When Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira meet at UFC 92 for the Interim UFC Heavyweight title, a battle of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu experts will unfold in the Octagon. A similar path brought both fighters to this point with the winner securing a future title unification fight with newly crowned Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.
The heavyweight title scene was thrown into a state of flux in October 2007 when then Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture resigned from the UFC, citing the UFC’s inability to sign former Pride Fighting Championship Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko as the main reason.
A Couture / Emelianenko match-up would have been touted as the greatest heavyweight MMA fight of all time but Emelianenko refused to sign a contract to fight exclusively in the UFC, even though rumors persisted that the per fight offer was in the seven-figure stratosphere.
Couture brought the battle with the UFC to court but with mounting legal fees and little hope of voiding his remaining contractual obligations, he returned and faced quickly rising star Lesnar at UFC 91 in November. Couture lost via second round TKO after Brock floored him with a punch that landed behind the ear and finished off The Natural with some heavy ground and pound.
Prior to Couture’s return, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won the interim Heavyweight Championship in February 2008 at UFC 81 by submitting Tim Sylvia via guillotine choke. That same night, Frank Mir faced Lesnar in his UFC debut, winning by ankle lock submission. Both fighters’ victories set them up as coaches for the UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter, and the eventual showdown of coach vs. coach.
How will the fight unfold? Based on each fighter’s style, it should go to the ground quickly where this has potential to be a classic. Nogueira’s stand-up can’t be overlooked, but Mir proved he can take a punch after receiving some brief but heavy damage in the fight against Lesnar.
Nogueira holds the edge in virtually every category: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, striking, experience (with 37 fights to Mir’s 14), and a strong chin. The latter was evidenced when he withstood 2 rounds of brutality from Tim Sylvia and also when he came back from a devastating head kick courtesy of Heath Herring. Mir isn’t known for his striking so Nogueira’s chin shouldn’t come under fire.
Nogueira holds another important distinction: he has never been finished in a fight, even with two losses coming against Fedor and one against Josh Barnett. One factor in Mir’s favor is that he’s three years younger and has experienced less in-ring damage.
He did, however, suffer a near fatal motorcycle accident resulting in a broken femur and torn knee ligaments which forced him to surrender the UFC Heavyweight title. The fact that he’s even fighting again defies massive odds. But given the accident and the layoff that followed, Mir may still not be near his potential top form.
Much of the ground game will center on each fighter trying to gain position and find an opportunity to sink in a choke, arm bar, leg lock, kimura or some other bone breaking finisher.
This style of fighting, while not as exciting as a Forrest Griffin/Stephan Bonnar brawl, brings a move-counter-move strategic fight that only two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu masters can concoct. A fight featuring heavy ground game has the potential to absorb rounds while neither fighter takes heavy casualties.
I think this fight ends up going the distance with Nogueira prevailing. It goes without saying that either fighter could win via submission at any point, providing the opening is there and enough time remains in the round to secure the submission. But as good as these two are, I think it goes all five rounds.
One thing is clear: whoever wins will be dealing with a much different animal (quite literally) in the unification fight with Lesnar. Brock has made it clear he wants Mir in a rematch, but what he wants and what he actually gets will likely differ.
I see Big Nog beating Lesnar as well, unifying the title sometime next spring or summer while the younger crop of heavyweights—Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Shane Carwin and Junior Dos Santos—establish a new pecking order in a heavyweight division that features young, massive well-rounded heavyweights that will create some intriguing match-ups over the next few years.