Real Fighter | July 2008 | Cover Story
By Andrew Vontz
The watershed moment in former UFC heavyweight champ Frank Mir's career wasn't a motorcycle accident that left him with a broken femur, a destroyed knee, and serious doubts about whether he'd ever be able to fight again. And it wasn't having to coach opposite UFC interim Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on season eight of The Ultimate Fighter in the lead up to their title fight. It was something Mir's wife said following his first-round loss by TKO to Brandon Vera at UFC 65 in November, 2006. "Vera putting his knee through my chin was a wakeup call. I was in my hotel room after the fight and I sat there at my most miserable telling my wife maybe I was lucky in all the fights I'd won. Maybe I'm not a good martial artist, maybe I don't have what it takes, and if I did I don't have it no more. I'll quit and work as a host or whatever. She got on her knees and was screaming at me, I can't believe I married such a punk, such a fucking pussy. A 265-pound professional fighter being called a pussy. I'd become the guy people had ridiculed. It was easy before and now it was hard and I was going to quit. At that moment I realized how pathetic I was being. And I was like, damn dude, I can never be this guy. Even if I lose ten times in a row, I still have to keep fighting, train hard, give everything I have and honor my talent."
While Mir finished his last two opponents, Brock Lesnar and Antoni Hardonk, in less than two minutes each with submissions, Lesnar by kneebar, Hardonk by kimura, MMA forums are ablaze with fans and pundits who question Mir's willingness to do the work necessary to be a true champion. And for good reason. Whereas many fighters struggle and battle it out in lesser promotions for years before they get the magical call from the UFC that opens the door to national exposure, endorsement deals, fame and all the trappings that come with it, Mir got to step into the octagon in just his third pro fight against Roberto Traven at UFC 34: High Voltage. After taking out Traven with an armbar in just over a minute, Mir mowed down his next four opponents—three of them in under a minute—before snapping Tim Sylvia's right forearm to take the heavyweight belt.
It was an abnormally fast whoosh to the top for Mir, but it was less surprising in light of his personal history. While troubled childhoods and absentee fathers seem to be the common denominators in the storylines of many combat sport champions, from Jens Pulver to Mike Tyson, Mir was born the son of a loving mother and father in Las Vegas. His father, Frank, Sr., ran a Kenpo school. The family couldn't afford a babysitter so Frankie, as Frank, Sr. and his wife called their son, spent most of his childhood on the mats. "I have pictures of myself in a Gi that I have no memory of, I'm like two or three years old," says Mir.
By the time he was five, Mir had a bag of basic moves in his arsenal that grew every day. "By the time he was 10, we were more in-depth," says Frank, Sr. "I was talking to him about more than kicking and punching. We'd talk about Sun Tzu, the Art of War, and how those heroes of war were able to avoid things before they became a problem." This education extended beyond the realm of Eastern classics. "My dad was a Star Trek fan and at an early age he told me about an episode where Captain Kirk and Spock talked about going through the academy. They had a war simulation game at the academy and Kirk was the only person ever to beat it, even though Spock was smarter. Spock asked Kirk how he did it, and Kirk said he just rewired the machine."
Already armed with formidable mental and technical tools, Mir also had the advantage of natural strength and size. "At 12, he was close to 200 pounds. He couldn't play Pop Warner football," says Frank, Sr., who stands a mere 5'10" and weighs in between 195 and 210 pounds, "depending on whether I ate pizza of not." Father and son were so blown away by what they witnessed on the UFC 1 pay-per-view when Frankie was 14 that they, too, sought to combine the fighting styles and began to train in mixed martial arts.
By the time Mir reached the UFC, he'd developed sick jits and was a monster of a man, but fans questioned his conditioning and work ethic. Would Mir work hard to develop the conditioning he would need when he met his technical and physiological equal and had to fight past the first round, an inevitability in a sport so rife with talent? Turns out those fans were onto something. Mir consciously avoids reading anything written about him, but he's quick to acknowledge that conditioning has never been his favorite part of the game. "If you told me right now that I had to choose between either running a mile or having three guys hit me with baseball bats for sixty seconds straight, I wouldn't even have to think about it. I'd choose the guys with bats. I'd just curl up in a ball and it wouldn't be a big deal. The pain part of MMA has never bothered me. It's the burning of the lungs and the heart, a slow, building up, drowning type of pain that I hate."
Mir's loathing towards conditioning hasn't changed since the accident, but his attitude towards it has swung a 180, albeit with the swiftness of an oil tanker rather than a zero-turn radius lawnmower. "The first fight he wasn't ready for. The Christensen fight, his cardio wasn't there. He kept training the way he did and for the Vera fight he was ready but he wasn't 100%. After that he's been 100% ready to go, his cardio's been there," says James Horn, a fighter from Florida that Mir moved into his home in Las Vegas as a training partner for the Brock Lesnar bout. "Frank and I have a lot in common. He had a broken femur in his left leg and I have a plate and screws in my left hip. Anyone who criticizes him, go try to deal with what's going on in your mind when you have an injury that maybe can ruin your career."
It ain't easy, and it wasn't for Mir. "I like to say I was positive first, but I really went the negative route and had a lot of self hatred. I was very bitter and angry at myself. If you don't have a reason for doing anything, you won't give a shit. That's what killed me when I couldn't fight. I lost my identity. I had no reason not to be out partying, so I was out at the bar with friends. Nothing crazy or obscene, but I'd be out getting a drink. I was there three or four times a week. I had no training to get up to. It took a lot of coaching from my wife and watching my children to realize that was a coward's approach to life. That's for losers. It's like saying I'm not going to fight because I'm going to lose. If that keeps you from competing you're a coward. That's how I broke it down in my life. I was champ and now I'm nothing. I was so afraid that I didn't try anymore. The first thing about fixing a problem is identifying it and then verbalizing it—damn dude, I'm not as tough as I think I am. I just expected that I'd end fights quickly. I didn't like that people fought back. I was kind of a bully."
Now he says all of that has changed and points to his first round defeat of Brock Lesnar by kneebar as proof. "If I'd fought Brock Lesnar four years ago, he would've fuckin' killed me." A team of trainers led by Ken Hahn of Striking Unlimited pushed Mir into his best condition ever for the Lesnar fight, conditioning that helped him outlast an onslaught of crushing elbows from Lesnar to take the win. Skeptical fans might wonder if scoring yet another early first round victory could lead Mir back down his old path of complacency, but his wife says not to worry. "From the Dan Christensen fight until now, he's been back at the gym the entire time except for a week off after the Antoni Hardonkfight and after the Lesnar fight. Frank before, he wouldn't have done that. He has that eagerness to want to learn again and want to train."
Mir's new approach to conditioning—to work hard at what he finds to be most unappealing and painful about fighting—has brought him within a victory of completing the circle back to the title he held before his accident. This time, though, he'll enter the ring as a reality TV star thanks to his coaching spot on the Ultimate Fighter. "When I found out I was going to be a coach on TUF I was very excited but also very nervous because people were going to see the real me. It's hard because you realize people are going to know who you are and judge you. That's always been difficult for me. I was a quiet guy growing up, but now I'm on display." While some fighters love the hard partying and beds piled with naked women that come with the territory of victory, Mir's idea of a good time is meditating, re-reading Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, and having family time. The TUF gig thrust the shy Mir into the spotlight in a big way and put him face to face with his opponent every day for six weeks.
"It's weird. It's not the fighting part. I spar and punch my friends in the face all the time. But I'm trying to take away Nogueira's dreams, he's trying to take away mine. I want to be the champion and all the success it entails, all the things it could do for my family and what it represents. That would fulfill my dream. He wants to stay the champ for the same reasons. I want it, he wants it and the loser has to go home with none of it knowing he's lost. When you lose a fight, you lose money. You lose a lot. It's not an easy thing to deal with. If you put all the same things behind it and it was a game of checkers, I'd feel the same thing. I look at him and I stare at him and he stares at me. I let the reward focus me. I think this is the guy that wants to take shit away from my kids. Then you'll start getting a little bit of hatred almost. But you have to temper that with, he doesn't hate me. It's like there are two starving guys in a room and just one cupcake. That's when you start staring at each other and thinking about the cupcake."