When you speak to Francisco Barrio, it is immediately clear that he has no idea just how remarkable his story truly is. The KSW welterweight is a man humble in his athletic ability, while simultaneously acutely aware of the burden he carries, with two nations vying to claim his potential MMA stardom.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Barrio moved to Zagreb, Croatia, in the early 1990s with his mother, who carted seven children – four boys, including Barrio, and three girls – on a transcontinental journey to join their father in Eastern Europe.
Rodolfo Barrio, Francisco’s father, became a brigadier in the Croatian army a few years earlier, and with the War of Independence between Croatia and Serbia finally winding down, Francisco, and the rest of the Barrio family went to reunite in Zagreb.
Barrio describes a tough transition in his early life, moving to another continent where he did not know the language, culture, or anything else, for that matter. However, sports and the unity of his large family helped him adapt quickly.
A lifelong Independiente and Argentine national team fan, Barrio quickly assimilated into soccer games with kids at school. He estimates he was six- or seven years-old by the time he really mastered Croatian, much of it learned on the athletic fields, but describes this time as somewhat tumultuous, with Barrio serving as the antagonist to his fellow classmates.
“I was always getting in fights,” Barrio told MMA Prospects. “On the soccer field, in the school, on the street. Always starting something with the other kids.”
Thus, it came as no surprise when Barrio took note when the wrestling coach came to speak at his school. With his reputation as a firebrand on the soccer field and the local wrestling club’s close proximity to his house, Barrio decided to give it a shot.
“I am eight or nine when I show up for the first time to wrestling. Within a few months, I am doing tournaments and getting medals, and I start to think, ‘I like wrestling better than football!'” Barrio remembered.
As Barrio began to stack wrestling accolades in Croatia, the sport of MMA began to develop in the country. Mirko “Cro Cop” Fillipovic, by far the biggest star in Croatian MMA history, was in the midst of his meteoric rise with PRIDE, and Barrio was enamored with him.
Though he admits his mother wanted him to stick with wrestling over MMA – “Because of all the punching in the face,” Barrio admits – the new sport intrigued an adolescent Barrio. He postulates that in many ways, Cro Cop inspired his dream for MMA stardom.
In 2005, Barrio’s parents divorced, and he moved back to Patagonia in southern Argentina to live with his mother and attend high school. Wanting to continue his studies in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, Barrio went to a coffee shop to Google a wrestling club in his homeland. He found one not far from his mom’s house and went to practice that day.
Within a few weeks, he was winning tournaments all over Argentina. Within two months, he was the country’s national champion.
His prodigious wrestling abilities in two disciplines earned him a spot at the Olympic Training Center in Buenos Aires, where he lived until completing high school. Here, Barrio was able to refine his wrestling ability, earning medals at Greco-Roman tournaments across North and South America, and even internationally. However, it was a fateful day in Orlando, Florida, that altered the course of his career.
Barrios was invited to compete in the Olympic trials for Greco-Roman, ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London. Despite a gritty performance, Barrios lost narrowly in the semifinals and faced the reality that his Olympic dream might be over.
This turned his focus towards proving himself in MMA.
He found a gym in Buenos Aires, and within a month he had booked his first pro fight. At this point in his career, he confesses his striking was “zero,” and his plan in every fight was to get a takedown and a submission. This proved successful, as Barrio won his first three fights on the Argentine regional circuit.
But when the largest regional promotion in Croatia, Final Fight Championship, called him to sign a three fight deal and fight on a card headlined by MMA legend Ricco Rodriguez, Barrio knew it was time to get serious.
“You see many folkstyle [wrestling] guys in MMA because folkstyle is for college in the USA. It ends when you are 22, 23 years old. You don’t see many from Greco or freestyle [wrestling]. Why is that? Because these guys go to 28, 29, 30 in wrestling, and by that time, they don’t want to learn something new. It’s ego.”
Barrio describes heading back to Croatia to train for his initial FFC fights and having to correct his striking.
“Guys who had never done wrestling in their life could take me down, because when I threw punches at first, my balance was off,” Barrio discloses. He bounced around gyms, doing stints at Nova União in Argentina and SBG Ireland, before settling at his home gym of American Top Team Zagreb.
However, his hard work paid off, as he won four of five on the European regional circuit, even earning a KO with his retooled striking along the way.
Those wins earned him a spot in KSW, one of the largest promotions in the world, especially around Croatia and Eastern Europe. This Saturday, he debuts at KSW 56, taking on an undefeated prospect, the highly-touted Mateusz Legierski.
Though Barrio is a natural featherweight, the fight will take place at a catchweight of 161 pounds.
When asked about the move up in weight, Bario shrugged.
“I took the fight on two weeks’ notice, and it is a big opportunity for me. I am not young. I need to take these opportunities to fight on the biggest stage,” he said soberly.
In fact, it is his wrestling prowess that drives his confidence to take a fight with a much larger opponent.
“I expect him to be a big, strong, powerful punching guy. But he has never felt someone who has wrestled all their life like me,” Barrio warned.
This kind of confidence can only come from a man who has truly tested himself on the world’s stage, and Barrio is just that. He still wrestles competitively, even beating the top-ranked Croatian in Greco-Roman competition recently. He sees it as a way to sharpen his competitive abilities while paying homage to the two countries he loves dearly.
“I am from Argentina, but I grew up in Croatia. It is where I got drunk for the first time, had my first kiss. I really became a man here.”
Though he admits he still bets on Argentina when they play Croatia in soccer – “I lost some bets during the 2018 World Cup,” Barrio confided, as Croatia defeated Argentina 3-0 in the knockout stages – Barrio makes his home in Zagreb and thinks many people do not realize how similar to two countries are.
He describes both Croatians and Argentines as devout Catholics, in love with soccer (called football by both countries) and Italian food, and are generally warm, friendly people who welcome others.
“The Croatian people treat me as one of their own. Because of my father and the war, they have never treated me like a foreigner. That is an inspiration to me.”
Now married to a Croatian woman, Barrio says not a day goes by where he doesn’t think of his father and his adopted homeland. It even extends to his goals in MMA.
“I want to do 4-5 fights with KSW and become champion. Then go to UFC, do 4-5 fights, and become champion there. That is my dream.”
However, when pressed as to whether he would want to make his first potential UFC title defense in Zagreb or Buenos Aires, Barrio had a tough time making a decision. After a few minutes bouncing between the pros and cons of the two cities he calls home, he finally admitted, “That is hard. Why not both?”
For a man of two nations, with wins in two weight divisions, and designs of belts in two promotion, title defenses in two cities sounds just right.