departure from the top went as smooth as it gets – Barnatt stated that he left on good terms with the UFC and that he knew the pink slip was coming. It’s all good, he promised, he’d be back. Within, though, he was seething. 

Barnatt had spent the last six years restarting his life from scratch, fully dedicating himself to this new adventure in and out of the spotlight, every hour of every day pursuing the realization of a dream that had now been taken away from him through a simple phone call. 

“I had no purpose”, Barnatt remembered the empty days, weeks and eventually months after being removed from the ranks of the elite. “A normal day for me was like, sleep in and wake up when I want to wake up, then I kind of just did… I was reactive, that’s the best way to describe it. I reacted. I woke up and anything that happened that day, I would react to it. I woke up and was like ‘Shit, what am I going to do today?’

Barnatt didn’t go to the gym anymore, stopped following the sport and let unread messages pile up on his social media accounts. “I did nothing. I sort of just forgot about the UFC […], I kind of ran away from it.”

Luke Barnatt the fighter was now a thing of the past.

Cutting his efforts to excel at the sport from a hundred to zero percent, though, proved liberating. He had removed himself from the day to day, fight to fight grind and finally got to soak in everything that had happened since he quit his job and moved into the gym. 

Six full years that had flown by without giving him any chance to reflect on how he changed his identity from a somewhat lost guy with an uncertain future to a celebrated elite athlete and back.
“I just went from one thing to the next thing to the next thing when I was fighting. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t care about it, I just did it.”

“I over concentrated on the MMA side. Everything I thought about every single day, I woke up and I thought about MMA. I basically lost half my life. When I was at Tsunami – when I quit my job and I moved in there – MMA was my whole life. It really was. All my friends where doing MMA.” 

“(By the time I went to the US), I had a much wider life and I was neglecting half of it. Now, I have to remember to do both sides. I’ve got family now and I’ve got to remember that. I can’t neglect it, because it doesn’t work like that. I was living my life like I was when I was 22 years old, living in the gym, when really my life had progressed and I hadn’t progressed with my life.”

***

Surprise, surprise: Barnatt has done it again. 

The third reset within six years took “Bigslow” back to the old world – after spending the better part of two years abroad next to California’s sunny beaches, Barnatt moved back home after his UFC release. 
Having to get used to England’s grey sky and cold rain again, though, didn’t sit well with him. And since Cambridge wasn’t his fighting home anymore and his mother was about to move country to Spain, Barnatt and his wife decided to join in and set up shop in the marvelous city of Málaga on Costa del Sol. 

After pretending the sport didn’t exist for half a year, Barnatt decided it was time to give his MMA dreams another go. In cooperation with Roger Gracie black belt Santeri Lilius, he opened his own MMA Academy and started training again: “I was like ‘Okay, I’m settled, I’ve got my wife, I’m happy, now let’s get back to this.’ And it took me a while to pick myself up.”

Now, he’s indeed back to work. On his own terms. Out of the spotlight, away from famous training partners and California’s bubbly MMA scene. 

“I’m starting to build my own support network, again. Completely from scratch. New people, but it’s my network of coaches, my network of people, they want me to succeed. And I think that that’s really all I need to be successful – is a good support network.”

Still, that’s only base camp, the road back to old heights and beyond has only just begun. “I’m still training hard, but not at the level that I left the UFC at”, Barnatt said, surprisingly honest given the notoriously exaggerating nature of pre-fight Interviews. “In a year, I just got back to where I was at.” 

All that despite winning two fights since December of last year, finishing both of them and capturing the Venator FC middleweight title in the process: “I’m still at the beginning of my game, just starting out. I’m a fresh young guy, I’ve got a fresh mindset and outlook and I’m ready to work hard for the next ten years or however long it takes for me to be the best I can be.”

***

Next up should’ve been a fight that very well could’ve gotten him back into the Octagon. At Venator FC III on May 21 at the PalaSesto in Milan, Italy, Barnatt is set to defend his title. That’s how “Bigslow” himself would describe his next task to you, making the sentence sound incomplete by leaving out the essential part of the bout that got the most coverage since it’s been announced: his opponent. 

Standing opposite the cage was supposed to be famed MMA and TV veteran Jason “Mayhem” Miller. 

Was supposed to…  At Friday’s weigh-in for the bout, Miller showed up at a staggering 209 pounds – 24 pounds above the limit for a middleweight title fight.  When we spoke with Barnatt, he was still in training camp at Phuket Top Team in Thailand. Even then, he wasn’t sure the fight against “Mayhem” was actually going to materialize, though weight problems were not exactly what he was worrying about at the time.   

For Barnatt, it wouldn’t have been the biggest surprise in the world if Miller’s various escapades, such as vandalizing a church while naked, being accused of domestic violence or having a SWAT team arresting him at home, had landed “Mayhem” on a No Fly list or two at some point along the way. Instead, it’d be the scale – of all things – that would take Miller out of the fight. 

 “I don’t know if he’s going to show up, I don’t even know if he’s training”, Barnatt said then. “He hasn’t fought in four years. I wasn’t around when this guy was in the UFC. So, for me, it’s hard to get motivated for that. I’m motivated for a fight, (not for an opponent). That’s how I’m looking at it.”

Turns out that was the exact right mindset. Luckily for Barnatt, May 21 was just another part of his own journey anyway. If “Mayhem” had shown up on fight night, great, then “Bigslow” might’ve gotten the most prestigious win of his career and made his way back to the UFC. Since he won’t show up, at least not for a title fight at middleweight, Barnatt will carry on regardless and make the best of the situation. Fighting, learning, enjoying life and being appreciative of what he has. 

“This next fight, against “Mayhem” Miller or whoever it is, will be the last fight of my amateur career”, Barnatt said. “Forget everything I’ve achieved or everything that I’ve done, UFC and everything – doesn’t mean anything. That was just practice, me learning the lessons that I need to learn. And now I know enough to really take advantage of my situation.” 

Stefan Croitoru, the new opponent for Saturday night, might present different problems in the cage than Miller, but that hasn’t changed the situation for Barnatt.

“I’m 28, I’m not even in the prime of my career yet and I’m going on to becoming a professional. I was an amateur before – I was making amateur mistakes every single week. Now, it’s time to take this game seriously. 28 years old. By the time I’m 32 I think I can be an absolute force and one of the top guys in the world.”

To realize that potential, he’ll have to fight the top dogs in the UFC. Barnatt is aware that he’ll only legitimately belong to the crème of the crop if he’s succeeding in the Octagon again, but he’ll take his time getting back there.

“I’ve already been in contact with the UFC a couple of times. When they let me go, we had a good chat about it […]. I feel like they already want me back and they’d take me back now, really. I’m a good representation for the company, I put on exciting fights and everyone was quite shocked when I got cut. Still, I’m taking it just one step at a time. If it comes, then great, then it’ll be on my terms now.”

On his terms means that Barnatt himself will decide when he’s ready. Instead of rushing as far as he can while losing sight of the rearview mirror, next time, it’s going to be systematical, professional, just on a new level altogether – he knows he can’t afford “amateur mistakes” anymore. 

“You can’t go leave, come back and leave again. Your second go is really your biggest go and I want to be a hundred percent ready. The first time I went in, off TUF, it was all just a bit of a dream, I was a young kid who wanted to fight, all I cared about was fighting and all I did was fight, fight, fight.”

Since it has all been taken away from him, Barnatt has matured, married, settled and become happy again – even if it’s all a work in progress and far from perfect yet: “I’m still building my life, I haven’t got a nice house, a nice car, but those things mean nothing to me. I’ve had amazing experiences over the last six years; the sport has given me everything in the way of travel, life, friends. Whatever I need, I’ve got from this sport and I’ve never regretted a single thing I’ve done, a single fight I’ve had.”

No regrets, stronger, better, more mature, reflecting and professional. “Bigslow” is ready – for triumph, failure and everything in between. Or an opponent coming in 24 pounds heavy.

“I know that it’s going to happen to me again in my life at some point – I’m going to go down and I’m going to pick myself up. And I have full faith in myself that, whatever life throws at me, whatever happens, I’m going to get back up. For now, I’m happy to just be fighting and living the life that I live. I’m just a happy guy.”

Finally, Luke Barnatt has a future again. Even if the present is still taking turns he wouldn’t have  expected.