By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48
They were heavyweight MMA’s Holy Trinity; the indomitable Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, the clinical Mirko Cro-Cop and the mighty Fedor Emelianenko. Like Cerberus barring the gates of Hades, they once stood guard over the upper echelons of the heavyweight ranks without challenge. In their primes they’d largely only lost to each other and while some have since bested them in their twilight years, nobody has conquered them all. Yet on April 28th, the most unlikely of warriors will seek to achieve a feat once thought impossible; Frank Mir will attempt to remove Cerberus’ third head and in doing so, defeat PRIDE’s Holy Trinity.
Debate did, does and will continue to rage over whether Japan’s PRIDE organisation or the North America-based Ultimate Fighting Championship had the strongest roster at any given time, but by the mid-nineties the heavyweight landscape at least was particularly clear. Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Garry Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Don Frye and Mark Kerr had all made the leap to the land of the rising sun by the turn of the century, lured by PRIDE’s substantial spending power at a time when the forecast for earning in the UFC appeared increasingly bleak.
As the dust from their era-defining 2000 Openweight Grand Prix settled, PRIDE began to build their roster around the next generation of larger than life attractions. Emelianenko and Nogueira were imported from the RINGS network, American wrestler turned Dutch-style kickboxer Heath Herring looked like he might be the next big western thing and the crown jewel of their acquisitions, Mirko ‘Cro-Cop’ Filipovic, was poached from the K-1 kickboxing league. By the end of 2015 this murderer’s row had all competed against each other; establishing a firm hierarchy in the process.
By contrast the UFC’s heavyweight waters were decidedly murkier. All-American stalwart Randy Couture’s days in the top division were seemingly over; ‘The Natural’ was busy becoming a reality TV star and contesting the light heavyweight title with Chuck Liddell. The heirs apparent, Tim Sylvia and Ricco Rodriguez, hadn’t really panned out as expected and Josh Barnett, a man seemingly with the world at his feet, was on the outs for more nefarious reasons.
Somewhere treading these muddy waters was Frank Mir. If the Zuffa-era UFC could have hand-crafted a heavyweight kingpin, it would surely have ended up looking a lot like the young American submission specialist. Debuting at the tender age of 21, Mir was born and bred in Las Vegas, Zuffa’s stronghold. In an era when the UFC were still trying to convince the casual fan of the merits of ground-fighting, Frank Mir was the rare diamond in the rough that could pull off a submission as gruesome as the gnarliest knockout on any fight card. While crowds less nuanced than the typical modern-day fan were often left deflated in the face of quick taps or intricate joint manipulations, Mir gained a reputation for removing all doubt with his body of work. Be it the visibly gruesome shoulder lock against Pete Williams or the literally limb-snapping armbar of Tim Sylvia that earned him his first world title, Mir made the ‘gentle art’ accessible to the blood-thirsty MMA troglodyte of the time.
The MMA world was at his feet, or so it seemed. Sadly, as is so often the case, fate had other plans for the surging heavyweight standout. Following his gut-churning submission victory over Sylvia, a horrific motorcycle accident put Mir on the shelf and led to the creation of the UFC’s first ever interim championship. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to return in a timely manner from what – by rights – should have been a life-changing injury, the convalescing fighter was stripped of his title entirely.
Still, in defiance of odds, expectations and medical advice, Mir’s final chapter was yet to be written.
While the Holy Trinity excelled in Japan, Mir’s comeback was anything but biblical. The critics were unforgiving in their assessments; the accident had rendered him out of shape and immobile they said, incapable of competing with the elite heavyweights of the post 2005 UFC era, let alone the Cerberus of PRIDE. Mir’s time, they concluded, been fun while it lasted… but the era of the great American heavyweight was over.
Frank had other ideas.
Crashing The Titan
One of the UFC’s post-Ultimate Fighter boom-period selling points was it’s unpredictability. In stark contrast to professional boxing, the biggest stars in MMA could be folded in the blink of an eye and the sport’s hottest prospects could be sent back to the drawing board in short order.
Still, you didn’t have to be a confirmed cynic to believe that the UFC had lined Mir up for former WWE superstar and ultra-popular pay-per-view draw Brock Lesnar’s promotional debut without a certain outcome in mind. Mir’s three professional defeats had all been delivered by way of short, unpleasant bursts of strikes from men who’d been able to hit and hold; surely the titanic Lesnar would make short work of him in similar fashion, elevating his own stock with the scalp of a former champion in the process? Beating Mir would have made Lesnar an instant threat and more importantly, an instant meal-ticket for UFC owners Zuffa LLC.
Not so fast, thought Vegas’ favourite fighting son. Following a takedown and barrage of strikes that Nostradamus may as well have predicted, Mir fished out a kneebar and reaffirmed the lesson that a certain Brazilian family had taught the world over a decade before; all those muscles don’t count for much when a limb is about to be wrenched out of it’s socket and the fear sets in. Lesnar tapped and while he didn’t lose any of his stock, the win elevated Mir back into title contention.
Deconstructing the Trinity
Submitting a green-around-the gills pro-wrestler was one thing, but in 2008 the belief in PRIDE’s legendary heavyweight division was still absolute. Mir was slated to defend the UFC’s honour versus the legendary second-best heavyweight in the world, Antonio Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira. Against a supposedly superior submission artist with slicker boxing skills and an iron jaw, what hope did the slower, more deliberate American have?
Seven minutes was all it took to answer that question in the most unpleasant manner. Shots were traded in abundance but while Nogueira’s blows fizzed and glanced, Mir’s heavy artillery detonated on his opponent’s skull with a degree of ferocity that the Brazilian couldn’t match. The PRIDE faithful looked on in horror as a combination of second round punches did what the left high kick of Mirko Cro-Cop, the piledriver of Bob Sapp and the jackhammer-like ground ‘n’ pound assault of Fedor Emelianenko could not. Nogueira was left unconscious for the first time in his career and Mir’s arm was raised as champion. He had, for all intents and purposes, achieved the impossible.
Fast forward to 2010. The years had once again been turbulent for Mir; he’d lost to supersized heavyweights Lesnar and Shane Carwin and had even considered an ambitious drop to the 205lb division before settling on a bout with troubled veteran Mirko Cro-Cop. Cro-Cop himself was in a similar bind; after washing out on his first UFC run the Croatian had returned from Japan with renewed vigour, winning three out of four contests in the Octagon but leaving hardcore fans unconvinced.
Still, Mir vs Cro-Cop was a special contest to those who had followed the heavyweight division through it’s pedigree years. For tenured fans this was a fantasy fight come true; the playground argument over Batman vs Spiderman realised in the most complete arena of combat. Perhaps the greatest pure striker ever to compete in mixed martial arts taking on the most violent heavyweight grappler the sport had ever seen.
In spite of the threat each man posed, or perhaps because of it, the bout played out as a cautious clinch battle with the larger Mir shutting his opponent down against the cage. By the third round the crowd had turned against the American, cheering whenever referee Herb Dean stepped in to separate the pair in the hope that a vintage Cro-Cop high kick would breath life into the laboured affair by way of a searing knockout. Ultimately they were not left wanting, but it was an unforeseen knee up the centre-line from Mir that put paid to the contest with less than a minute to go.
Two down, one to go…but Fedor was nowhere to be seen.
In December of 2011 the former champion would once again find himself in a title eliminator, with old foe Nogueira across the cage seeking a measure of revenge. The fan narrative was clear; Nogueira’s previous loss had been an upset in defiance of the odds, a severe Staph infection leaving the Brazilian legend a flat-footed and slow shell of his true self.
It was time to settle the score.
For a fleeting moment it seemed that Nogueira would have his revenge. A crisp right hand took Mir’s legs out from under him, sending the hearts of both the UFC and PRIDE faithful shooting firmly into their mouths. The Brazilian pounced on a failed defensive takedown attempt and unloaded with punches, stopping only when referee Herb Dean warned him for strikes behind the ear. ‘Big Nog’ changed up his angle of attack, attempting a mounted guillotine and when that was reversed, popped out to take the back, only to fall into a picture-perfect cross-mount kimura.
The fight clock slowed down to a crawl and the sound drained out of the buzzing arena; Nogueira was pinned to the mat, his left arm clasped expertly in a double wristlock. Mir lifted the elbow and pushed the wrist through, cranking and torquing for all he was worth. For those of us in the know, realisation gradually dawned. For those who weren’t, the moment hung on a razor’s edge, frozen in time…
The broadcast microphones didn’t pick it up but if you were unfortunate enough to be sat in the first few rows, you would have heard what the rest of us were forced to only visually endure. Nogueira, a man once told he had been crippled for life after being run over by a truck, was never going to submit to a mere human being. Instead he let Mir snap his upper arm like a twig; the sickening jerk eliciting more vociferous “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd with each additional replay.
The Third Head
That Frank Mir wasn’t a shoe-in for the fourth slot on heavyweight MMA’s Mount Rushmore after the Nogueira rematch was almost criminal. As he’d pointed out in his post-fight interview on the night, he was the first man to both knock out and submit the previously unstoppable ‘Minotauro’. In addition he’d flatlined Mirko Cro-Cop and captured a pair of UFC titles; all of this in the face of an injury that would have prevented lesser men from walking without a John Wayne swagger, let alone competing with the world’s greatest combat athletes.
Unfortunately for Mir his resurgence had coincided with the rise of a new generation of MMA heavyweights. His peers were rapidly replaced with the likes of Cain Velasquez, Shane Carwin, Brock Lesnar and Daniel Cormier. Veterans Josh Barnett and Alistair Overeem would also make their way to the Octagon. Mir would drop bouts to all but one of the above over a five year period, before knocking out ‘Bigfoot’ Silva and Todd Duffee in 2015; his first consecutive victories in almost four years. Just as it seemed that his luck had changed, losses to fellow veterans Andrei Arlovski (on points) and Mark Hunt (by KO) would usher in the end of Mir’s 15 year stint in the most unforgiving division of MMA pre-eminent organisation.
This is the point in many a familiar story at which the veteran fighter hits a difficult crossroads. Some will trudge on producing ever-diminishing returns, while others will walk away content with their legacy. Mir chose to do neither. Instead, he achieved a feat attempted by many but mastered by few; slipping seamlessly into the infinitely more comfortable analyst’s chair. In his broadcasting role with Chechnya’s Absolute Championship Berkut, one of the world’s most active promotions, Mir has established a sound partnership with play-by-play commentator Bryan Lacey that has earned plaudits from fans both new and old. Mir also recently revealed his desire to move into a promoter’s role with the company as they look to expand into the US market.
But still the third head of Cerberus looms large.
In August of last year Mir confirmed the long-standing rumour that his departure from the UFC was not the final chapter in his combative career; he had signed a new, multi-fight deal with Bellator MMA to compete in their eclectic heavyweight division. Three months later weeks of hushed whispers formulated into a solid idea; Mir would not only compete in Bellator’s 2018 Heavyweight Grand Prix, he would do so against the enigma that is Fedor Emelianenko.
Fedor is no longer the terminator that once reduced humanity’s mightiest warriors to sacks of battered, swollen flesh without a second thought. And despite his evolution from a gruesome grappler into a heavy-hitting all-round problem, it would be fair to say that Mir is likely embarking on his final run.
And yet despite that potentially life-changing accident, despite the years spent under different promotional banners and despite setbacks that have seen lesser men crumble, Mir not only perceivers, he is on the cusp of a previously unaccomplished feat; taking the third head of Cerberus.
This is more than a fight; it’s a chance for Frank Mir to carve his face into MMA’s heavyweight Mount Rushmore. It’s a chance to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he was the best heavyweight in the era of the best heavyweights.
Those new to this glorious pastime, perhaps drawn in via the exploits of Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor, or even the 2008-11 run of Brock Lesnar, may not see Mir vs Fedor for all its worth. For the rest of us though this is something unique; it’s a fight we were always promised but never received. A fight we argued about on the forums, long before social media was even a thing.
It’s one more opportunity to see our idols in action and remember that once upon a time, this was a sport that produced heroes, before it produced headlines.