Why Heavy Metal Is The Ultimate Soundtrack For Combat Sport Glory

Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett on his devotion to heavy metal and how it leads him to MMA greatness

Why Heavy Metal Is The Ultimate Soundtrack For Combat Sport Glory
Sam Law

Primal aggression. Visceral intensity. Ultimate catharsis. The key facets of combat sports and really heavy metal bear more than a passing similarity. Beyond the booming, high-octane butt-rock that’s so ubiquitous in MMA’s middle-American heartland, however, there is precious little overlap between the two ostensibly compatible worlds. UFC welterweight Matt Brown was famously at the Damageplan show where Dimebag Darrell lost his life, while current WWE Superstar Shayna Baszler came up in the octagon and is a devout metalhead. But none boast more metal cred than Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett.

The Seattle born, Montana educated behemoth became the youngest-ever UFC Heavyweight Champion in 2002 and has gone on to have illustrious runs with Pancrase, PRIDE, Sherdog, Strikeforce, and is currently awaiting his Bellator debut, boasting a career record of 35 wins in 43 fights with 29 stoppages for KO/submission. He’s also worked as a professional wrestler for TNA and New Japan, and recently even released his own Warbringer bourbon.

Nicknaming himself after the title-track to the third album from legendary Coventry death metallers Bolt Thrower and counting members of bands as varied as Nile, Every Time I Die and Primordial among his good friends, Josh is a card-carrying metal lifer. More than that, however, metal is a crucial fight-prep accompaniment – with him from the first moment he steps into the gym ’til the last before the bell rings. We sat down with the endlessly articulate brawler to discuss the symbiotic interrelationship between the worlds of gouging riffage and ground-and-pound…

Which interest came first: metal or combat sports?
“I honestly can’t say! Even as a kid, getting into little dust-ups was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t exactly ‘sport’. Combat sports as we know them nowadays didn’t even exist yet, really. Where I was living, it wasn’t something a young kid would even see a way to get involved in. But I loved kung-fu movies, action movies, all that stuff involving martial arts and combat. Either way, it worked out.”

You grew up in Seattle, a city famous for its grunge and alternative scene, but how exactly were you first exposed to rock and metal?
“It all came through this older kid I knew. He was the son of a family who’d babysit through the day, and he was big into heavy metal. I remember being fascinated by the T-shirts he would wear: Iron Maiden’s Killers, the Metallica Damage Inc. tour shirt. I didn’t know what any of that stuff was, but I knew it was the coolest shit I’d ever seen. I asked, and when I found out these were bands I knew I needed to listen to them. I started with Maiden, Judas Priest and Metallica, and graduated on up to the more extreme stuff I listen to today.”

When did you realise that fighting and heavy music went hand-in-hand?
“For me, there was never any other way. I actually enjoy a wide variety of music genres, but when it comes to fighting, metal stands out. There isn’t any better match for the combat sports environment than the intensity and aggression of metal. Of course, there was also an element of me realising that the soundtrack to every event, and almost every other fighter’s walk-out music was absolute garbage. I wanted to be one of the few voices bringing real, intense, powerful music into the fold – not just your run-of-the-mill pop-bro-metal or garbage rap and electronica.”

Do you feel that metal is under-represented in MMA, given it is such a logical fit of image and sound?
“I’d agree with that. I mean, if Drowning Pool got a nickel for every time Bodies was played at an event – from the smallest to the largest – then they would be billionaires by now. And you’ll hear songs like AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and Metallica’s Enter Sandman all the time. But it’s a real rarity to hear someone coming coming out with something less obvious [but equally fitting], like Greed Killing by Napalm Death or Aces High by Iron Maiden or, like me, coming out to Bolt Thrower. I remember meeting Sean Drover, who was drumming for Megadeth at the time, and he asked me if he’d heard right: he thought walking out to Bolt Thrower’s [The IVth Crusade] was absolutely insane. But I can’t think of anything more representative of going to war than the music of Bolt Thrower. So yes, it’s highly under-represented!”

Is there a reason for that?
“There is an aspect of it where large corporations and organisations involved in the background will tell you that that’s not what they want at their event. My answer to those people is always the same: ‘Play my song or I come out to dead silence. Don’t play a damn note of anything else.’”

In sports psychology, there is something of a split between experts who see the benefit of heavy music as a tool to get psyched up, and those who feel the chaos of it isn’t conducive to the focus needed in the ring. What’s your take?
“I think it all comes down to the individual. I’m sure there are people out there who would actually benefit from having no music in their ears at all. When it comes to what music you’re listening to getting ready or walking to the ring, you choose what puts you in the right headspace. In that sense, there really is no wrong choice. Maybe 60 per cent of people could benefit from listening to James Brown, and the other 40 per cent from listening to something like Nile. But then there could be that one person who needs to listen to The Dillinger Escape Plan. There are no absolutes. It’s about who you are as a person.”

Do you think that the chaos can be distracting, or does the distillation of ostensibly chaotic sound into complex song structures actually help you bring focus to that chaos in the ring?
“It depends. Firstly, those people who argue that all metal is chaotic don’t know shit about metal. If you think all metal is chaotic, then you must think the same of all classical music. Of course, there are subgenres and specific bands that are way more chaotic than others, and that absolutely might be what some individuals need to put themselves into the most effective, efficient headset. But there are all sorts of differences like that between fighters. I’m very calm before I get into the cage, I don’t get nervous at all, and I know other fighters who’re almost embarrassed by the fact they get crazy-nervous. I say that doesn’t matter. If that nervousness narrows your focus and gets you to the place you need to be then embrace it. Just don’t let it run too far. Personally, I don’t listen to chaotic music on the day of a fight. I listen to music that centres me on the target I’m working towards that night, and my broader goals beyond that. It’s about getting myself to that place I’m not allowed to go to every day.”

In the grand scheme of things, you’ve had an unusual amount of success as a fighter. Could you attribute your reactions to metal – mental, emotional and physiological – to that success?
“Being really specific, it’s about what metal does when you’re getting ready to go into action. It’s about the ability of metal to reach through to your shadow side. It’s something that needs to be brought through into your life generally, and incorporated healthily, but it’s a particularly helpful driving element for approaching occasions of action and violence. Metal is full of themes of battle and death and war. These are things from the darker side of humanity, but they’re things that are absolute. That doesn’t change whether they’re things you experience first-hand or they’re things happening 1,000 miles away. They’re inseparable from human existence. When I’m getting into a cage, it’s the closest I can get to that brutal, chaotic element. Metal helps me discard the elements of my persona needed for dealing with the inane aspects of everyday life, which aren’t useful when you’re getting into a fight. Metal helps me get aligned with that [primal] feeling deep in my gut.”

Culturally, there is a similarity in how metal and MMA culture have been marginalised, by some elements of society, as brutal and oafish despite having a far deeper catharsis and complexity. Does that commonality feed into the appeal for you?
“Yes, to an extent. But I personally have no interest in converting those people. I’m not trying to be elitist, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that not everything is for everyone. That’s fine. There are things in life that you’ll want to get into that appeal to you that don’t to others. Maybe you’ll be glad that that delineation exists because it separates you from the type of people you don’t really want to hang out with. If you think that MMA is brutish, that’s cool, just don’t watch. If you don’t like metal, don’t listen. But stay the fuck out of my sport and stay away from my music. Just go and do what you want to do. If you’re interested in getting a better understanding of those things, though – even if that’s just an understanding of why they’re not for you – I’m totally welcoming!”

Touching back to what you said about getting focused on the day of a fight, what are the differences between your work-out, psych-up and chill-out playlists? Are different subgenres better for different occasions?
“Working out, it runs a whole gamut that really depends on what I feel like on any given day. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself listening to Melvins’ A Walk With Love & Death, which is more experimental than a lot of metal. Much of the time, I’ll listen to political and philosophical lectures to keep me engaged. But a lot more of the time it’ll be full-on Watain, Marduk and Goatwhore to get me pulling the handles off whatever I’m lifting and peeling the weights apart. On the day of the fight, I’ll make a very specific playlist. They’ll be songs that tap into a very specific mindset of who I am and what I need to do. They’ll be songs that get me as accustomed to and comfortable with the idea of death as possible: those heroic, tragic, violent narratives. Songs about being done with caring about life any more.”

Can you give us a few examples of songs from that playlist?
“It runs from Unleashed’s This Day Belongs To Me to Slayer’s Raining Blood to Primordial’s Bloodied Yet Unbowed. Bathory’s A Fine Day To Die – or Watain’s cover of it. Amon Amarth’s Valhalla Awaits Me. Black Dahlia Murder’s Warborn. Watain’s Creeping Death. Every Time I Die’s Revival Mode, which is a tragic song, but really speaks to me in a lot of ways. It finishes with Bolt Thrower’s For Victory. That will always be the last song I listen to before my entrance music hits.”

Speaking of Every Time I Die, their guitarist Andy Williams is currently a professional wrestler in AEW. Do you have a relationship with him?
“I know Andy very well, and actually train with him from time to time in pro-wrestling. What do I think of someone crossing the other way, from music into combat sports? I think it’s great. I remember leaning on him to properly get into wrestling. Every now and again I remind him of how I was involved in getting him to where he is today, and that he should keep listening to me (laughs).”

If you had to select a metal song from the last decade as your new walk-out track, which would you choose and why?
“I think that Watain’s All That May Bleed would be a pretty killer choice. Maybe Bloodied Yet Unbowed, though it has such a long intro. Maybe Marduk’s The Last Fallen… There’s a line in that song – ‘One creed above the mud / One creed: sweat saves blood!’ – that’s something we’ve said in the gym for so long. The more you train, the better you get. The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle. If I’m ‘The Last Fallen’, that’s okay, this is what I’ve prepared for. You can never discount a sick riff, a driving beat, and the whole cadence of the song. For me, lyrics really do matter, too. I’ll often sing along as I walk to the ring.”

You mentioned on the Joe Rogan podcast that Nile invited you onstage to sing Black Seeds Of Vengeance a while back. How does the energy of a metal show – onstage and in the pit – compare to that in the cage?
“It doesn’t, honestly. There is a big overlap in terms of being at a live event where people are really fired-up – and being onstage with Nile was a huge adrenaline-dump – but it’s different. Getting onstage like that isn’t my wheelhouse – it’s not something I train to do! But I’ve gotten up there with Nile a couple of times since, and I’ve been trying to find a video of it with my friend AJ who runs Valhalla Jiu-Jitsu, because I sounded pretty fucking good that last time. Onstage there is a framework to adhere to for what people want to hear: notes and chords and song structures. That’s not something I’m interested in in the ring.”

Finally, what message would you send to metal fans looking to get into fitness/MMA – or vice-versa?
“I would tell them not to hesitate! Metal is a great portal for expressing and exploring – from a Jungian perspective – that shadow self within. It’s a great way to process that pent-up aggression and anger. But, more than that, it’s great for generating aggression to express in a positive, productive way. That doesn’t need to be spinning around and setting things on fire – although that can be a good time. It could be about building your body, building some shelves, building a car, or even just building a space for you and your friends to come together for a night to drink some whiskey and share some good times. There’s metal out there where you can learn about world history. There’s metal out there where you can get lost in the realms of fantasy. There’s metal that’s incredibly complex. There’s metal that’s short and simple and blistering. Metal or MMA: it’s about finding the avenue that works for you and not hesitating in going down it. Even if that sucks and I make fun of you for it, it’s absolutely fine! Always remember: it doesn’t matter where you start; it matters where you finish!”

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