Throughout his 14-fight UFC career, Bryan Barberena has crafted a reputation as a grimy, hard-nosed competitor that tends to find himself engaged in knock down, drag out battles that finish on the "Fight of the Night" podium.
He's claimed the post-fight honors four times, including in his win over Matt Brown in March, while having yet to garner a single "Performance of the Night" bonus, though that might just be because he didn't know he was allowed to pursue that option.
"I have these talks with my coach a lot and the last one, he said to me, 'I don't know if I've ever told you, but you have my permission to finish fight early; you don't have to have these wars and things like that,'" said Barberena (17-8 MMA, 8-6 UFC), laughing at the recollection just a few days ahead of his UFC 276 clash with Robbie Lawler (29-15 MMA, 14-9 UFC). "He said, 'I don't think I've ever said it, but you have my permission, so if you ever wanted to do that, you can go ahead and do that. Let's go for a 'Performance of the Night' and not a Fight of the Night.'"
In addition to finally having permission to chase a quick finish and a bonus that tends to recognize those kinds of efforts, the 33-year-old veteran is also at a point in his career where everything is lining up correctly for him.
Saturday's meeting with the former welterweight champion will be Barberena's second appearance of the year and fourth in the last 12 months after being forced to withdraw from a matchup with Daniel Rodriguez in November 2020 and undergo an emergency laparotomy to address internal bleeding caused by ruptured arteries in his abdominal cavity.
That life-threatening event came after the man affectionately known as "Bam Bam" spent more than a year on the sidelines recovering from a back injury following his loss to Randy Brown in the summer of 2019.
"I tried to do that after my back surgery," Barberena said of keeping active. "I had the one fight and was trying to get fights, got scheduled, and then had emergency surgery. Coming back from that, it was like, 'Let's be as consistent as possible, let's fight and try to keep going.' This time around, it's worked out to where I've been fighting pretty much every three months.
"I'm thankful to the UFC and Sean Shelby for getting matched up, and then getting great matchups like Matt Brown and now Robbie Lawler — these are dream matchups that I've wanted and I believe they're happening at the exact right time; at the time where I'm hitting my stride and I am going to be the best version of myself, and continuing to get better.
"I feel like this is the best I've ever been, and I feel the most ready that I've ever been," continued Barberena, who enters this weekend's preliminary card pairing with the former welterweight champion having earned consecutive victories for the first time since 2016. "It's all coming together at this moment and you're going to see the best me that has ever been in the octagon."
Hearing those words from a 33-year-old veteran might sound like a cliché to some, but the reality is that for all the attention and hype directed towards young fighters when they first arrive on the big stage, this is the age where most fighters really do find their sweet spot.
Sure, some of the athleticism and feelings of invincibility that accompany youth have faded, but they've been replaced by experience, improved skill and technique, and a far superior understanding of how to prepare and how to handle oneself inside the Octagon. There is a reason all but one of the current UFC titleholders are in their 30s, and it's because that tends to be when the Venn Diagrams overlap and a fighter really does hit their peak.
"There are things I definitely can't do like I did when I was younger, but I'm a lot smarter, not only in terms of Fight IQ, but in terms of my training, too," said Barberena. "My training has changed completely from even just a few years ago.
"Because of injuries and having to adapt and get smarter, it's overall helped my career. The injuries were terrible and a pain in the butt coming back from them, but they changed how I train, how I do things; made me be smarter about my training and my recovery, and in return, it's made me a better fighter.
"It's made me work on things I maybe wasn't working on before and do things a lot differently, so I definitely feel like this is 'Prime Bam Bam.'"
And he's going to need to be that version of himself on Saturday night when he steps in with Lawler.
Following a string of losses where it seemed like the sun may be setting on Lawler's career, the 40-year-old former titleholder got back into the win column with a third-round stoppage win over fellow legend Nick Diaz at UFC 266 last September.
While Diaz's comments leading up to the fight and performance once the cage door closed garnered the lion's share of the attention before, during, and after the bout, Barberena saw enough out of Lawler to know that he'll need to be sharp this weekend or else he may suffer the same fate as Diaz.
"I thought he had a great performance against Nick and it was underplayed," he said of Lawler's efforts last fall. "I thought he had a great gameplan, was very aggressive, and put it on Nick, so I expect him to come and bring it like that, but harder. He knows I'm a younger guy – younger than Nick – and I expect him to come as close to his classic, best, prime Robbie Lawler.
"He is still one of the most dangerous individuals on the roster. People aren't begging to fight Robbie Lawler because he's so vicious and grueling. He's athletic, he's tough, he doesn't wrestle a lot, but he can wrestle defensively; he's just very well rounded and very dangerous."
While he relishes the opportunity to share the octagon with hardened, tenured veterans like Brown and Lawler, Barberena also wants to show that he's capable of hanging with the division's elite, as well.
He's shared the cage with a handful of fighters currently stationed in the top 15 and a few more that reside on the outskirts, giving each and every one of them a tough night at the office. Now that he's a little older, a little wiser, and feeling better than ever, he has no doubts that he can not only hang with those fighters, but also beat them.
"For me, I want to test myself, I want to fight the very best; that's why I'm here," said the North Carolina-based veteran, who went the distance with Colby Covington and Leon Edwards, and was stopped six seconds before the final bell in an epic back-and-forth battle with Vicente Luque. "Being matched up with those guys and having fought them, winning some, losing some – some of those guys are at the top of the division now and, in my mind, it says that I can be there, and it all comes down to winning the next fight and continuing to win these fights.
"I believe I can be right there with those guys – the guys I've already fought and whoever the newcomers are that are up there. I believe I can be up there with those guys, if not be in title contention."
But right now, all he's thinking about is Lawler, and while he'll be trying to get a "Performance of the Night" bonus, the only promises he makes is that everyone tuning in is going to be entertained.
"When I go out there on July 2, I want to show people that this is a new 'Bam Bam,' this is 'Prime Bam Bam' and I'm going to put on a great performance," offered Barberena. "The things I can guarantee are violence, excitement, probably some blood, and a grueling pace.
"I'm shooting for that 'Performance of the Night' and not 'Fight of the Night 'now that I've got permission, but if it doesn't turn out that way, you can guarantee it'll be 'Fight of the Night.'"
This story first published at UFC.com.