Opinion: A Mir-ror and a Map For All MMA Modernity

By Jordan Breen Aug 18, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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For a time just a few short years ago, it seemed like Frank Mir might be one of the few fighters who spent nearly his entire career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and would hang up his gloves under UFC employ. Alas, the MMA world moves swiftly and unpredictably. The writing has been on the Octagon wall since Mir was knocked out by Mark Hunt in March 2016 and failed a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency test for turinabol metabolites. When the company officially released him on July 9, it ended a 16-year run with the promotion; Mir was on the roster for 5,727 consecutive days, the longest sustained run in UFC history.

Even still, as imminent and obvious as it was, the phrase “Bellator MMA heavyweight Frank Mir” rings strange. No, not strange as in unexpected -- like I said, this signing was a foregone conclusion -- but strange in the sense of being quaint and remarkable. Mir’s entire career is curiously predicated on this essential quality: He is, in his essence, a case study in MMA’s extremes, contradictions and foibles.

It seems like every week I have to actively dissuade myself from using the phrase “sign of the times.” How can it really be avoided, though, when any given week’s hot-button issue -- free agents opting for Bellator over the UFC, MMA’s biggest star boxing Floyd Mayweather, WME-IMG’s promotional learning curve and missteps, doping failures under USADA -- is almost assuredly precipitated by the conditions of this new period in MMA? However, Mir jumping ship is not just more statistical evidence of a strong industry trend but a nearly perfect symbol of it. Mir is not a sign of these times; since 2001, he has been a sign of all the times.

Obviously, Mir’s signing loudly echoes the modern MMA atmosphere. In order to secure his UFC release, Mir signed an agreement binding him to his two-year USADA sanction, meaning he can’t even fight for Bellator until April. He will turn 39 just seven weeks after the suspension is up. Mir claims his new Bellator deal will pay him more than his previous UFC contract; whether or not that’s true, it reflects his real market value in the sense that he is more valuable to Bellator than the UFC. Of course, UFC President Dana White has never been a Mir fan and likely would have been keen to jettison him years ago if not for the heavyweight’s close friendship with longtime matchmaker Joe Silva, who would have gone nuclear if White had attempted such a thing. Despite the Bellator heavyweight title being vacant, Mir is angling for fights with a faded Fedor Emelianenko or perhaps a rubber match with Brock Lesnar. Taken all together, what is more downright “MMA in 2017” than that?

Then again, what’s “more MMA” than Mir? He’s a born-and-raised resident of Las Vegas, fight capital of the world. He was a bouncer at the infamous Spearmint Rhino strip club, married a dancer he met on the job and then named one of their sons Kage. He helped put Sprawl and split-seam board shorts on the MMA map. He has an unhealthy obsession with knives and brags about keeping multiple blades on him at all times, some of them tactically concealed. He was destined to be a UFC champion.

Whether in stylistic or historical context, Mir manages to mirror the charms, quirks and tensions of this sport. Mir is one of the most noted and celebrated grapplers in MMA history, yet he’s a heavyweight. Fair enough, there’s lots of famously great heavyweight grapplers. However, unlike Josh Barnett, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Fabricio Werdum, Mir has basically zero elite grappling accomplishments on the mat. Yet despite no real grappling laurels, Mir’s calling card became a grappling style based on a seemingly paradoxical combination of literal bone-breaking strength and imaginative creativity. Very early in his career, Mir established himself as a “heavyweight with lightweight jiu-jitsu,” which is ironic given his infamously poor fitness and history of ballooning up in weight outside of camp. The aforementioned Barnett is usually seen as the closest analog to Mir due to their aggressive, unorthodox submission styles and weight issues, but Barnett, even in his early super heavyweight days, had far more cardio than Mir and by most standards was a better athlete.

One might argue that Mir’s athleticism isn’t in question but rather his work ethic. Some might even call him “lazy,” chief among them being Mir’s longtime trainer Ricardo Pires, the man who gave him his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Here’s Pires in 2015 discussing Mir’s dedication to training or lack thereof and his submission of BJJ world champion Roberto Traven in his UFC debut, which immediately thrust him into MMA’s consciousness: “Frank was always very lazy. He never really enjoyed training. Most of the moves he displayed during a fight he learned during warm-ups, believe it or not. The one he used on Traven, Sergio Penha showed him after the weigh-ins. I mean, he hasn’t got such a thing as a specialty or a preference. I give credit for that to the Osvaldo Alves school. Frank barely knows the scores.”

Then there’s Pires’ thoughts on Mir’s famous inside shoulder lock on Pete Williams that convinced the sport he was a submission prodigy: “That move he used against Pete, he learned it the day before. I was training on Friday with a white belt, and I just couldn’t finish him. I was desperate, a black belt not being able to submit a white belt. I had to submit him, and luckily, I managed. Then I called Frank so he could see it, and he used it on Pete the next day.”

On the historical side, though, a fighter like Barnett is generally considered a tier or two above Mir as far as the all-time greatest heavyweights go; “The Warmaster” typically gets lumped into a bottom-of-the-top-10 cadre with the likes of Mark Coleman, Junior dos Santos, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Stipe Miocic, while Mir usually falls in the top 10-20 range. Yet, by virtue of the moments and opponents with which he connected, Mir’s career is infinitely more memorable than many of his more accomplished contemporaries.

Once again, it’s a contradiction and one that is just oh so MMA: Mir’s greatest achievements are his shocking demolition knockout of the legendary Nogueira and his horrific arm-snapping kimura on the Brazilian in the rematch. They even coached “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 opposite one another. With that said, is Mir best-known for his triumphs over Nogueira, one a shocking upset and the other a grisly-yet-unanimous “Submission of the Year” winner? No, he’s known for his rivalry with Lesnar, who, despite his own amateur wrestling and MMA accomplishments, is still recognized by most of the world as a fake sports entertainer.

As I said, Mir is a touchstone MMA history, so it only makes sense that Lesnar would be his defining foil. Mir’s two fights with Lesnar combined drew an estimated 2.2 million pay-per-view buys for the UFC and are representative of the financial successes and propagative excesses of the Zuffa salad days. In 2009, Strikeforce blew up and came to network TV, Jose Aldo took the sport by storm and Benson Henderson and Donald Cerrone authored one of the 10 best MMA fights ever, but what image takes you back to that period like Lesnar pulverizing Mir, screaming and spitting into the camera and then shoving his index finger in Mir’s discombobulated face? Nothing.

Mir’s other great in-cage rival was Wes Sims -- a Coleman protégé, infamous MMA bust and general crazy person -- who inexplicably grabbed the fence and stomped Mir’s head at UFC 43, somehow necessitating a rematch, which turned out to be an atrocious gong show. The Mir-Sims fights were both incredibly embarrassing affairs, albeit for different reasons. However, to witness the shambling distress of the Mir-Sims rivalry is to understand the complexion of MMA in 2003-04, especially the UFC and its moribund heavyweight division. Watch Mir and Sims stumble through their rematch and then consider that fans were simultaneously debating if Filipovic, Emelianenko or Nogueira would win the 2004 Pride Fighting Championships grand prix. Is it any wonder the UFC product was so mocked and derided by Pride’s emboldened diehard fans?

You might wonder how desperate the UFC was at the time. Well, Mir’s opponent before Sims was the returning David “Tank” Abbott, fresh off an extended run of professional wrestling (and drinking) and not having fought for nearly five years. In fact, Abbott’s return -- a desperate bid by Zuffa to entice old No Holds Barred-era fans into giving modern MMA a chance after bringing back Ken Shamrock – was a closely kept secret. When Abbott first re-emerged and sauntered down the ramp at UFC 40, Silva famously leaped from his cageside seat, ran to White’s side -- with White sitting, the two men would theoretically be face-to-face -- and launched into an apoplectic tirade. Booking his pal Mir against the notoriously submission-averse Abbott was Silva’s way of getting revenge, humiliating his employer and killing White’s fantasy of “Tank” versus Shamrock. Putting aside his friendship with Silva, Mir was in retrospect the perfect man to welcome Abbott back to the Octagon and punish the UFC for acting on its lamest and laziest promotional instincts.

Speaking of Abbott, did you know he was actually a -150 betting favorite against Mir? That may seem completely and totally insane to you nearly 15 years later, but there was a reason: Mir was coming off his shocking loss to Ian Freeman seven months earlier, the first of his career. The Freeman fight at UFC 38 was quintessential Mir. The undefeated prospect, Mir came out throwing endless chains of alternating head kicks, overexcited to show off his developing striking skills. He then completely gassed himself in four minutes by throwing up submissions from his back while Freeman bashed in his face. Freeman’s upset of Mir is a truly amazing, you-couldn’t-script-it-like-this moment, as one of British MMA’s true pioneers pulled off the biggest win of his career over an unbeaten prospect inside London’s historic Royal Albert Hall, doing so at the first-ever UFC card in Britain while his father lay dying in a hospital. Freeman’s victory was a milestone for UKMMA and a last testament to his flesh and blood. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a true MMA moment without some chicanery. The end of the bout actually came when referee John McCarthy instructed Mir to stand and the exhausted, battered fighter laid supine for what seemed like an eternity, tried to stand, stumbled as if simultaneously drunk and tased, then crumbled to his knees. If it happened in 2017, Mir’s hokey pokey collapse would be the hottest gif and meme of the year. Even when he is a part of a truly uplifting, allegedly unscriptable narrative, Mir manages to make things just a little more freakish and peculiar, just a little “more MMA.”

It’s not even a record-tying 27-fight UFC tenure that seemingly allows Mir to be MMA’s epoch man. From the minute he made his pro MMA debut, everything about Mir was 100 percent of the era, 100 percent MMA. The first two promotions for which Mir fought were regional staples at the time: Jeff Osborne’s HOOKnSHOOT in Evansville, Indiana, and Paul Smith’s International Fighting Championship in Oroville, California. He debuted on a card headlined by the greatest fight in HookNShoot history, the bloody, brawling rematch between Yves Edwards and Aaron Riley that would send both men to the UFC.

Six weeks later in his second fight, he fought Dan Quinn, a former University of Notre Dame football player turned MMA fighter turned lunatic Internet celebrity who is now infamous for his shirtless, drug-addled YouTube rants, his sincere belief that the artificial sweetener Stevia is a renewable energy source/recreational narcotic and publicly threatening to kill White and legendary football coach Lou Holtz -- a man he refers to as “Lucifer Lou.” Tim Kennedy made his MMA debut in the bout preceding Mir’s, losing on a cut to Scott Smith. The fight immediately following Mir’s win featured a debuting 18-year-old named Nick Diaz. Even if Mir isn’t the focal point of a particular snapshot in MMA time, he is likely somewhere in the background photobombing. He is a curious thread winding its way through the last 16 years of MMA history, the closest thing the sport has to Forrest Gump.

It’s astounding that the thread runs so far, so deep in this sport. In September 2004, just three months after he snapped Tim Sylvia’s arm to become UFC heavyweight champion, Mir flew off of his motorcycle, broke his femur in two places and completely obliterated his knee. It was not known if Mir would ever fight again. When he finally returned in 2006, he was a bloated shell of his former self. His comeback bout against Marcio “Pe de Pano” Cruz was a complete disaster and one of the most pathos-provoking fights I’ve ever seen, as an out-of-shape Mir laid fetal with Cruz tepidly pounding on him. Dominick Cruz is lionized for coming back from a nightmarish myriad of injuries to regain the UFC bantamweight title, but at this point, Mir’s motorcycle accident is a distant memory for most MMA fans and not even part of his major career narrative.

Like Cruz, Mir used his time on the sidelines to transition into the booth. When Mir did color commentary at UFC 50, he knocked the socks off of even hard-to-please fight fans, his expertise most brilliantly displayed in his breakdown of Matt Hughes’ counter-farside armbar on Georges St. Pierre. That performance led to general excitement about Mir on the stick, in turn leading to his commentary gig with World Extreme Cagefighting. In true Mir fashion, he got too comfortable and too lazy and stopped doing necessary prep work. His passionate fawning over then-bantamweight king Miguel Torres became a running joke. Then, in true White fashion, Mir was yanked out of the booth because he said he wanted to kill Lesnar in the cage. Once more, I repeat myself: How much “more MMA” can you get?

Mir cited his commentary ambitions as one of the key factors in signing with Bellator, as he has caught on as the English language analyst for upstart promotion Absolute Championship Berkut. ACB is run by Mairbek Khasiev, who in the last four months alone called Ossetians “Iranian Jews” living in a “dream world” and refused a Nike sponsorship due to the company's support of LGBTQ rights. Is Mir concerned about such things?

“I just try to avoid it. First and foremost, these are feelings from religious point of views and political point of views; and to be honest, I try to steer clear of it,” Mir told MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani in a recent interview. “Because as a fighter, I go out there and fight for different companies, as a commentator I work for different companies. If I get too political or if I say things … the whole religious thing, which if you know my background, kind of baffles me anyway. I leave that to the people that are religious and that’s their thing. I just try to steer clear of it.”

So we have a nearly 40-year-old former UFC champion signing with Bellator while taking potentially shady money from monstrous promoters in the Caucasus region. You can never say that Mir doesn’t keep up with the times -- all times.

It is impossible to take many -- if any -- Mir fights and watch them divorced from circumstance, as if in a vacuum. Each piece of Mir’s career is like a decoder ring for MMA history, a series of tableaus that tell the tale of cagefighting’s last 16 years. To study a Frank Mir fight is to understand the very moment in time and context in which it existed. The MMA landscape has been and always will be a chaotic landscape constantly in flux. In a time of chaos, be it 2001 or 2017, take solace in knowing you have a map. Just look for Mir; that’s where you are, where we are, where MMA is at.

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