The stoppage of Josh Barnett's fight with Frank Mir on Saturday night at UFC 164 came so fast, even the victor felt sympathy for the vanquished afterwards.
"I come from the old school," said Barnett, a man not known for sentimentality. "I remember watching guys getting mounted and the crap just pounded out of them, where they easily would have been stopped, and then watch the guy on top gas, get reversed and get finished."
If that's how Barnett feels, you can imagine what was on Mir's mind after the matchup of former UFC heavyweight champions was halted at 1:56 of the first round in Milwaukee's Bradley Center. After being drilled with a flush knee to the jaw, Mir hit the mat and referee Robert Hinds waved off the bout before he had a chance to react.
Mir popped back to his feet and immediately protested the stoppage. He was still in a defensive mood hours later at the post-fight news conference.
"We're fighters," Mir (16-8) said. "If all the fights were stopped on any kind of flash shot or anything like that – actually, I took the knee, and I remember going, '[expletive], I'm in a bad position.' So that's why I dropped my other knee from out under me, so I could drop to the ground to make sure I didn't take a second one. I didn't belly out. I didn't flatten out."
[Related: Biggest winners and losers from UFC 164]
Mir will be the first to admit he's been on the bad end of a knockout before, as he's been legitimately dropped by sluggers like Junior dos Santos and Shane Carwin in his day. But a glance up at the arena's big screens after the fight confirmed in his mind that this wasn't one of those cases.
"At first I thought, maybe I was out," Mir said. "Did I take a bunch of shots that I didn't see? And then after watching it, I was conscious the whole time. Even when I stood up I wasn't wobbled. I was completely coherent."
Of course, the fact the poor stoppage was the focal point of post-fight discussion in and of itself demonstrates the thin line MMA referees often walk. Barnett dominated the fight against Mir on Saturday night. In his first UFC appearance since 2002, Barnett pushed the pace from the outset and showed nasty striking in close. While Mir was able to parry Barnett's initial flurry, Barnett wore down his opponent and was having his way when he wound up and landed the finishing knee.
It's apparent Barnett was very close to finishing the fight. Another solid shot or two could have ended it. But because the referee pulled the trigger too soon, the focus strayed from Barnett's solid ring work.
"I understand Frank's frustration," Barnett (33-6) said. "But I feel like there was no getting out of that, personally. I feel it was the beginning of the end, but that's what I'm supposed to feel."
[Also: Sixteen years later, Josh Barnett still a force]
UFC president Dana White, as one should expect by this stage of the game, didn't mince words about the Wisconsin commission's choice of the little-known Hinds as the ref in the co-feature bout.
"I've never seen this guy in my life, and he's in the co-main [event]," White said. "It's crazy."
The stoppage also gives Mir (16-8) an out to disguise what appears to be an accelerating career decline. The Las Vegas native has now dropped three consecutive fights. Granted, the opposition – dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, and Josh Barnett – was all championship caliber. But Mir hasn't looked close to competitive in any of the bouts. Both Barnett and dos Santos finished him, while Cormier scored 30-27 across the board scores in a decision. And at 34, time isn't on the shopworn Mir's side.
If nothing else, the nature of the finish gives Mir, the longest-tenured current fighter on the UFC roster, a reason to go back to the drawing board.
"I think the fans got robbed," Mir said. "I got screwed over. The fact that I trained so hard for that fight to keep up a pace that I knew I could have driven hard through for three rounds. Say what you will about [Greg] Jackson's camp and game planning, [but] everybody comes in shape. I showed up in shape on the scale, I showed up in shape out there, with my motivation. It sucks to do everything right and just have the door shut on you."
As for Barnett, whether the ref was quick with the trigger finger, there's no doubt the win was worth the wait. The Fullerton, Calif. resident by way of Seattle has long fashioned himself a contrarian, lone-wolf figure and has been very successful doing so.
But after spending much of the week attempting to downplay the impact of his long-awaited return to the company in which he achieved his biggest career accomplishment – the 2002 heavyweight title win over Randy Couture – the 35-year-old Barnett was finally able to admit that the moment mattered a great deal to him after all.
"It's been a long journey, but I think in the grand scheme of it all, that the people who believed in me and trained me from the get-go, put the right time and effort into me," Barnett said. "The staying power is here. There is no other fighter, really – 16 years in this game – and still going out there in the Top 10 consistently. I'm glad to be a part of it.
"I'm also glad to start where I did, in the dark ages," Barnett added, "and then end up here in this fantastic turnaround that the UFC is now."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA
- Sports & Recreation
- Martial Arts