As a man whose parents owned a karate school, it is perhaps unsurprising that Frank Mir gives the impression of a lifelong student of the martial arts, someone who approaches them with an analytical eye. The latter is true in the literal sense, as Mir provided color commentary for World Extreme Cagefighting from 2007 until 2010 and has fulfilled the same role for Absolute Championship Berkut’s English-language broadcasts since the fall of 2016. He also gives the impression of a man unafraid to turn that analytical gaze onto himself. If anything, Mir is even more blunt and unsparing in assessing himself and his own opponents than the fighters he watches as a commentator.
When he enters the cage to meet Fedor Emelianenko in the Bellator MMA heavyweight grand prix quarterfinals at Bellator 198 this Saturday in Chicago, it will have been 25 months since Mir’s last fight. That represents the longest such gap in his career, including the hiatus after his infamous September 2004 motorcycle wreck. Most fighters are apt to speak about long layoffs as uniformly positive, characterize themselves as being in the best shape of their lives and scoff at the possibility of rust: Dominick Cruz, an MMA analyst himself and a fighter who is no stranger to long breaks from competition, famously maintains that ring rust is not real. Mir is open about the pros and cons of his two-year layoff.
“In some ways [the time off] was good, because it gave my body some rest, but I think in other ways it might have been a little bit too much rest. I got a little heavier than I should have,” Mir told Sherdog.com, “but then I was inspired by the [booking of the] Fedor fight, and [the time] has allowed me to diet down and get my body back where it needs to be. I’m reinvigorated, happy to get back out there, but I’m not going to lie to people or be delusional and say there’s no possibility of ring rust. It’s very much a real possibility.”
While the 41-year-old Emelianenko is acclaimed as one of the greatest fighters of all-time and still arguably the most accomplished heavyweight in history, he has not looked like his vintage self in quite some time. Emelianenko’s last fight was a brutal knockout loss to Matt Mitrione; the rare double knockdown ended with “The Last Emperor” being pounded stiff, as Mitrione -- bigger, stronger and with far less accumulated wear and tear -- simply recovered much more quickly. Prior to the Mitrione loss, Emelianenko picked up a questionable decision win over former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight Fabio Maldonado at Eurasia Fight Nights 50, in a fight in which Emelianenko was in serious danger of being knocked out in the first round. A New Year’s Eve squash match over pro kickboxer and debuting mixed martial artist Jaideep Singh under the Rizin Fighting Federation banner in 2015 rounds out Emelianenko’s recent activity. Taken collectively, it paints a picture of a legend in decline.
Nonetheless, in the lead-up to Bellator 198, Mir has been vocal in maintaining that Emelianenko has not deteriorated as a fighter so much as the rest of the game has caught up to him. At first blush that may sound like spin, like a fighter attempting to pump up the name value of an upcoming opponent for the benefit of his own résumé. It is also fair to ask if the same principle should apply to Mir himself, who turns 39 next month and made his own professional debut in 2001, only a year after Emelianenko. On that subject, Mir does not mince his words. He believes the heavyweight division caught up to the Russian icon because Emelianenko’s failure to adapt allowed it to happen and that while Mir has worked to become a more multifaceted fighter, his opponent has gone in the opposite direction.
“I think I’ve done a better job than Fedor as far as staying ahead of the curve, of trying to improve,” Mir said. “People have watched my [early] fights, where I came out as a pure submission artist, then in the later part of my career having highlight-reel knockouts. That’s because of my willingness to learn and push my craft further. Obviously, [in the] very beginning of my career, most heavyweights were not well-versed at all in submissions. Now people are catching up, but I’ve also done the best I could to try and push forward and get better [in other areas].”
As Mir diagnoses the stagnation of Emelianenko’s tactical and strategic acumen and expresses his belief that their upcoming fight is unlikely to be different, the fighter as well as the analyst can be heard.
“I think Fedor fell more of a victim of success,” he said. “Because he was so successful and so dominant for years, you haven’t seen as much of a progression in his game. Very early in his career, sambo was obviously his strong suit, and while he would throw strikes, in the midst of that would go for takedowns and he was known really as a ground-and-pound guy. Obviously, he had great success submitting people, as well, and could knock people out on the feet, [but] I think when he was at his most dominant, that was probably the skill set he possessed that scared people the most. If Fedor gets on top of you, in your guard, he can destroy you with strikes [and] just viciously knock you out.
“Then, as he started to have more success on his feet, and over the years [as] maybe his ability to change levels and to take a shot [declined], he started almost becoming more of a pure boxer,” Mir added. “Watch the Maldonado fight, where he was fighting a superior boxer who was catching him with shots. He wasn’t looking to grab Maldonado, take him down and look for the easier route. [Even though] the path of least resistance would have been to take him down and grind him out with ground-and-pound, he still opted to just throw hard. In one sense, that makes him more vulnerable now. People are able to have more success against him because he’s not as multidimensional, but on the flipside, because he throws so fast and so hard, he’s capable of knocking anyone out at any time, which is maybe why he’s fallen into that pattern.”
At 38 and gearing up for his 30th professional bout, Mir freely admits he is in the last chapters of his fighting career. While he undoubtedly sees the Bellator tournament as a chance to add to his legacy in the sport, he also sounds comfortable discussing that legacy as it stands now, with alternating pride, chagrin and humor. It is little surprise that Mir sees his second bout with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 140 as a high point. In becoming the first fighter to submit the famously durable Brazilian grappler in mixed martial arts, Mir believes he began to change the popular wisdom about his own character as a competitor.
His keenest regret is his first-round knockout loss at the hands of Shane Carwin at UFC 111 in March 2010. Mir seems to rue the physical beating less than the lingering feeling that he allowed outside distractions to affect his in-cage performance. A few weeks before the fight, the stakes for which included an interim heavyweight title and the right to fight Brock Lesnar in a unification bout, Mir stated in a radio interview that he wished to make Lesnar “the first person to die from Octagon-related injuries.” The remark caused an uproar, which was exacerbated by having been made through a mainstream media outlet at a time when the UFC still felt it needed to shed a popular stigma of lawlessness and brutality. Mir’s remarks were publicly condemned by UFC President Dana White, and he was dismissed from his job as color commentator for the Zuffa-owned WEC. While he refuses to place blame for the loss anywhere but upon himself, Mir recalls his emotional turmoil.
“At the time, I was very confused and upset,” Mir said. “I felt like I [had been] trying to hype a fight, tried to take a page out of professional wrestling and my comments were taken out of context. Two weeks away from the fight I lost my [color commentary] job, and by the time I got to the fight, I pretty much didn’t care whether I won or lost. I just felt like I was going through the motions.”
That interview and the ensuing consequences served as a stark lesson in the fine line fighters are expected to walk in promoting themselves and their fights. On the one hand the promoter can be swift and merciless in castigating fighters for overstepping the line -- wherever that line may be -- when speaking extemporaneously to the public. On the other hand, those same fighters are actively encouraged to be hyperbolic and outrageous.
“You know, [with] guys behind the scenes in the [UFC’s] production area, sometimes I’d give an answer and I’d be told by the production crew, ‘That’s not good enough; that’s not intriguing enough. Could you please just [try again]?’” Mir said. “And I’m a full-grown man. I made the decision to make those comments, but sometimes I’d watch back later and think, ‘I can’t believe I said that.’ I’d be cringing, because I really didn’t want to [say those things], but at the same time, I wanted to go home. I’m stuck there for two hours, and if I didn’t give them some sort of soundbite … they weren’t lettin’ me leave.
“At the end of the day, I’m the one who suffered for [the radio interview],” he added with a chuckle. “I didn’t really punish anyone else, but it’s a fight where I wish I could have just let things go, because I was just the worst representation of myself that night.”
Mir remains nearly synonymous with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His 27 Octagon appearances are the fourth most in UFC history. His ties to the company, however, run even deeper. Before his fighting career, the Las Vegas native worked in casinos owned by the Fertitta family, and his entry into the sport was encouraged by longtime friend and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. Mir has stated that his choice to leave the UFC was made easier by the departure of Silva and the Fertitta brothers. Aware of the pre-UFC 223 incident involving Conor McGregor, he declined to blame the situation on any post-Zuffa changes in company culture. McGregor was arrested after he allegedly threw a dolly into a charter bus carrying UFC staff and fighters, resulting in injuries to Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg.
“I don’t know [if it would have played out differently]. I don’t know if the UFC is really to blame in the situation,” Mir said. “Obviously, they saw an opportunity to help sell a fight with [McGregor and] Khabib [Nurmagomedov] once they saw that Conor flew down there. I mean, that’s why they had cameras there, and it’s all on video. They knew he was there, went to the dock, but I don’t think they thought he was going to go to the level he went to. [McGregor] just made some poor decisions.
“I think [the UFC] wouldn’t have expected something like this because he’s done promotional tours before, been toe to toe with people he was going to fight, like him and Nate Diaz talking trash to one another, Jose Aldo, even Floyd Mayweather, and he was standing nose to nose with those guys on several occasions and nothing [like this] ever happened,” he continued. “Not to give the guy an excuse, but just to try and figure out where his brain was. On all those other occasions when he was two or three months away from a fight while he’s promoting it, he’s also training, so he’s eating clean, he’s not going out, he’s not putting anything into his body that he shouldn’t be.
“I’m thinking that he flew over from Ireland, and he’s not training for a fight,” Mir added. “Not that he’s not in the gym, but at the same time, [he may have been] having a couple of drinks, partying with the boys, staying up late, and I don’t think his body and his mind were as healthy as they normally are. I think that might have clouded his judgment, and he made some very emotional decisions that in hindsight he definitely shouldn’t have.”
The veteran fighter’s tone in speculating on these things is primarily that of Mir the analyst: thoughtful, even-handed and sporting a wealth of knowledge of the fight game, in and out of the cage. Underneath, though, is the unmistakable voice of Mir the fighter: one who remembers the same pitfalls and mistakes in his own career and, while he is past those days himself, is happy to look back on them even as he looks forward to his final chapters as a competitor.