Back before they agreed to fight each other for the UFC heavyweight title, Junior dos Santos and Frank Mir were supposed to play a video game together. Specifically, they were supposed to play "UFC Undisputed 3" at the MGM Grand before the UFC 141 weigh-ins started, and it was supposed to be nothing more than a fun, yet forgettable public appearance, the kind UFC fighters are expected to make when their employer asks for a favor.
But as I wrote in this Sports Illustrated story this week, the video game showdown never happened, though the story behind it offers some interesting insights into the personalities of both UFC 146 main eventers.
When Mir was told he’d be playing against dos Santos, he did what any intensely competitive person would do: he made it his personal mission to get very, very good at the game. He’d played it before, he said, but only "light-heartedly" with some friends at the house. And for this, light-hearted wasn’t good enough, Mir said.
"So I called up my youngest brother, who is an avid player of video games. I said, ‘Hey, come over and help me improve my skills a little bit.’ Of course I didn’t want to go up there and look silly."
But once dos Santos thought about the UFC’s plan, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be a part of it. This was just a few weeks after Mir had snapped Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s arm in Toronto, and as a result he wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity in Brazil.
"It wasn’t that he beat [Nogueira]," dos Santos explained. "It was that he talked a lot of trash after that fight, saying things that the Brazilian fans considered very disrespectful. I didn’t really want to put myself in a situation that was going to be doing a public appearance with Frank where I knew we were going to be laughing and having a good time. Something like video games is just more of like a hangout scenario, and I thought it might be taken the wrong way by the Brazilian fans."
So dos Santos asked the UFC to get someone else. What about Pat Barry? He liked Barry. Everybody liked Barry. He didn’t mean any disrespect to Mir, he explained, "but Frank Mir has a tendency to talk a lot around his fights," and some of the things he said after breaking Nogueira’s arm were still resonating with Brazilian fans.
But the way Mir sees it, that was all a cover for the "nationalism" of Brazilian fight fans.
"Nogueira’s the one who chose not to tap," he said. "I didn’t tell Nogueira not to tap. And I made no real ill comments toward him. I’d be really curious to [hear] a quote of what I said about Nogueira after the fight that was so disrespectful. I think it’s just the Brazilians being nationalistic and the fact of an American beating a Brazilian at jiu-jitsu, and one of the legends of jiu-jitsu at that. I think that’s the part that stings."
Mir thought he’d always represented jiu-jitsu well and given credit to the Brazilians where it was due, he said. He’d even entertained the idea of fighting down in Brazil, and didn’t think it would be a problem.
"Americans will still cheer for a Brazilian," he said. "They’ll cheer for Georges St-Pierre, who’s Canadian. I guess I realize now that if I went down to Brazil, it wouldn’t be the same there. ...After I realized that dos Santos couldn’t play with me because he didn’t want to upset the Brazilians I thought, wow, am I really that disliked?"
Not by dos Santos, or so the UFC heavyweight champ said. He might not have cared for some of Mir’s comments, but he had nothing against the guy, he said. He claimed he didn’t even mean to insult him when he described him as someone who gives up easily when things aren’t going his way in a fight.
"I think Frank Mir is very good when he sees a chance, when he sees an opening. He knows how to capitalize on his opponents’ mistakes, and he’s a very dangerous fighter. But when he tries to go for a certain technique and it doesn’t work out, I think he gives up easily. That’s what I think. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter. That’s my opinion."
Not surprisingly, Mir has a different take.
"My last two losses -- to Brock [Lesnar] and Shane Carwin -- in the Brock fight I was losing the whole first round and I still came after him in the second round. I actually stunned him with a flying knee. I was still trying to win the fight, but I was just incapable of doing so. The Shane Carwin fight, that was a bad game plan on my part. I was trying to take him into the later rounds, which was an intelligent idea. I just went about it the wrong way, trying to stall and hang on and hoping that he would get fatigued and wouldn’t have the cardio to go on later. ...I don’t know where I quit. I just took three or four successive blows from Carwin when I was face down on the canvas, trying to go for a kimura. If you want to say Carwin doesn’t hit hard, then I guess you can make that assessment."
For Mir, who turns 33 two days before the fight, this sudden title shot looks a lot like the last best chance at UFC gold. As the heavyweight division adds more fresh young talent, it’s difficult to say how long there will still be a place for guys who were doing this back when the UFC still insisted on naming each event (Mir’s debut, by the way, came at UFC 34: High Voltage, which reminds us how far the UFC has come in terms of graphic design).
Just don’t tell that to Mir, who insists he’s nowhere near done, despite what fans who have been watching him for the past decade might think.
"I think the only reason people assume that is because I started out in the UFC when I was 22," he said. "Sorry, guys. I was successful at a young age and I’ve kept around the top ten now for quite a long time. I don’t see myself going anywhere any time soon."