Josh Barnett's transition to wrestling sets example for Ronda Rousey

Josh Barnett's first professional wrestling match was held in the Tokyo Dome in front of 40,000 people. Susumu Nagao

Imagine stepping out in front of tens of thousands of fans at one of the biggest wrestling shows of the year, kicking off a brand-new career and doing it without a single match worth of experience after tremendous success in the world of MMA.

No, we're not talking about Ronda Rousey's WWE arrival Sunday night at the Royal Rumble, though it sounds familiar. Fifteen years ago, at New Japan Pro Wrestling's annual Jan. 4 show that would come to be called Wrestle Kingdom in later years, Josh Barnett had his first-ever professional wrestling match in front of a massive Tokyo Dome crowd. It came in the main event of the evening, with the IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix) heavyweight championship on the line, against legendary Japanese wrestler Yuji Nagata.

The stakes couldn't have been much higher for the former UFC heavyweight champion of the world.

"It was the first match I ever had, and it was obviously a big one," Barnett told ESPN.com recently. "Walking out there in front of 40,000 people ... it didn't really cause me any anxiety or anything, but man, it was some kind of rush."

Barnett is now 40 and splitting his time between a number of pursuits, including commentary for NJPW. His foray into professional wrestling came at an important, yet chaotic time in his life and career (sound familiar?). After becoming the youngest UFC heavyweight champion in history, he had just been stripped of his title after he tested positive for a steroid following his victory at UFC 36.

As he looked toward his next step, a childhood interest in wrestling, which continued to be a part of his life through adulthood, crossed his mind.

"My interest in wrestling began when I was a little kid, watching NWA and WWF on television," Barnett said. "It carried on through most of my life, to be honest, and still does. When the internet became more of an option, [I began] tape-trading with people for Japanese-shoot wrestling stuff."

Some fortunate circumstances and an old friend helped pave a path quickly in front of him, and Barnett got swept up into the world of professional wrestling.

"Come 2002, a good friend and one of my old training partners, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, was doing some work in New Japan," Barnett recalled. "I reached out to him and said, 'Hey. I would really love it if I could get an opportunity to go and wrestle in New Japan. Would you put out a good word for me?' And he said, 'Sure.' He got me in touch with them, and from there, it moved incredibly quickly. As soon as I knew it, I was headlining at Tokyo Dome."

There was still the small problem of Barnett never having had a single pro wrestling match in his life. What Barnett did have working in his favor was a background in judo and catch wrestling, a masterful opponent to work with and a lifelong passion and fandom for everything wrestling.

And he wasn't going in completely unprepared.

"When it came to moves, I mean, moves are moves," Barnett said. "I think if you know how to suplex somebody, even in an amateur environment, how to throw people safely from judo, and the concepts of wrestling, it's not really hard to then pick up [everything else].

"It was all very easy to work with Nagata," he continued. "He's such a professional and so skilled, and so good at what he does."

Further complicating the matter was the fact that Barnett, at 24, caught chicken pox in the lead-up to his debut, but the match ultimately went off without a hitch. From there, Barnett caught the bug for wrestling. He went on a number of tours with NJPW through 2003 and 2004, and eventually went back and forth between wrestling and MMA fights in Japan for several years.

With each tour and each match, Barnett picked up the nuances of pro wrestling that made him a more polished performer by putting in the time.

"It was just a matter of learning the ring itself, the environment," Barnett said. "There are a lot of subtle things that are very, very important in wrestling, and to pick those up just takes time and experience. The only way that I really feel is best to do that is to go on the road. I learned every day by showing up early and leaving late."

There are plenty of lessons to be learned in Barnett's journey that could ultimately be useful for Rousey as she begins a similar transition. Sure, the circumstances are a bit different, considering the stature of the WWE, but Rousey is going to have to learn many of the same lessons that Barnett had to pick up while he was already performing in the ring.

"Wrestling is difficult -- it is not just about doing moves and running around, and creating high spots," Barnett said. "It's so much more subtle than that. I think that you can get by doing stuff to make the monkey toy clap [the cymbals], so to speak. But that's not going to hold [the audience's] attention forever. To learn how to tell that story is difficult."

Though this conversation with Barnett happened before Rousey made her appearance in Philadelphia on Sunday night, her history in MMA and background as a judo Olympic gold medalist offer a lot of indicators as to how she might handle pro wrestling. Add in Rousey's own wrestling fandom, connection to the history through her bond with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and gung-ho attitude from the outset, there are a lot of things working in her favor despite her inexperience.

"If she's passionate about it, and serious, her judo background gives her a great starting point," Barnett said. "She already knows how to fall, how to throw other people, and move and throw. She's already an incredible athlete. If she loves wrestling, really wants to be a student of it and make a go of it, I wouldn't be surprised in the least that she could be a great wrestler."

Barnett was living out two dreams at the same time, though they fell along some common lines. As he fought his way back up in the world of MMA, he was living out a childhood fantasy that carried through the next three decades.

An unintended side effect of Barnett's move to pro wrestling was that he picked up small things that helped him fight his way back up in the UFC. Though Rousey was noncommittal when the question of retirement came up, the eventual returns of MMA stars like Brock Lesnar give her every reason to keep the door open.

If Rousey's experience is anything like Barnett's, she might find a few new tools in her toolkit while training at the WWE Performance Center and getting out on the road with the WWE.

"Honestly, I feel like the more entrenched into professional wrestling I got, it became apparent to me that it was really a part and parcel with MMA," Barnett said. "There wasn't a whole lot of difference at all. If anything, I refer to it as the other side of the same coin. So by treating wrestling more like MMA, in terms of training and in terms of thought process, it made things so much easier."

Whether Rousey's future lies solely in a WWE ring or ultimately heads back into the Octagon at some point in the future, it's clear that lessons learned in either world should carry over and help make the transition smoother as long as there's a 100 percent buy-in.

"Being able to be out there and live fully in that moment -- [being] aware of the crowd, aware of your opponent -- wrestling in Japan, going on tour and doing all of those matches, it made me a much better fighter," Barnett said. "It allowed me to be more present in the ring, able to pick up on more subtle aspects from my opponent, from the environment itself, and to be that much more comfortable out there."