LAS VEGAS – Sometimes even tough guys cry.
When Frank Mir was announced as the new Ultimate Fighting Championship interim heavyweight champion after defeating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on Saturday night, he hid his face with his hat in order to hide his emotion.
But there was no shame in shedding tears. Four years after nearly losing it all in a horrific motorcycle accident, the former UFC heavyweight champion is back on top of the world.
Mir put on a magnificent performance in winning the crown from Nogueira in UFC 92's co-main event. The Las Vegas native's second-round TKO of the former PRIDE champion at the MGM Grand Garden Arena marked the first time in 38 pro fights that Nogueira was finished.
"I faced those demons after my wreck to come back and fight the best heavyweight who ever fought in the UFC," Mir said. "Everybody look at your lives; people always say you can't do [expletive]. Even I didn't think I could beat him."
Mir (12-3) struggled for quite some time after his return from a 2004 motorcycle accident during his peak as UFC champion. In his first several matches after missing nearly two years in recovery, Mir was more miss than hit, losing to the likes of Marcio Cruz and Brandon Vera.
"Most people lose because of what they're bad at, not what they're good at," Mir said. "I've tried to work on my strengths and weaknesses. Everyone here's a well-rounded fighter; if you're not, you're going to have a short night. I just knew I had to adjust."
More than once, Mir heard the whispers that he never would be the same after his accident, that the severely broken leg was too much to overcome and his head never would get fully back in the game. But an amazing 2008 that featured a submission win over current UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, followed by Saturday night's victory, proved the detractors wrong.
"When I came back from what I came back from, I wish I could make the statement that the odds were against me but you never quit," Mir said. "It's not true. I wanted to give up. Your heroes, when you look at them, they're not always what you think. The only reason I am where I am now is because of the support, my wife, my family, my parents, my children."
Mir's victory sets up the early leader for the biggest-money UFC event of 2009, as Mir will fight Lesnar to unify the titles in a match company president Dana White said likely will occur in the spring. While Lesnar holds the official championship, a loss to Mir remains the only blemish on the blond phenom's record.
"I'm not going to question Brock's legitimacy or anything like that," Mir said. "He beat one of the all-time greats of the game to win the title. Let's go out and settle this."
By now, hardcore UFC fans know the story about how the UFC managed to find itself with two heavyweight champions. In October 2007, reigning champion Randy Couture attempted to quit the UFC midway through his contract, unhappy with his pay.
During the inevitable legal battle, which lasted roughly a year, the UFC refused to strip Couture of the title, in order to strengthen its position. At the same time, anticipating Couture would not return, the UFC set up an interim championship match between Nogueira and Tim Sylvia at UFC 81, on the same card in which Mir submitted Lesnar.
Nogueira (31-5-1, 1 no-contest) defeated Sylvia, then both fighters were sidelined for several months as they served as coaches on the eighth season of "The Ultimate Fighter," with the idea the two fighters would meet for the title at the show's conclusion.
Before they could meet, though, Couture settled his dispute with the UFC, leading to Lesnar's win over Couture for the title last month. Mir's victory Saturday night completed the circle, giving Lesnar, already a monster pay-per-view draw, the opportunity to avenge his only career loss.
"Honestly, I've been so focused on my match [with Nogueira], I haven't even had a chance to really think about Lesnar," Mir said. "Even when I watched Lesnar-Couture last month, it really didn't even register. People would tell me, 'After you beat Nogueira, you get to fight Lesnar again,' but I wasn't thinking that far ahead."
The rematch wouldn't have come about without Mir's match of a lifetime Saturday night, as he fought a near-flawless battle against Nogueira. Mir took the standup action to Nogueira from the outset, patiently working a straight left hand that Nogueira seemed to have no answer for. Three times in the first round, Mir took Nogueira to the mat, scoring a trip following a clinch early, then dropping him twice with lefts, the last one in the final seconds of the round.
"I visualized winning the fight, but never by stoppage," Mir said. "I imagined knocking him down because I've seen what I've been doing in my standup. I just wanted to go out and win more rounds than him."
Mir refused to engage Nogueira, one of the great Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in the history of the game, on the ground, scrambling back to his feet whenever it became apparent Mir wasn't going to score the finish.
"I didn't want to get overzealous and get caught," he said. "There are a whole lot of great fighters who have made that mistake against him. I just wanted to win the most rounds and come out the winner at the end."
That wasn't necessary. In the second round, Mir connected with a big overhand left to the cheek, followed with another to roughly the same area before Nogueira hit the mat. Mir followed up with nine uncontested punches on the ground, and referee Herb Dean stopped the fight at 1:54.
"I saw something I never expected to see in him; he was dazed," Mir said. "The first time I jumped on him [after the first knockdown in the first round] he was ready; his composure was regained before he hit the mat. The last time, it was different."
Nogueira was gracious in defeat.
"I feel like I didn't fight well tonight," he said. "He had a great fight tonight. He is a great fighter, had some good shots in the beginning of the fight that changed things. He threw some strong hands. I have come back stronger and faster."