The brainy behemoth

UFC heavyweight Frank Mir talks about breaking bones, being a father and getting massages in his underwear

Photo: Beverly Poppe

Black eyes. Bruises. Bloody noses. That’s just another day at the office for the UFC’s interim heavyweight belt holder Frank Mir. Still sporting a shiner, courtesy of friend and training partner Forrest Griffin, Mir is hitting the gym a few weeks before the fight of his lifetime. His father, mother, wife and three children are all there to cheer him on as he trains to take on 265-pound fighting behemoth Brock Lesnar.

When UFC legend Randy Couture attempted to retire with the heavyweight belt in late 2007, it left the weight class in a lurch. After defeating submission specialist Antonio Nogueira, Mir, the former heavyweight champion prior to a 2004 motorcycle accident that almost ended his career, was rising back up the ranks as the interim heavyweight champ.

WWE crossover star Lesnar got a crack at Couture’s belt after only two fights in the UFC, enjoying a ridiculously fast rise to the top of the heap in what many, including Mir, deem an unearned fashion.

The Man in the Mir

As Mir spars with Griffin, his daughter Isabella is busy perfecting her judo throw as she scoops up her brother Kage and playfully tosses him to the mat of an adjoining boxing ring. Meanwhile, her dad is puking all over the cage because Griffin’s attempted chest kick caught Mir in the windpipe. Now, with his family in his corner, Mir chooses to shrug off those thoughts of Lesnar’s meteoric rise and see the big picture, one that hopefully includes the unified heavyweight belt around his waist once again.

I know your father plays a big role in your training; did he raise you to be a fighter? And how did you first get involved with mixed martial arts?

That’s how I got my first introduction into martial arts. I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a baby running around the school. Everything from wrestling to muay thai. I started wrestling when I was 15. I’ve trained in wing chung, jeet kune do, I’ve indulged in many arts that people would not have thought I have trained in and incorporated. The beautiful thing about MMA is it is so spontaneous as far as anything that is legal in any other sport is legal in our sport. I mean, it’s not barbaric; we’re not chewing on each other’s noses or anything. But you’re fighting and all of a sudden a guy throws a tae kwon do-style kick at your head, then he throws his foot down and throws a jab and a cross like a boxer, then he traps one hand and comes over the top with an elbow and a knee combination like a muay thai fighter, then changes into a double leg takedown like a collegiate wrestler. You have to learn all these principles, and then you have to let loose and be like a free-thinking artist, and that is one thing I loved about it. It is one of the most difficult things for the human mind to have to do. It’s the ultimate form of kinetic chess. It’s a chess match with each other’s bodies. It’s a thinking man’s sport.

You are an intelligent and articulate guy; did your family ever wish you had pursued a career that allowed you to use such skills more, especially since UFC wasn’t hugely popular when you began?

Yes, my dad still begs me after every fight, “Can that be the last one?” I understand where he’s coming from, because that’s the same approach I have with my children. I would train every day now regardless of whether I fought professionally. All my kids will train in martial arts; it’s a requirement. Do I want them to fight professionally? Hell no. If they ever step into a cage, I’ll cry. I would rather my daughter and sons be doctors and lawyers or wear a suit to work and use their brain and after work go train at the gym and spar hard. They could even do fights on the side, I just don’t want them to depend on it for income. It’s a stressful livelihood, because if you slip, break your ankle the week before a fight, then there’s no fight, there’s no paycheck.

I know that after seeing Royce Gracie use his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills in the first UFC, you were still not yet convinced of the necessity to learn the martial art, though you eventually got your black belt. What do you feel is the most important aspect of your game these days?

The one thing about it is it’s another aspect of finishing. Even in my stand-up now, if you look at how I throw punches, I really look to finish people. I look for the knockout shot. The great thing about jiu-jitsu is that it is the finishing result. Wrestling shows you how to take a person down and control them; judo, how to throw a guy. Different martial arts have ways of showing you how to control an opponent and put him down, but jiu-jitsu is the king of how to finish somebody. And that’s what I love about it. I think I have more submissions right now in the heavyweights in the UFC due to the fact that I go for that finishing hold. That’s the most definitive way to end a fight.

You used to be on the security team at the Spearmint Rhino. Are you still there?

No. After Brock Lesnar the first time I was able to make enough money to support my family. Before that I did okay with money, but it wasn’t guaranteed. Especially after the motorcycle wreck, I had bills I had to pay off. After the Brock fight I have hardly any debt, and that’s my way of living now.

While working at the Rhino, were you ever afraid that arbitrating a scuffle might injure you and interfere with your fighting career?

No, because really, honestly, the few scuffles that people are in, they are guys who don’t train. It’s the equivalent of a guy who used to play basketball back in P.E. in high school trying to play against an NBA player who’s an all-star. It’s a joke. Honestly, I felt there was a lot more responsibility on my behalf not to hurt somebody because I was capable of doing so. You know, “with all great power comes great responsibility [laughs].”

In that same vein, how do you talk yourself into willingly inflicting pain on someone as your profession? How do you turn that switch off in your head?

It’s not really like that. How many kids in high school play football? I’m sure before the game, they’re not breaking it down like ... “I’m going to try to hit him and break his ribs so he can’t finish the game.” I mean, is that what they’re doing? Yeah. But that’s not how they’re thinking of it. It’s a game. There’s that part of the human spirit that has to be cultivated that we have to be strong, we have to be warriors. As far as hurting another person, after I broke Tim Sylvia’s arm, we were having drinks at the House of Blues. That’s just the way it is; we’re all trained martial artists, but we’re all brothers.

I know the UFC is worlds apart from the likes of the WWE, but with fighters hopping up on the top of the cage and doing effects for the camera like Thiago Alves’ throat-slitting gesture, how much of the performance is for show?

No, that’s real. I don’t even mean to do the stuff I do after the fights, because you’re so pumped with adrenaline and it’s such an endorphin rush. When we’re watching my fights in the house, 99 percent of the time I cut it off at the end of the fight because I don’t want my family and friends to sit there and watch what I do at the end of the fight. I have no intentions of doing it, and I tell myself before every fight that I’m not going to do it. I do this weird like “no sweat” thing off my eyebrow. When I ran at Brock and said, “That’s my belt,” I never told anyone I was going to do that, I never had any intention of doing that. I just looked at him and all of a sudden it was like, “You have something that I want, and I’m going to rip it from your hands, and I’m going to break your face.” At that moment, that’s how you feel. Then reality hits and I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’ve got to get up in the morning with the kids. It’s just a few moments of temporary insanity.

Mir submits Lesnar at UFC 81 in February 2008.

Mir submits Lesnar at UFC 81 in February 2008.

Do most fighters actually hold grudges against opponents?

There’s very few guys who don’t like each other in our sport. The average fan doesn’t understand that two guys can like each other and still try to push each other’s teeth down each other’s throats at any given moment. So we have to make this whole “We don’t like each other, we hate each other,” I spit on him; it’s all a joke. Very few times is it ever real.

I have heard you speak before about fighters as role models. How do you feel about being a role model for so many young people?

I think it’s an important responsibility you have to accept. If you don’t want to accept it, then find some other way of fighting. Do I like being in the spotlight at all times? No, it’s nerve-wracking. What human being wants their life of display? We are all imperfect creatures who could always do better. We’re embarrassed a lot by our own actions. I am not any different than anybody else, but at the same time I realize that other people have been role models in my life like Bruce Lee, Richard Dawkins, all these different people out there that I look up to. Their actions speak volumes of what they do. You know, I think this will be the first time in about two years that I have been in a club. After the Brock fight because they paid me so much money that it’s hard to turn it down, to do an after-fight party. When I fought Nogueira, they offered me $5,000 to do an after-fight party, and I said, “No thank you, I would rather spend the time with my family.” And that’s not a front, but I just want to show people that you can still be that guy and be a fighter and be a cool guy. You don’t have to be out there partying and getting drunk.

How do you balance training hard with the risk of injury or wearing yourself out before a fight?

I cross my fingers. I try to do a lot of maintenance. I use ice, and I have a trainer that goes to every practice with me and looks at every bump and bruise and massages me in my underwear. Put that underwear thing in there.

How do you deal with the pain of training and fighting?

Pain is relative. Pain is just an electrical impulse that goes to your brain to let you know your body is in danger. I can tell the difference between what’s going to break and what just hurts badly, so I just use that as the difference. If it’s not going to break then I just keep on going. If it’s not going to rip then it’s not important. If it’s just pain then it’s just pain. A fighter just has to be a good accountant of what is pain for injury and what just hurts. If it just hurts then it just hurts. It’s just an illusion.

Speaking of hurting, after your 2004 motorcycle accident, did you think your fighting career was over? Did you have a backup plan if it was?

Yes, I thought my fighting career was over, and no, I did not have a backup plan. It was very scary and very depressing to where I was very self-destructive. Martial arts isn’t just my career, what I do to make money; it’s who I am as a person. That’s my religion. So when that was taken away from me, I didn’t know who Frank Mir was anymore. The only other thing I had going for me was that I wanted to be a family man, and my wife was able to stay very patient with me and slap me around when necessary and hold me when I cried like a pathetic wimp and basically kept me pointed as much as possible in the right direction until I figured it out myself.

How do you feel about the crop of newcomers to the UFC, many of whom are being funneled in from The Ultimate Fighter reality show, many of whom haven’t worked their way up the ranks in the traditional manner?

I would wish that I could have had that opportunity to step right in and get into the UFC fighting top-notch fighters. Those guys are getting access to world-class training early in their careers. My hat is off to them. They’re taking advantage of an awesome opportunity. The only group of people I have an issue with is the group of people who go on the show not to come and take advantage of the fact that they’re going to train with the Randy Coutures and the Forrest Griffins and the Rashad Evanses and the Quinton Jacksons of our sport, that they just want to get on there and act stupid, win or lose, they just want to make themselves look like an ass on TV so they can have their name out there to be famous. Then you’re an idiot, and I don’t want you on the show.

How did you feel when Brock Lesnar got a title shot after his initial loss to you and only two subsequent fights?

Initially, I was very upset about it because I felt it was very unearned. And it is unearned as far as in martial arts, he didn’t put in the time, he didn’t put in the pain, he didn’t put in the hard work. Almost everyone in the heavyweight division had more fights than him, but the drawback of being an intelligent person is you can see the big picture. The one thing about having a broad scope of a point of view is you can see where everyone is coming from, and it inhibits your ability to get pissed off. I understand that at the end of the day, Brock Lesnar sells tickets. He’s the most famous guy in the UFC. So he gets the title shot. For example, if you can imagine that Shaquille O’Neal and I were going to fight each other, millions of people would show up. But if I told you I was fighting Fedor [Emelianenko], most people don’t know who Fedor is. Fedor who? I mean, I know he’s the most dangerous guy out there, and I want to fight him like nobody’s business. Brock will always be paid more.

Lesnar has been saying you “got lucky” in your submission victory and that this fight is “all about revenge.” How do you feel about those statements?

Well, a lot of times when I watch a sport I go, “Wow, that was a lucky shot,” and then someone who knows more about the sport says, “No, he actually set that up, he went here, he went there,” and I go, “Oh wow, it wasn’t luck, that was actually skill.” So going back to that, luck is a statement ignorant people make over something they don’t understand. So I can’t be mad at Brock. How can you be angry at someone’s ignorance? It’s just a lack of knowledge. And after I beat Brock this time, and hopefully he can fight a couple more times, when it’s all said and done and I retire, then I can coach him and then he can be the world champion, because I can show him what I’m actually doing. Right now he is so far behind the game on skill and technique that I understand why he thinks it’s luck.


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