There was a time during the haze of his suspension when Frank Mir was stuck in purgatory. Trapped in the bureaucracy of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after failing a PED test that detected the presence of oral turinabol metabolites (Mir has long declared his innocence), the decorated former UFC champion didn’t know what would happen or how it would end, and in his uncertainty, Mir let go of part of who he was. Suddenly, the jiu-jitsu black belt had a hard time dragging himself into the gym; the professional athlete of nearly two decades stopped caring for his body. He ate badly and often.
When he finally got around to figuratively looking in the mirror, he was 305 pounds. For a moment, Mir, now 38 years old, had doubts that he would ever fight again.
“At first, when I hit 300 pounds, my wife actually brought that up,” Mir told MMA Fighting. “She said, ‘You do realize you can’t walk around like this if you want to train or fight. It doesn’t look like you want to fight anymore. Do you want to fight?’ That called into question my own reality.”
Maintaining an interest in the martial arts had never before been a challenge for Mir, who grew up training Kenpo karate in his father’s gym, and who made it to the UFC by the age of 22. But as he contemplated the last two years in his life and his advancing age, Mir started pondering the future. At least briefly, he pondered hanging up his gloves. It was around this time he was listening to a former professional athlete speak about the process. He can’t remember the athlete, only that he was rattled by the simple but profound distillation of it all: “Retirement lasts the rest of your life.”
“I thought about that, and if I chose to retire after the suspension, it was like, ‘Am I really ready to never compete at this level again?’” he said. “That seemed like a hard prospect to swallow. I didn’t feel I was ready to leave. I wanted to still compete. That made it to where I stuck around.”
Mir also found motivation in his daughter, Bella. Like her dad, she began martial arts at a young age, and while she had been a promising softball player, the 14-year-old began shifting her focus to pursuing mixed martial arts. She is currently training with a plan to turn professional in a few years, and Mir enjoys working alongside her on a regular basis. Still, he is planning to cede the spotlight to her when she turns professional. When she makes that walk, he’ll certainly be done.
What happens until then is anyone’s guess, but the math gives him a window of around four years. There is still a bucket list to chase; Mir says he’d like to become the first heavyweight to capture championships in both the UFC and Bellator. That’s something he has the opportunity to accomplish through his participation in Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix.
“I think just being in there with Fedor is an impressive thing to be able to say at the end of my career, sitting in my office telling people my accolades,” Mir said. “Who you fought is a test of who you really are.”
Mir’s bona fides are substantial in their own right, something that is occasionally forgotten in the haze of the present. So while the fight is often framed as what it will mean for Mir, and against Emelianenko’s greatness, Mir gives no ground on either.
Ask Mir if he judges Emelianenko to be the best heavyweight ever, and he hedges. Yes, he agrees, Emelianenko belongs in the conversation, but the longer he speaks, the more clear it becomes that he believes he belongs in it, too.
“I think there’s a group of five to 10 of us that you can grab and put in that group,” he said. “Between Stipe Miocic and [Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira] Nog, and Fedor and Cain Velasquez. If you could do a magical fantasyland where each guy fights at their best, I don’t see one guy out of that group clearly dominating the rest.”
With an aforementioned title on his resume, along with a short interim reign; career wins over Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Mirko Cro Cop and Tim Sylvia; and a record 10 first-round finishes in his UFC career, Mir has plenty to point to.
While his competitive spirit is beyond question, his recent record has drawn its share of critics. Mir has lost four of his last six bouts, and has been stopped four times in that stretch. Whether those results are due to age, to opponent level, or to the arbitrariness of the division is a subjective argument, but one that has been embraced by detractors.
Such feedback is an unavoidable fact of life for professional athletes of any age, but Mir says the only assessments that matter come from those that surround him on daily basis.
“Someone who sees you on a certain night, maybe they’ve seen you on a bad night,” he said. “I’ve seen Tom Brady throw interceptions. Is it time to retire, or is it a bad game? What if all week in practice he looked phenomenal? There’s going to be a time when all week in practice he doesn’t look phenomenal, and that’s when people have to say, ‘Hey, man, you’re having a lot more bad days than good days. Not that you’re not able to be great for a moment, but it’s far and few between, so maybe for you’re own good it’s time to hang it up.’”
Ironically, Emelianenko has faced a similar predicament. After retiring in 2012, Emelianenko returned to the sport three years later, and has fought sparingly since, having only competed once each in 2015, ’16 and ’17. His bout against Mir will be his first of 2018, and he’s coming off a knockout loss at the hands of Matt Mitrione.
The pairing of the two is a long time coming. Mir won his UFC title in the summer of 2004; by that time, Emelianenko had solidified his hold on the PRIDE belt, reigning for over a year. Just prior to then, the UFC and PRIDE had explored lending fighters to each other, leaving many to dream up fantasy matches, but the experiment ended soon after Chuck Liddell was knocked out in a PRIDE ring.
Mir had given up on the possibility of ever fighting Fedor until he got the call with the fight offer.
“When they first told me, my initial thought, coming off a two-year layoff, was maybe it should be someone a little less dangerous,” he said. “Maybe I should knock off some ring rust after this long layoff. But then I thought, let’s jump into the deep end of the pool and fight Fedor. Once I wrapped my brain around it, I got excited about it.”
Even at 38, Mir will mark a new chapter upon his walk to the Bellator cage; he has fought exclusively with the UFC since November 2001. Far from being bitter, Mir said the timing was perfect. He started his UFC run shortly after the promotion was bought by brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and Dana White, and secured his release from the organization a few months after they sold it.
“It made poetic sense,” he said. “It’s no longer the UFC I knew. It’s gone corporate, and that’s not me.”
Mir looks back with fondness at the friendships he built, as well as his accomplishments in the Octagon. But he doesn’t look back for long. He’s always known it’s much more important to look forward, to build momentum. He has goals and aspirations. He has a daughter on the way to the pros. He has a ticking clock. Time is its own motivation, its own focus.
“Being pulled away from everything, I saw how much I love being a fighter,” he said. “Obviously, I have a lot more fights behind me than ahead of me. I’m no fool. I know the time is drawing near. I know I’m not going to fight for another 16 years. I have the blessing to understand that this is the end. It’s coming up, and I’m enjoying the ride.”