This Saturday, when Andrei Arlovski enters the Octagon to face Frank Mir at UFC 191, one might say the Las Vegas crowd will be treated to a match-up about ten years in the making.
But it’s not. Sure, it could have happened then. Arlovksi and Mir seemed like the most natural of opponents when both served as titleholders in the mid 2000’s. But they each had their fall from grace, and their returns to the top.
Today, it’s a match-up of two underdogs who clawed their way back to the sport’s upper echelon.
Mir won the UFC heavyweight title with a devastating first round arm-bar submission of Tim Sylvia back in 2004. (It’s listed as a technical submission, as the bout was stopped when Sylvia’s arm broke. He never tapped.) With a snap, crackle, and pop, the title changed hands, won by a new-look Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist from Las Vegas; defeating the big brawler from the then-dominant Militech Fighting Systems camp.
Everything’s changed since then, of course. Mir improved his record to 8-1 with the win – at the time, a fighter with nine bouts was something of a seasoned veteran.
It felt like a new day. Earlier in the year, another American jiu-jitsu standout in BJ Penn stunned the MMA world with his upset of Matt Hughes. While Penn exited the promotion after a disagreement with UFC brass, Mir seemed like he was poised for a great run as champion – to me, anyway. Instead, he never defended his title as a motorcycle accident ended his reign, and nearly his career.
Some ugly losses followed, but Mir battled back into contention several times, including an interim heavyweight title win over rival Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in 2008. But although he holds UFC records for wins and submissions in the heavyweight division, he’s never been the dominant champion I hoped he’d become more than a decade ago.
One observer at the infamous Underground Forum dubbed Mir a heavyweight Rumina Sato. It’s not a perfect comparison, but I like it. Both the Shooto legend Sato and the UFC standout Mir have their share of wins via some effective stand up skills, but both really made their mark as dynamic grapplers who seem a challenge for anyone in their divisions; both own, respectively, some of the most memorable submission wins in MMA history. Still, a place at the very top of the sport has, mostly, eluded them.
Mir suffered beat-downs at the hands of the division’s best, but a submission win is always one twist of an arm away. Unfortunately, those chances seem to dissipate after a first round, as Mir accumulates damage and tires out.
In this week’s episode of MMA Nuts, Ingo and Matt were asked to comment on a list of the top ten best submission specialists in UFC history. Mir was at the top.
In his last bout, Mir decided to take a different tack, taking on a feared striker in Todd Duffee at what seemed to be his own game. He explained otherwise in a very interesting interview with Fight Hub TV (transcribed by Zane Simon at Bloody Elbow):
Their first intuition is, in the first round (Duffee) is very dangerous, he’s very explosive. How they’re handling it is completely incorrect.
A guy that jumps and leaps and is able to get so much power from his legs behind his punches, he’s not using his hips, he’s using his legs, which sounds weird to people, but there is a difference. If you back up, he’s going to hit you harder – so you jam him and force him to use his hips and use technique to hit you (and) he’s not going to hit as hard. That’s why, even when we were in the ring and I jumped on him, he was landing shots, the only shot that he ever caught me with that snapped my head back was the jab. And again, he landed one good shot, but all the rest, he would throw and everybody was like, ‘Oh, you know, you’re in there brawling with him.’ I’m like, ‘But, it’s not as dangerous as if I had stepped back.’ So, we had a good game plan.”
Saturday, Mir enters the Octagon an underdog again. His opponent Arlovski, another UFC champion of the mid-2000’s, has never lost via submission and employs perhaps a less athletic, more technical standup style than Duffee. Arlovski has won two straight knockout wins – interestingly, in both fights, he was the underdog.
Arlovski has more ways to win. But the dynamic Mir always has a chance. That’s why the bout is intriguing, in the here and now, and not just for its place in history.
The call here is Arlovski by decision – but watch out in that first round. As always, enjoy the fights!