Former UFC champion and current 35-year old Josh Barnett told MMAWeekly that Frank Mir is past his prime, but Barnett still doesn’t consider his 34 year-old opponent a bad fighter. Noting that it only takes one fight for an old-timer “to pull it together and come back to their championship best,” Barnett said he wasn’t underestimating Mir. But he also said he considers himself the defending UFC heavyweight champion.

“No one ever took my belt from me, so I don’t know what belt they were swinging around, but that wasn’t the UFC heavyweight title as far as I was concerned,” Barnett said, “and I was off at Pride fighting the top dudes in the world at the time.”

Technically, the UFC took Barnett’s belt from him in March 2002, shortly after he stopped Randy Couture in the second round of their championship fight and then tested positive for banned substances. Barnett spent the next six years fighting in Japan, competing in Pride FC’s well-regarded heavyweight division before returning to the United States to fight for Affliction and Strikeforce.

Barnett’s return to the UFC should therefore delight fans of Japanese MMA and kayfabe alike. His insistence that he thinks of himself as the heavyweight champion hearkens back to the days when Chael Sonnen walked around with his own middleweight belt. So does his winking non-reference to past problems with drug testing. Like Sonnen, Barnett seems willing to play the heel in interviews, calling attention to his flaws even as he explicitly denies them.

He differs from Sonnen in two significant regards, though. The first is his record: Barnett has won nine of his last ten fights, dropping a five-round decision to Daniel Cormier last year but otherwise cutting a swath through non-UFC heavyweights. The second is a matter of opinion, but it may do even more to distinguish him from Sonnen: Barnett is self-deprecating.

When he says that the slightly-younger Mir is too old, it’s hard not to hear Barnett acknowledging his status as an aging veteran. Much of his MMAWeekly interview has to do with the long years he spent exiled from the UFC and the sensation of watching his contemporaries succeed in his absence.

It’s a testament to both his intelligence and his experience as a showman that Barnett can acknowledge those years without breaking character. His personality is a welcome addition to the sometimes colorless UFC heavyweight division. The question of whether his athletic skills remain as sharp will have to wait until Saturday night.