Frank Mir has gone from fighting for a heavyweight title shot to battling for the belt itself, but he believes the change in opponents favors his style. "I've had a harder time with guys that are straightforward grinders," says Mir, now slated to face champion Junior Dos Santos at the Ultimate Fighting Championship's May 26 show in Las Vegas. "Guys that are more elusive strikers and try to move around, I've had an easier time with. ... As far as head movement and throwing punches, regardless of what people think of me as a striker, I feel very comfortable out there." Mir originally agreed to fight fellow ex-champion Cain Velasquez in the Memorial Day weekend card's co-main event. But UFC turned to Mir as a new challenger for Dos Santos to replace Alistair Overeem, whose elevated testosterone level threatens his ability to obtain a license in Nevada. OVEREEM: Heavyweight blames medicine for test result UFC: Mir to replace Overeem UFC officially announced the switch to Mir from Overeem last week. USA TODAY spoke to Mir today about the ugprade to a championship bout and the possibility of regaining the belt he first won in 2004. Excerpts from the conversation:Mir: Dos Santos a better match for me than Cain
Q: You've been the expected choice to replace Overeem from the moment his test results were announced on April 4. How much thought have you given already to preparing for Junior?
Mir: A lot of thought for me. I tried to stay focused on the fact that there still was a possibility that the fight wasn't going to work out. What if JDS felt the fight was not a (good) fight on the card (without) Overeem? Or other factors could arise. Not so much that Alistair would be able to fight — I felt that was a foregone conclusion — but I felt there was still many other circumstances that could have arose. So I was trying to still stay focused as much I could on the fact that Velasquez was still the opponent that I was signed to fight.
How hard has it been to train properly while having two guys in your head?
How did you balance it?
The fact that at least both guys are right-handed. They're both tough fighters. You're still in the gym training. It isn't like your training is completely geared specifically for a certain individual. People are very similar. A punch is still a punch, so it isn't like it's an incredibly drastic difference in training.
That said, how does your training camp change? And how much quality time can you get in just a month, especially going from three rounds to five?
Actually, it'll be great because it'll be a lot less wrestling (laughs). I don't have to worry about my partners taking me down and holding me there and trying to pin me to the ground and beat the hell out of me. Of the different ways that Dos Santos can possibly win, I would be really impressed if he chose that route. Junior likes to box, but Cain's pretty good in that area compared to most fighters in mixed martial arts... Yeah, Cain's very good.
How do they differ as strikers?
Cain is a much more straightforward boxer. His shoulders are more square. He uses more head movement. His punches are shorter. He throws a little bit more combinations. Dos Santos is a rangier boxer. He likes to use his jabs for distance. When you see Dos Santos throws his jab, his left shoulder and his jab and everything is forward, he gets as much reach as he can possibly get off of it. Velasquez, his jab is basically set just to get you to react, and he's going to move. His left hook and his right hand is what he's going to try to do more damage with.
From your perspective, which one is a harder style matchup for you?
Stylistically, actually Velasquez. Anybody can run down the list of losses I've had, (Shane) Carwin and Brock (Lesnar) being the last two in the last 10 fights or so. I've had a harder time with guys that are straightforward grinders that'll pin you against the cage and hold you and try to take you down and stay on top and smother you. Guys that are more elusive strikers and try to move around, I've had an easier time with. Cheick Kongo's a good striker. Mirko "Cro Cop" (Filipovic) is a good striker. Both are guys that I was very successful with.
Why do you think that's the case?
I really don't know. We work on it on practice. It's just one of those things — certain people are just better at other things. As far as head movement and throwing punches, regardless of what people think of me as a striker, I feel very comfortable out there. I tend not to take too many big shots out in the open area. They happen. I got caught against (Antonio Rodrigo) Nogueira, caught me with a right hand. But if you look down the list of guys that have landed major shots on me, almost all of them have always been on the ground. Shane Carwin, even when we fought in that loss, he didn't land a punch when we were boxing. He landed a punch once he had an underhook and he pressed me up against the cage and was able to land uppercuts; more of a dirty boxing-type area. Again, that, to me, is more wrestling. He had a great position and was able to throw blows from there. But as far as being in the open, actually, I was landing the majority of the shots.
Since you mentioned Nogueira — some folks have said to me, "Frank got wobbled by Big Nog, so how's he going to survive Junior?" What would you say to folks who think along those lines?
I got caught with a punch (chuckles). It isn't like (they can say), "He got wobbled by Nogueira. He got wobbled by Mirko 'Cro Cop' (and) by Roy Nelson." Roy Nelson hits extremely hard and I was able to fight with him for 15 minutes and be fine. Mirko 'Cro Cop' for almost all of three rounds never really landed a shot. It's still a sport where a certain percentage are going to get through, and that happened with Nogueira. It's funny how people's memories are so short. Immediately, "Oh, gee, you suck at boxing." The guy landed one punch. How many fights have I had where that hadn't happened, where I was able to slip and avoid? It eventually happens. I remember, I think, (Kazuyuki) Fujita almost knocked out Fedor (Emelianenko) back in the day. Caught him with a forearm shot in Pride. Fujita is not known for his boxing at all. Who would be saying at that point in his career Fedor sucked at stand-up? "Oh look, he got caught and wobbled." Well, no, it's a fight and eventually things happen, they land. When you have two heavyweights, it usually isn't a good thing when one clean punch lands.
You've for some sort of title belt several times in your career. When you compare Junior to the others you fought for championships, where would you rank him compared to those other guys?
Obviously, I think Junior's probably the best fighter I've ever had to face. His record right now in the UFC is undefeated; I know he had the loss before he ever walked into the Octagon. His dominance in the fight world has been extremely superior. Tim Sylvia, I guess Tim at the time was also known as a very fierce striker. It was funny, no one thought he could be beaten either. But that's what everybody thinks about everybody until you (beat them). Then they think he sucks. It's a weird sport we have.
This fight doesn't have a long window for promotion. How much interest do you think UFC can drum up in the time available?
I think there's a one easy mark to bring up, the simple fact that Nogueira — the guy that I was the first one to knock out and the only one to submit (by breaking) his arm — that's a coach of Junior. ... I think there has to be somewhere in the back of his mind a revenge factor to avenge his coach and to go out there and do one for him. In fact, in the past, I think after the fight with Nogueira, Junior actually challenged me to try to redeem (the) loss.
There was a movement to get Mark Hunt into the title fight. When you heard about that, what went through your head?
I was happy that Mark Hunt had such a strong fan following that there are fans want to see him fight even (with) the fact that he's one fight above .500. I thought that was very good for him. But at the same time, though, I was very impressed with Mark Hunt, who always seems to handle things with so much class; saying that it wasn't his (time) to step into that fight, knowing where he was in the sport, as far as rankings. He was very humble in saying he was not the one to pick in this fight. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva will take the spot against Cain. How do you think Bigfoot will do as your replacement? I think it's going to be a hard fight for Bigfoot. I think Cain, if anything, he's very similar to Daniel Cormier (who knocked out Silva in September). I don't think Silva's going to be able to take him to the ground. I think even though Cormier is a better wrestler (than Cain), being an Olympian-level wrestler, I think Cain's hands are much better. His elusiveness (and ability) to land shots and combinations, and his work output is, I think, going to be very difficult for Bigfoot to keep up with. Yeah, pretty much, that's kind of how I foresee that. On paper, it's looks to be a very bad fight for Silva.
Assuming you win next month, where will that rank among your title victories?
Each one of them is special for something it represented. The first one being the first time I ever won a title. The second time, coming back from injuries. Being told that I would never fight in UFC again and coming back and actually winning a title, that was impressive. This time now, just coming up, at this point in my career, 10 years later, showing longevity in the heavyweight division, to be able to come back and win a title, that's a statement in itself.