MMA: heavyweight title

Mir faces new stage in Hall of Fame career

May, 29, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Frank Mir was 22 years old when he made his Octagon debut at UFC 34.

It was Mir’s third pro MMA fight, and in it the fresh-faced Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt took just a minute, five seconds to tap out (and injure, from the look of it) two-time BJJ world champion and former Abu Dhabi open weight titlist Roberto Traven with an armbar.

A sign of things to come? Yeah, you could say that.

One glance at the UFC 34 card and it’s impossible not to feel the passage of time.

In the evening's dueling main events, Randy Couture defeated Pedro Rizzo to retain the heavyweight title, and Carlos Newton lost his welterweight crown to Matt Hughes. Counting Mir, five future UFC champions fought that night, including BJ Penn, Josh Barnett, Ricco Rodriguez and Evan Tanner. Also on hand were Matt Lindland, Phil Baroni and -- just in case you want to feel really old -- Pete Williams.
[+] EnlargeJunior Dos Santos and Frank Mir
Rod Mar for ESPN.comFrank Mir, right, was outgunned and out of his league against Junior dos Santos.

The show took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which lends an undeniably circular vibe to any discussion of what happened to Mir on Saturday night at UFC 146.

What happened, of course, was that we likely witnessed the end of Mir’s career as a top contender to the UFC heavyweight title.

Obviously, nothing is certain. In the shallow heavyweight division, fortunes can turn on a dime, but on the heels of his fifth fight for some version of UFC gold, it’s tough to imagine the now 33-year-old Mir putting together the kind of prolonged run it would take to earn him a sixth.

Not after he was so thoroughly outgunned by Junior dos Santos this weekend, at least. Not after the champ so effortlessly shook off his takedown attempts and repeatedly punished him to the body and head before ultimately leaving him sprawled out on the canvas midway through the second, just to one side of the Octagon’s shiny new MetroPCS logo.

Like we said, the passage of time.

Mir will no doubt fight another day. Not doing so would show a sort of self-awareness and good sense we seldom see in professional athletes, so we must assume he'll go on to have at least a handful of future fights in the UFC. Early this week, the Internet is atwitter with rumors that his most recent and most bitter nemesis, Brock Lesnar, might return; and right now, there could probably be no better development for Mir’s continued relevance.

Even if Mir never fights again, though, he’ll leave a near unparalleled legacy in the 265-pound division. His 16 wins in the Octagon are the most all time by a heavyweight. He twice held the UFC title (though once it was an interim belt) and his highlight wins over Tim Sylvia, Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira rank among the most memorable submissions in the company’s history.

Perhaps most impressively, Mir battled his way back from a 2004 motorcycle accident that short-circuited his first title reign and threatened to end his fighting career entirely. After shattering his femur and tearing all of the ligaments in one knee, Mir returned to go 8-5 during the next six years, arguably besting anything he’d done in the cage prior to the accident.

If it is not the most remarkable comeback story in UFC history, I’m not sure what is.

Now, Mir faces the unenviable task that eventually befalls all athletes: transitioning to the twilight of his career. How he does it will be entirely up to him. Will he serve as a measuring stick for the UFC’s suddenly healthy crop of up-and-comers; fighters like Stefan Struve, Stipe Miocic and Shane del Rosario? Or will he go a route similar to the one taken by Hughes and Couture, crafting his own conclusion by picking his spots in high-profile, big-money bouts?
[+] EnlargeBrock Lesnar
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesA Brock Lesnar return would be good news for old nemesis Frank Mir.

Aside from Lesnar, the perfect next foe for Mir is probably Barnett, considering their comparable ages, styles and positions in the sport. To make that happen, however, either Barnett would have to be granted his long-awaited return to the UFC or Mir would have to unexpectedly show up in Strikeforce. Not sure either seems overwhelmingly likely.

In any case, Mir spent years in the rarefied air of the heavyweight division’s elite. When the time comes, he should be a shoo-in for the UFC Hall of Fame. Now though, he’ll have to pass the torch -- unceremoniously, as is typical in this sport -- to new standard-bearers like dos Santos, Cain Velasquez and (soon, we hope) Daniel Cormier.

Never was that more apparent than between rounds on Saturday night.

During the final minute of the first, dos Santos had hurt Mir badly, forcing him to stumble sideways, throw a sloppy counterpunch that missed by a mile and shoot for a doomed takedown attempt. In all likelihood, he was saved by the bell. As he sat on his stool receiving orders from his cornermen, the ringside doctor leaned in and asked one of those questions no fighter (no person, really) ever wants to hear.

“Do you know where you are, sir?”

Mir fired off an immediate response: “Mandalay Bay, Vegas, May 26.”

He didn’t sound at all confused. In fact, he sounded completely sure of himself; this declaration issued with the same swagger and unwavering certainty we’ve come to expect from him over the years. The only problem was -- as was instantly pointed out by the UFC broadcast team -- he wasn’t at Mandalay Bay at all.

Mir was back at the MGM Grand.

He was back where it all started, and time was passing.

Steady Velasquez keeps it all in perspective

November, 9, 2011
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Cain VelasquezEd Mulholland for ESPN.comIf the pressure is getting to UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, he isn't letting on.
LOS ANGELES -- Cain Velasquez looked sharp on Wednesday.

Despite the warm weather, the undefeated heavyweight champion wore his customary grey suit jacket and open-collared dress shirt to the UFC on Fox media conference on the outdoor mall at Nokia Plaza.

He entered from stage right, sat down a few feet away from Junior dos Santos and smiled briefly. He squinted into the sunlight and nodded at the mixed reaction from a crowd evenly split between rooting for him and for his decidedly casual and un-tucked challenger. It was hot. He sweated. Finally, somebody brought him a handkerchief to mop his brow.

And that was about as exciting as it got.

If you came to LA looking for headlines you’re going to have to wait until Saturday, because Velasquez is playing it cool in the final days before the biggest night of his life.

“It’s just fight week,” he said when asked about the magnitude of this event. “That’s what it feels like to me; it feels the same as any other fight. I’m ready to go out there. I’ve had a long layoff, but I’m excited to be back.”

By "back" he means returning from nearly 13 months on the shelf after rotator cuff surgery and when he says "out there" he's talking about making his first title defense in what will likely turn out to be the most-watched UFC bout ever. It’s a fight his boss has already called the biggest in the company’s history and one that was handpicked for this high-profile, high-pressure spot.

The same as any other fight? Hardly.

That kind of attitude, though, is exactly what we've come to expect from the even-keeled Velasquez. By now we know the guy we see at midweek media events is in stark contrast to the one who typically shows up inside the cage on fight night.

From bell to bell, he’s one of the most dynamic and exciting heavyweights the sport has ever seen. For evidence, we need look no further than UFC 121, when he battered Brock Lesnar into near ruin in less than one round, taking the title and leaving the former WWE wrestler a sizeable scar underneath the right eye to remember him by. He is breathtaking in his speed and accuracy, as nimble as a welterweight, with a motor that won’t quit. He's technically flawless, they say, prompting even hard-bitten, long-time trainers like Javier Mendez to bathe him in superlatives.

But in front of a microphone? That Velasquez is nowhere to be found.

"Succinct" is probably the best way to describe Cain Velasquez the public figure. Stoic. By the book.

During media engagements, Velasquez comes off more like the successful, well-coached college athlete he once was than a mixed martial artist looking to sell a fight. Make no mistake, he’s as friendly and agreeable as they come. He’ll answer all the questions, pose for all the photos, but Chael Sonnen he is not. Nick Diaz, he is not.

Never too high, never too low -- that's Velasquez. And you know what? Just days out from the UFC’s debut on network television, maybe that's for the best.

Another fighter might have gotten caught up in emotions on Wednesday. He might have gotten distracted by the fans chanting in Portuguese, or the guy asking dos Santos which hand he plans to use to knock Velasquez out, or the dude who suggested that the champion adopt the nickname “The Shrexican” due to an iffy resemblance to the cartoon ogre. Another fighter might give himself the yips thinking about the millions of people who will tune to his fight or get similarly lost in notion that the winner of this bout could conceivably become the most famous MMA fighter in the world overnight.

Not Velasquez. Prior to the fight, he’s not going to give reporters an exciting story. He's not going to give his opponent any bulletin board material. He’s just going to show up on fight night as the best heavyweight on the planet and trust that will be good enough.

If he was sweating on Wednesday, you better believe it was because of the heat. Velasquez won’t get swallowed by the moment because, frankly, he won’t even stop to consider it.