On a night when underdogs dominated to the point that Las Vegas recoiled in shock, Frank Mir may have been the most surprising victor of all.
Prior to February’s UFC Fight Night 61 main event, the former heavyweight champion was on a career-worst four-fight losing streak where he didn’t look all that competitive against the top tier of fighters in the division. Between getting worked over in a couple of decision losses and suffering two rather hard-to-watch knockout losses to Junior dos Santos and Josh Barnett, it looked like Mir was teetering on the edge of being forced to step away from the Octagon for the first time in almost 15 years. To top it off, Mir’s suspect chin wasn’t getting an easy obstacle to overcome in the form of hard-hitting Antonio Silva, especially in front of a pro-“Bigfoot” Brazilian crowd.
However, there was something in the air that night. After nine of Mir’s fellow underdogs found a way to pull off the upset, it gave the UFC fans a hard reminder that anything can happen in the Octagon. Then, Mir went out and put an exclamation mark on that statement, surprising fight fans by coming out in the orthodox stance instead of his usual southpaw and then by flooring the attacking Silva with a jab to earn the stoppage. Instead of being on his way out of the cage and into retirement, Mir is now coming off a win over a top-10 heavyweight and he’s back in the thick of things in the 265-pound weight class.
Perhaps fight fans should have seen it coming. After all, Mir has made a career out of being the underdog. He won his first UFC title as an underdog when he tapped out Tim Sylvia, and Mir was even an underdog against the debuting behemoth Brock Lesnar, whom he caught with one of the most famous submissions of all time. He was also the underdog when he won his second UFC belt from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and knocked out the fighter whom fans considered to be unfinishable at the time. Mir is usually at his best when fighting with something to prove, and he pulled off another one of his minor miracles against Silva.
With his job secure for the moment, Mir did not have to wait long before potential opponents started coming out of the woodwork. The most high-profile name being tossed around was Lesnar, but when the former champion opted to stick with his WWE career instead of going after a rubber match with Mir, the dream scenario disappeared quickly.
Nogueira, who suffered the two most demoralizing losses of his career against Mir, was also looking for a rematch and a final shot at redemption. However, the Brazilian was matched up opposite Stefan Struve instead for a bout that will take place late this summer.
That left Mir with the guy with the smallest profile and the loudest mouth: Todd Duffee. Duffee had been calling out the former champion as often and as respectfully as he could since Mir’s win in February. Duffee ended up getting his wish when he was placed opposite Mir for a fight booked for July.
If the win over “Bigfoot” gave fight fans what we needed to see to not completely write off Mir as a viable UFC heavyweight, an impressive win over Duffee is the step needed for fans to buy Mir’s attempted career resurgence as the real deal. Unlike Silva, who’s fought top competition but has also been knocked out pretty frequently as of late, Duffee is still in his prime. Duffee is hungry and he’s looking to build some momentum inside the Octagon after spending a ton of time on the shelf over the past few years. In short, he’s the perfect opponent to see if Mir is ready to make one last run at a title.
After flashing some improved striking against “Bigfoot”, Mir is obviously not going to be pushed out of this sport quietly. However, given the number of times we’ve seen Mir take ridiculous amounts of punishment — along with the fact that he’s been knocked out twice in his last five fights — it doesn’t inspire confidence in the future Hall of Famer’s chin against a powerful striker like Duffee. Duffee’s nine career wins have come by knockout, including his last three coming in under a combined five minutes. That’s scary power for any heavyweight, let alone one like Mir who’s taken quite a bit of damage to his chin in the past, to try to combat. All it’s going to take from Duffee is one well-placed shot in order to change his career, and he’s proven in his last few bouts that he can land that shot quickly and convincingly.
Still, this is Mir we’re talking about. He is possibly the greatest submission artist in MMA history. It’s impossible to count him out just because his inability to take a punch on the feet is worrisome. As we’ve seen against the likes of Lesnar, Nogueira, Sylvia, Tank Abbott and plenty of others, Mir is one of the most dangerous men on the planet if he can grab onto a limb. Duffee hasn’t been tested on the mat at all in his career, having been taken down just once in four UFC fights. Getting the fight to the mat represents a clear path to victory if Mir can pull it off, but he’s going to have to figure out how to drag a 240-pound gorilla to the mat in order to make that happen, and he’s going to have to accomplish that task while the gorilla is swinging sledgehammers at his head. Considering the way Mir’s been fighting the last couple of years, that may be even more difficult than it sounds.
There’s no denying that Mir has fought a slew of solid grapplers over the past few years, but his inability to score takedowns against those guys before he gets beaten up on the feet makes it tough to put confidence in Mir’s chances at getting Duffee to the floor. Mir was admittedly expected to have a hard time dragging strong wrestlers like Daniel Cormier and the aforementioned Barnett to the floor, but his complete lack of offense against strikers like dos Santos and Alistair Overeem is hard to ignore. After scoring just one takedown in five fights since 2011, Mir is either going to have to come up with a new game plan or reach into his bag of tricks and surprise Duffee with something unexpected to get the fight where he needs it to go. Notwithstanding his improved striking against Silva, Mir shouldn’t stick around on the feet unless he absolutely has to. He may be — and probably is — the superior technical striker, but the fact of the matter is that one punch from Duffee can end this fight a lot easier than a single punch from Mir can do the same.
Duffee may have brought up terms like rankings and legends when he made his case for why he wanted to fight Mir, but he neglected to bring up the most obvious reason that every up-and-coming heavyweight has for wanting a shot at Mir. As surprisingly good as Mir looked while defeating “Bigfoot” a couple of months back, he’s still looked like an extremely beatable heavyweight for over three years now, and the fact that he’s one of the most high-profile fighters in the division makes him the biggest possible target for a rising star to go after. Simply put, Mir is going to secure a high-profile spot on any card, and that equals attention for anyone who can defeat him. With Mir seemingly on his last legs, the opportunity is a gold mine.
While he survived and scored a win in his last outing, Mir can only dodge the bombs that opponents are going to send his way for so long. Duffee hits harder than the vast majority of the heavyweight division, too. Mir hasn’t looked like a top-ranked heavyweight in quite some time, and even if he can keep his winning streak alive this summer, it’ll only be a fight or two later before he ends up opposite a top-10 heavyweight and finds himself fighting out of his league again. When Mir beat “Bigfoot,” he proved that he still has a lot of fight in him. However, the victory more than likely just gave Mir a brief stay of Octagon execution before Duffee either punches his UFC bout card for the final time or sends him home with his fifth loss in six fights, leaving Mir with another pink-slip fight on the horizon.