Whether you love or hate Frank Mir – and he’s got scores of fans on both sides of the fence – a lot of the fun for the former UFC heavyweight champion's fights comes long before the bouts even happen.
Mir is among the best in the business at building up a fight by going into detail about how he is superior and expects to dissect his opponent – in a way that garners headlines and usually infuriates his foe.
And sometimes, as in his most recent fight – a win over Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic eight months ago in a lackluster battle – the buildup was probably the highlight.
But this time around, Mir has been far less colorful leading into Saturday night’s UFC 130 show in his and his Roy Nelson’s home city of Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Nelson is his opponent but also his friend. More important, Nelson’s wife Jess and Mir’s wife Jennifer are best friends.
"I’ve got friends and family who are friends with him," noted Mir (14-5), who at 10 straight years in the UFC is one of the company’s most enduring stars. "It’s always in the back of my mind. In the past, I’d poke jokes at my opponent. But when this fight is over, we both have to live in the same city. One has to win, one has to lose – but then it’s over. But if one of us does something inappropriate [in building up the fight], I’d have to hear about that for the rest of my life."
Saturday’s fight is one where you can’t tell the book by the cover. Mir, with his perfectly coiffed hair, looks more like a model than a fighter – a huge, in-shape model at close to 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. Nelson, on the other hand, with his mullet haircut and huge belly, looks like an unathletic brawler transported in from MMA's prehistoric days. By Nelson's looks, one would think he’s a lot more likely to be a hot-dog-eating champion than a top-level fighter.
Despite the cosmetic differences, the fighters' records are similar: Mir is 14-5 and Nelson is 15-5. Though Mir has faced a higher level of competition, he is only a slight favorite. They’ve trained together, but not regularly in many years.
They’ve never faced off in MMA. But as soon as the match was announced, both men were repeatedly asked about a grappling match – which Nelson won on points – back in 2003.
Both men said that match doesn’t provide any hints for what will happen Saturday, noting it was a long time ago and under different rules. But Mir, who turned 32 on May 24, still can recite what happened almost blow for blow.
"In our grappling match, I went for Kimuras and neck cranks," Mir recalled. "He was better at positioning. I’ve come back to learn wrestling, which is more position oriented. He beats people [in grappling] on points and positioning. I was in side control going for a Kimura. After that, I think he was on top, passed the guard, went for the mount. I don’t even remember him going for a single submission attempt. There’s points in jiu-jitsu and that’s how he won."
Mir doesn’t see that match – or the period of six months in 2005, when the two trained together frequently – as giving him an extra level of insight he otherwise wouldn’t have.
"I study tapes of everyone and the tapes are more recent than when we’ve competed and trained together," he said.
Since their grappling days, Mir has gained a lot of muscle while Nelson’s belly has gotten a lot bigger.
"On a marketing level, [Nelson's stomach is] a good shtick for him. It’s his little niche. People recognize him for the belly, his Burger King abs. It’s good in that sense. It gets him recognized as more than just another guy in the crowd. I think people underestimate his conditioning. He is a well-conditioned athlete for being as overweight as he is. He is very efficient. He doesn’t do high-risk moves where he ends up being caught on his back and he has to expend a lot of energy fighting to get back to his feet.
"I’m the bigger guy. I know people wouldn’t think that seeing his belly, but I’m larger in the right way. I have to go out there and fight. I think I’m a much more complete mixed martial artist but he’s very good at fighting from behind. Most heavyweights are front-runners, so they aren’t used to a guy like that. Roy is very tough; he never cashes his chips in until closing. Until the final bell, he was still looking for [Junior] Dos Santos’ chin [Dos Santos beat Nelson to become top contender on Aug. 8] and looking for a victory." Living in the same city and being part of overlapping social circles has its amusing moments. There is always gossip in the fight world about what the opponent is doing in camp; but when two fighters train in the same town for a fight, the back-and-forth tends to get out of control.
"It’s definitely worse than usual," Mir said. "It’s information overkill. I’ve gotten to the point I don’t care unless you tell me he’s pulling out. We have a lot of mutual friends. One of his best friends is friends with one of my best friends. So much stuff has gone back and forth that we’ve made more of a joke about it. I’ve tried to get the word I broke both my hands getting out of the bathroom; he said his knees are so bad. We both poke fun at the whole situation."
The idea of this fight wasn’t even on Mir’s radar until he was called – and he wasn’t hot on the idea when suggested.
"At first, I kind of struggled with it a little bit mentally," he said. "But Giffy [striking coach Jimmy Gifford] and I were talking about it and, honestly, I’m sure Roy in training hits more people than he does in the fights. We’re in the gym a lot more hitting and practicing than in the fight itself, and all the people I train with are people I eat dinner with afterwards. And they hang out at my home or play video games with [me]."
"He was coming off a loss, so I didn’t think of it as a future fight since I was coming off a win," Mir added. "All the other things were reasons to avoid it – not because Roy and I can’t be professionals, but a lot of people who were around us are in the same social group, being married to friends and having to compete.
"I’ve known Roy for about 10 years, and we’re friends. We’re very cordial in the gym, have lots of mutual friends. But I’ve never been to Roy’s house and he’s never been to mine."
Because he’s been with the company so long, Mir isn’t going into the fight telling himself his career is over if he loses. A loss would certainly keep him away from title contention, however.
"I think it’s spoiled me," he said about being in the UFC for so long. "A loss isn’t the end of the world unless you do something like foul out. If you fight hard, you’re still not always going to be on the winning end. It’s an entertainment sport, and as long as you’re entertaining, well, look at Randy Couture – 55,000 people giving him a standing ovation and what is his record?"
Mir is still best known for his two fights with Brock Lesnar, with each fighter winning one. Mir grabbed a knee bar in 1:30 in Lesnar’s first UFC fight. Lesnar won via second-round TKO at UFC 100, the biggest MMA pay-per-view event ever.
For a while, Mir was obsessed with the idea of getting Lesnar back in the cage. Before the injury to current heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, there was strong consideration of Mir being in the Dos Santos position, coaching against Lesnar, on the current season of "The Ultimate Fighter." When Velasquez needed surgery for a rotator-cuff tear, Dos Santos wanted to fight, so he became Lesnar’s rival coach because it made more sense.
"If [Lesnar] can go back to being the wrestling force that everyone is intimidated by, yeah, that draws my attention," Mir said. "That’s why the urge to fight Brock has waned. He started off in the Shane Carwin fight; he was less than dominating in that performance. The ref could have stopped the fight. Whatever air of invincibility he had, the Cain fight sucked it out. Now with his personal health, he won’t have the size, the power, the weight – and that’s what makes him so intimidating, and that takes away my motivation to challenge him in the future."