A look back at Frank Mir's first title win shows just how different things were

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This week marks the ten year anniversary of a unique moment in UFC history, home town fighter Frank Mir scored a huge upset over Tim Sylvia to capture the UFC heavyweight title, breaking his arm with an armbar in just 50 seconds. And at that time, fans had no understanding of what they had just seen and booed the ending.

The night Frank Mir broke Tim Sylvia's forearm with an armbar to capture the UFC heavyweight championship, almost nobody watching understood what had happened.

Looking back 10 years later, it's a reminder of how different things are, particularly from a crowd standpoint.

The fight took place in Las Vegas, and Mir, who had just turned 25, was the local boy. He had a record of 7-1, but was a significant underdog against the 6-foot-8 Sylvia who, was UFC champion with a 16-0 record. Mir's striking game at the time was limited, but he was excellent at submissions, particularly for the standard of heavyweights in that era. But Sylvia had shown strong takedown defense and an ability to use his height and length to dominate everyone standing.

Mir had a simple strategy: Throw a kick, which would bait Sylvia into reacting by going for an easy takedown. That's exactly what happened. Once on the ground, it only took seconds for him to lock on the armbar.

Referee Herb Dean, long before most fans actually knew who he was and considered him one of the sport's top officials, called a halt to the fight at 50 seconds.

The home town fighter had just won the world heavyweight title.

And everyone booed. Loudly. Vociferously. Mir had the look on his face as he was announced the winner like he had just been given a sentence for robbery, not just captured the UFC heavyweight championship.  

Fans had no understanding of what happened, even though when Dean jumped in to stop the fight, he shouted loudly, "His arm's broken."

Sylvia hadn't tapped, nor had he realized his forearm was broken. He still wanted to fight, acting in disbelief about the stoppage. The audience was furious, seemingly ready to hurt Dean. Dana White was confused. Bruce Buffer was confused, not even announcing Mir as the new champion. There was complete chaos at ringside. There were questions about what to do regarding Dean's "screw-up," and maybe hold up the championship.

Finally, the replay aired on the big screen, clearly and vividly showing Sylvia's right forearm breaking. Joe Rogan picked up on it, a moment that showed Dean made the right call, and Mir was clearly the deserved champion. Rogan explained it to the audience.

And they still booed.

With today's eyes rewatching that fight and its aftermath, which is part of a Mir retrospective on UFC Fight Pass which focuses on that unique title change, it hits you hard just how different that situation would play out today if a young underdog fighter in his hometown did the same thing in a championship fight.

"I think everyone has now learned a lot more and understands it," said Mir. "Yeah, it was a disappointment with the situation until Dana announced the outcome (this wasn't until the post-fight press conference where White detailed the extent of Sylvia's injuries, two breaks in both the radial bone and the ulna bones) and it felt like retribution. But it was a bittersweet moment."

The sport has evolved greatly since that time. Mir was into martial arts, and watched UFC as a kid dating back to the very first show. He fell in love with the submission game based on his concept of real street fighting. He felt actual bare knuckle striking was overrated, noting that if you hit a heavy bag without wrapping your hands, you're doing substantial damage to your hands and you won't want to do it for long, and someone's skull is harder than a bag.

He was a good high school wrestler, but felt the only way wrestling wins a fight is by holding someone down until they get so tired they can't fight anymore, before he was exposed to MMA and saw Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr where he was exposed to the idea of using wrestling to set up finishing someone with punches on the ground. It was the submission game he felt was the fastest and more economically effective way to win a real fight. But things have since evolved greatly.

"I never found striking to be an effective form of fighting," he said. "I still clown people and tell them how animals in the wild that are hunted, they have to strike, bulls and rams, they use striking as protective nature. But the ones who are the predators, they're the grapplers who go for the throat. To have an effective striking match, you need gloves on. Junior dos Santos would have a very short career if he was in a bare knuckle fight. The early UFCs, before gloves, were grappling with some striking.

"The first UFC I watched was in 1993, and it was the first time I was exposed to grappling," he said. "I was paying attention to everything. I watched judo, Japanese jiu-jitsu, sambo, and even pro wrestling. I watched guys who were professional fighters hit each other 30 times, and it still didn't go anywhere. I thought `that wasn't very effective' But I saw if you got someone in a choke, you can end a fight in seconds, and I pushed toward that."

"I've always been a fan of martial arts, even before I did jiu-jitsu tournaments," he said. "I did point karate tournaments and wrestled in high school. To me, it was just an evolution and mixed martial arts was the next step. I just wanted to compete and train in it. I had no illusions of it being a paying gig. Guys go to the gym and pay other people to train them. To me it's like people today doing Crossfit. Nobody thinks they'll get rich doing Crossfit. Everyone has the thing they enjoy. I like fighting."

The game completely changed from when Mir first won the title just a few years later.

"I think everyone has gotten a little more athletic and more well-rounded," he said. "It's the same in all divisions, but the heavyweight division is a little more striking. Being heavy-handed is more of an advantage in the heavyweight division than any other."

But outside the cage, the changes are just as dramatic.

"There's a part of me that enjoyed that there really wasn't much money in it," he said. "People went to the gym purely for the love of the sport. There was no light at the end of the tunnel financially, where people got into the sport purely because there was money to be made."

The flip side is that there's far more prestige in it as well.

Mir noted that in 2001-02, when he would meet people, he never brought up that he was a UFC fighter, particularly women he'd meet, thinking it would be a deal-breaker.

"Among the people who fought, of course I'd talk about it," he said. "Outside that, I didn't. The idea that you fight another guy in a cage half naked, 13 years ago, that wasn't exactly an icebreaker. Nowadays it's a lot more widely accepted, but you still have things, like in New York (where the sport is banned). In 2001, it wasn't a way to secure a date with a girl. If you told them you fought in UFC, that probably wouldn't have went over too well. Now we have people who tell people they fought in UFC who have never fought."

The story of how Mir got into UFC itself was unique, the luck of being in the right place at the right time. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, who in a little-known fact, never drives, had moved from Richmond, Va., to Las Vegas and was on his bicycle scouting out gyms for training. Mir was training at a gym near where Silva was living.

"I was nobody at the time," he said. "He just saw me train. He asked me if I'd be interested in fighting. At the time I had one fight (Mir ended up fighting twice on small shows before his UFC debut). I told him the interest was there."

But after his auspicious moment of winning the title, things didn't get better.

Three months into his title reign, Mir was in the hospital with his career in jeopardy. He was riding his motorcycle on Sept. 17, 2004, and was hit by a car and knocked flying. He broke his leg in two places, tore all the ligaments in his knee, and needed major surgery. His career was in jeopardy. He wouldn't fight again for nearly 17 months.

The injury would be devastating for any fighter, but it was more for Mir, who at that time was able to rely on his jiu-jitsu game for success.

"Jiu-jitsu requires a lot of lower body strength," he noted. "If your knee and hip and femur are messed up, everything hurts. You get scar tissue, then you start having problems when you work through the problems. A lot of people try to work around it."

When he returned, he lost two of his next three fights, both via TKO in the first round.

The real turning point was back home in Las Vegas, nearly three years after the accident, on Aug. 25, 2007. Mir had more on the line that anyone understood at the time, when he submitted Antoni Hardonk in just 1:17 with a Kimura. This time, the audience reaction was very different. The audience learning curve had grown by leaps and pounds in just over three years. There's a clip as his hand was being raised of his wife, Jennifer euphoric, as he told fans, "Now you're going to see Frank Mir," as if he recognized at that moment he had his mind and body back.

Mir's job was on the line had he lost that fight, as White had told him that he was concerned Mir wasn't a top-level fighter anymore and that if he didn't look good in his next fight, he'd have to cut him, for his own good. Today, given all he had been through, he said it didn't just save his job, but possibly his marriage. In his next fight, he submitted Brock Lesnar in the latter's UFC debut, with a kneebar in 90 seconds, in what at the time was one of the most hyped and talked bout fights in UFC history. He gone in four months from being on the verge of being let go, to superstardom in the sport, and by the end of the year, was UFC heavyweight champion a second time.

Looking back, Mir felt it took three to four years before he fully recovered from the motorcycle accident, and in a sense the injury was a blessing in disguise. It forced him to develop the parts of his game that were lagging. He had a second career which saw him become a far bigger star than the first, capturing the heavyweight title a second time at a time the sport's popularity was exploding, this time from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. It was another major upset, as Nogueira was thought to be Mir's superior at every aspect of the game, even on the ground. He split two of the most famous fights in UFC history with Lesnar, the second headlining UFC 100, the sport's all-time high point of popularity.

The second title win, beating Nogueira on Dec. 27, 2008, for what was actually for legal purposes, the interim title, also in Las Vegas, allowed him to get the moment in his hometown that the circumstances of his first title win didn't allow him.

"I was more satisfied with the win over Nogueira because of the obstacles, and to be able to dominate Nogueira at the time," he said. "I always felt  confident fighting Nogueira. For the last couple of years, I saw his game. The one thing about getting on top is that people study you and can break you down. After watching so many of his fights, I got to figure out his game plan."

But when it comes to his career most satisfying moment, it was neither title win, nor the Lesnar win, but his second win over Nogueira, when he used a Kimura to tear Nogueira's shoulder up, in a match between two of the best submission heavyweights in history. Nogueira was winning the fight on his feet and Mir admits he was almost finished, when the fight went to the ground and he locked on the Kimura, winning the physical chess game he had been studying for years, and garnering some submission of the year awards.

"It was about overcoming adversity," he said. "I was on the verge of defeat, I came back and won the fight devastatingly."

He hopes that fight is a metaphor for his career at this point again. Just as the second title win saw his career go full circle, consecutive losses to the cream of the heavyweight crop, Junior Dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett and Alistair Overeem, has put his back against the wall once again at 35 years old.

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