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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Nogueira?

Frank MirIn MMA, there are two main ways to win: submit your opponent or knock him out. So how then, do you deal with a fighter who seemingly can't be submitted and can't be knocked out? Such a quandary faces Frank Mir this Saturday night at UFC 92 when he faces Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, one of the best fighters this sport has ever seen.

Mir is well-known for his jiu-jitsu, but Nogueira's is better. Mir's showing against Brock Lesnar shows that he can take a punch, but Nogueira has made a career out of absorbing inordinate amounts of punishment, only to prevail in the end.

The deck seems well-stacked against Mir from the start.

But Nogueira is beatable; he has gone down to defeat three times in MMA competition. Taking a look at those losses (and some near-losses), and using FightMetric statistics for every fight in his career, perhaps we can see if there's something that can be done about this Minotauro.

So how might Mir do it?

By Knockout

There are two common elements to every knockout: a strike and a chin. In this case, we're talking about the strike belonging to Mir and the chin belonging to Nogueira. Let's start with the Nogueira part.

Remember all that stuff we said about it being impossible to knock out Nogueira? Forget about it. It's not true. With a perfect strike, every fighter can be knocked out. We've seen Nogueira take shots that would have felled any other fighter, but he's still as susceptible to the "puncher's chance" as anyone else.

But actually knocking out Nogueira is beside the point. What's more important is that every fighter can be stopped with strikes for a TKO. What's the difference? A KO means that the losing fighter gets caught with a clean strike, goes down, game over. A TKO means that the referee stops the fight because he believes the losing fighter is no longer intelligently defending himself.

So now we've added a third element: the referee. A victory by TKO is not about putting your opponent in a position where he can't intelligently defend himself. It's about convincing the referee that your opponent can't intelligently defend himself. Given Nogueira's stubborn insistence on remaining conscious, that is a much more manageable task than getting a KO.

The chin is one thing that deteriorates with age and Nogueira has proven much easier to drop as of late. Nogueira has been knocked down in three of his last four fights. Prior to that, he had only been knocked down twice in his previous 20 fights. Against Josh Barnett, Nogueira recovered immediately after getting hit and the fight was in no real danger of being stopped. Against Heath Herring, Nogueira appeared to be in serious trouble after taking a clean kick to the head, but Herring inexplicably did not follow to the ground and let Nogueira recover. In Nogueira's most recent fight, Tim Sylvia did follow to the ground after landing a big punch and probably came as close to finishing Nogueira as anyone ever has. Referee Herb Dean, probably well-aware of Nogueira's legendary chin, allowed the fight to continue. A different referee could have easily seen things a different way and stopped the fight.

So now that we know that Nogueira can still lose by strikes, how likely is Mir to be the one to deliver them? For his career, Mir has scored a knockdown exactly once. That said, that knockdown turned out to be a knockout. It's been nearly five years since Mir landed the shot that put Wes Sims down and earned his only knockout. If he hangs back on his feet and waits to land the big shot, perhaps he'll be able to add another.

By Submission

Here's where things get tricky for Mir. Submissions are obviously his strongest point, but submitting a fighter like Nogueira requires an absolutely perfect hold. Nogueira has been caught in tight submissions before, but he's one of those fighters that will never tap out. Keeping an eye on the clock is also important. Josh Barnett had Nogueira in a tight kneebar that looked like serious trouble, but it was close enough to the end of the round that Nogueira could hold on and survive.

But the lesson is that Nogueira can be caught in submission holds. Only four fighters have managed to latch them on, but those were also probably the four best grapplers that Nogueira has faced in his career (Barnett, Fabricio Werdum, Pawel Nastula, and Mark Coleman). It would seem that Mir is equal those fighters in submission ability. Perhaps he too can catch Nogueira in something sneaky.

By Decision

The adage about Nogueira is that he never loses, he just runs out of time. Both Josh Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko have been ahead on the judges' scorecards when Nogueira's time ran out, accounting for his three MMA losses.

For Mir to become the third man to beat Nogueira, he'll have to do something that he's never done before: fight for longer than 15 minutes. In fact, Mir has only even fought for 15 minutes once in his career, in an uninspired decision win over Dan Christison. On average, Mir's fights go a total of 3 minutes, 38 seconds. By contrast, Nogueira's average fight lasts 11 minutes, 53 seconds. And while Nogueira has never gone 25 minutes in a fight, he's gone 20 minutes on six occasions.

Based on his three losses, there seem to be two ways to beat Nogueira by decision. Emelianenko did it by controlling the fight on the ground. Between his two fights, Emelianenko landed seven of eight takedown attempts and outstruck Nogueira 95-8 on the ground. Barnett did it by owning the standup -- outstriking Nogueira 15-8 and scoring a knockdown -- keeping things pretty even on the ground, and latching on several submission attempts. He also had the good fortune of a 15-minute time limit.

The Emelianenko method will be hard for Mir to pull off. To start, he only lands 46% of his takedowns, so it might be a challenge putting Nogueira on his back in the first place. Second, Nogueira has a remarkable ability to reverse position, so holding him down is easier said than done. Finally, no one has ever landed as many strikes against Nogueira as Emelianenko. In fact, Nogueira has gone multiple years at a time without getting hit as many times as he did in his first fight against Fedor.

The Barnett method is the more likely one. Mir will need to show better stand-up than we've seen before (see the By Knockout section). Nogueira is the better technical boxer, but he does leave himself open for leg kicks (a Mir specialty) and big haymakers. Once on the ground, whether on top or on bottom, Mir will have to really push for submissions. Submission attempts factor into the judges minds, but they are seemingly less important than striking or positional control. To really make an indelible impression, Mir will have to go from attempt to attempt like he never has before.

If that "like he never has before" sounds repetitive, it's for good reason. Mir will have to demonstrate skills he has never shown, namely, endurance, polished striking, and the ability to persevere after getting hit in the face. A victory will require the fight of his life. If he doesn't, all signs point to another win for Nogueira.

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