Unlikely Times, Unlikely Champions: An Early Look at Mir-Lesnar II

Dec 29, 2008
Way back when the UFC played “Daddy” Warbucks and bailed out Pride Fighting Championships owners from a red ink typhoon not unlike that which looms over the Big Three automakers, the idea of a superfight between heavyweight icons Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira seemed inevitable.

Just two months ago, that idea inched closer to reality when an unofficial heavyweight title unification tournament opened with the incumbent champion, Couture, matched against a reformed professional wrestler. Meanwhile, the interim champion, Nogueira, drew a former titleholder who seemed to be borrowing from the Ricco Rodriguez playbook.

In other words, unless the ghost of Rod Serling decided to turn mixed martial arts into “The Twilight Zone,” we’d be getting a heavyweight superfight the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years.

Two months later, it turns out that former spandex superstar Brock Lesnar is South Dakota’s answer to Ivan Drago, and instead of being Rodriguez’s understudy, Frank Mir has pulled off a Mickey Rourke-level career resurrection. Meanwhile, Couture and Nogueira are left to pick up the pieces following altogether unexpected failures.

So while MMA’s being a cruel mistress to the old guard, she’s looking like lady luck to Lesnar and Mir, who will enter the New Year on a collision course as the UFC’s premier heavyweights. However, that’s not the only bit of theater that makes this unification match so interesting.

Mir, of course, handed Lesnar his sole professional loss. Their controversial UFC 81 bout began with Lesnar’s primal rage on full display and ended with his whimper as Mir coaxed a tapout from the grappling novice. The controversy came a minute into the fight when referee Steve Mazzagatti deducted a point from Lesnar for some questionable but hardly egregious blows to Mir’s melon.

The subsequent restart gave Mir the precious moments he needed to recalibrate his senses and eventually negotiate a fight-ending kneebar; it was hardly the kind of cut-and-dry conclusion the masses demand from a meeting of wits and fists.

Thankfully, the tune will be played one more time, though the circumstances will be nothing like the first go around. While Lesnar has progressed at an almost disturbing rate, Mir has rediscovered the magic from his early days in the UFC and finds himself on the verge of a second undisputed title run that seems even more unlikely than his first.

Only months of wondering who will take the rematch between two slightly miscast but nonetheless deserving champions remain. While the compulsion among many will be to hand Lesnar the title based on his rapid development and excess of physical talents, the fact remains that the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy juggernaut’s strongman physique does not a grappler make.

It goes without saying that Lesnar’s success thus far has been owed almost entirely to his ability to overwhelm opponents with strikes and keep the grappling to an absolute minimum. There’s nothing stopping Lesnar from thwarting Mir’s takedowns, but he’s facing an opponent who broke both the iron will and chin of the formerly indestructible Nogueira.

Granted, it would be shocking if Mir were to take out Lesnar on the feet, but he at least has the ability to keep his grip on consciousness long enough to either pull guard or draw Lesnar into a foolish takedown. From there, it would come down to a battle between Lesnar’s rabid ground-and-pound and Mir’s dogged pursuit of submissions.

Given Lesnar’s approach to Couture at UFC 91, however, one has to wonder if the days of his blindly barreling into opponents at mach five speed are gone and we’re instead witnessing the rise of a new fighter who better understands both his gifts and boundaries. By the same token, Mir seems to have found his own footing as a martial artist, all while keeping his conditioning up to snuff.

What should really be on the prognosticators’ minds is just how much they’re willing to buy into the notion that Lesnar has corralled his ego and come to grips with his own limitations as a rookie among veterans. Likewise, no one knows if Mir has the fortitude to survive another Lesnar onslaught while counting on him to make the same kind of grade-school grappling mistake he made the first time the two met.

With a resolution still months away, some might think the tide has turned in Lesnar’s favor, as he needs time to prepare for an opponent who would love nothing more than to show off his limb-snapping prowess one more time.

Regardless of how much time Lesnar has on his hands, two questions surround this bout.

First, are a few extra months working jiu-jitsu drills really enough to make up for a training deficit Lesnar measures in years? Second, can Mir ever find his way back to the top after a catastrophic injury and years’ worth of self-destruction?

The past has taught us no is the answer on both fronts. I’m guessing Lesnar and Mir would beg to differ.

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