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The Decade-Long Road to Arlovski-Mir

Outside the Octagon is a column from editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.  

I talked to Frank Mir at length about Andrei Arlovski. In 2005.

At the time, Mir didn’t have a fight scheduled, and frankly, he was M.I.A. from the MMA world as he recovered from the motorcycle accident that threatened his life and took his UFC heavyweight title.

The man now holding the belt Mir never lost in the Octagon was Belarus native Arlovski, who shook off a 1-2 start to his UFC career to become perhaps the most complete heavyweight fighter in the sport. He was a fearsome and dangerous force whose six-fight winning streak included three wins in UFC title fights that lasted a combined five minutes and 12 seconds, and the only one expected to have a chance against “The Pit Bull” was Mir.

Frank Mir (white shorts) def. Antonio Rodrigo 'Minotauro' Nogueira (red shorts) - TKO - 1:54 round 2 during the UFC 92 at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 27, 2008 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)It was a SuperFight in a sport just starting to gain traction as a major player on the United States scene, only months removed from the epic Ultimate Fighter season one finale bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. And everyone loves heavyweights, so what better way to showcase MMA to the masses than with a fight between an Eastern European Terror against the Cerebral Assassin from the United States.

And all marketing aside, from a mere stylistic point of view, this was THE fight to be made in 2006. Mir looked at submissions like a prime Mike Tyson looked at knockouts, and Arlovski had shown the ability to knock out or tap out opponents with frightening ease, depending on what mood he was in. Both also showed just the right bit of vulnerability, meaning that this fight wasn’t going to go five rounds, but it was going to be oh so good as long as it lasted.

Today, Arlovski admits that the prospect of fighting Mir back then was a scary one, but when you’re feeling as invincible as he did during his title reign, he would have faced half of the top ten in one night if asked. As for Mir, despite his injury, when I tracked him down in November of 2005 (with a little help from UFC President Dana White), he was ready for Arlovski, whether it was next, or a little bit further down the line.

“It depends on talking to the UFC and seeing what’s best for everybody.  If it’s better for the fans to have a build-up, it works for me.  If it’s better just to jump right in there, in one aspect I’m like, ‘jeez, I’m not gonna waste three months of my time training and a payday on that guy.  I want to fight Andrei Arlovski.’  That would get me out of bed.  He’s an exciting fighter – I want to fight him.”

Of course, as one of the most analytical fighters in the sport – then and now – Mir had an interesting breakdown of his prospective foe and his peers, and it had nothing to doAndrei Arlovski prepares for battle against Marcio Cruz at UFC 66 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 30, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC) with the technique of “The Pit Bull.” In fact, Mir was very complimentary of Arlovski’s skill set. But what he saw then was someone who might have been getting enticed by the glory and cheers that come along with knockout after knockout.

“I see a really good athlete,” Mir said of Arlovski. “The only advantage I have over Andrei Arlovski that I see distinctively is a mental edge that I don’t care how I win the fight. I don’t necessarily know if he feels the same way.  I think sometimes a lot of young fighters get stuck in that thing where they say ‘I want to be considered a stand-up guy, so I’ll knock you out,” or ‘I want to be considered a submission artist so I have to get the armbar or the choke,’ or ‘I have to get the ground and pound and show that I’m a superior takedown artist.’  I don’t care.  I’ve heard fighters go, ‘well, I got knocked out, but I stood here and I took it.’  I would look over at my wife, look at the ring and I’m like ‘did that guy just say that he lost, but he lost like a man?’  What the hell does that mean?  I don’t understand that because it’s all warfare, and I just want to win.  I’m not gonna go outside the rules; I’m still gonna be an honorable human being and say ‘these are the ground rules we settled upon.’  Anything within those ground rules, I’m gonna use.  I’m not gonna go ahead and prove a point in the face of defeat, because all people remember a week later is, ‘man, did you get knocked out heroically.’  I remember when I knocked out Wes Sims, everybody was like ‘well, you couldn’t submit him.’  I really didn’t care.  I was more like, ‘damn, I can’t submit this guy.’  I went after him with whatever I thought was best, I was in the middle of the ring, I looked up at the clock and said, ‘I’d better adapt. I can’t beat this guy this way.’

“So sometimes I look at Andrei Arlovski right now, and just because of his ability to submit people, the fact that he’s trying to go out there and knock everybody out, it’s a good thing and a bad thing,” he continued. “He’s getting knockouts, so it’s a crowd-pleasing thing – everybody wants to see the knockouts.  So if he’s going in the ring trying to win by a certain angle and I’m fighting him and I’m just trying to win at all costs, that’s a disadvantage to him.”

Frank Mir and Andrei Arlovski were both 26 years old and the two best heavyweights in the UFC. But the SuperFight didn’t happen.

Frank Mir (black/grey shorts) def. Cheick Kongo (red shorts) - Submission (guillotine choke) - 1:12 round 1 during UFC 107 at FedExForum on December 12, 2009 in Memphis, TN. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)Arlovski, still playing the role of gunslinger, lost his rematch to Tim Sylvia in April of 2006. When they met again three months later, the Belarusian lost a lackluster five round decision. After three more bouts, he was out of the UFC.

Mir had an even rougher time. His comeback fight against Marcio Cruz at UFC 57 in February of 2006 was a disaster, the Las Vegan getting bloodied and stopped in the first round. He got back in the win column in July of that year with a pedestrian win over Dan Christison, but a knockout loss to Brandon Vera four months later appeared to end any hopes of Mir getting back into championship form.

It’s the essence of the fight game, more brutal than any left hook or armbar. All it takes is a loss or two, and you’re written off, forced to either leave or start over.

Arlovski’s separation with the UFC wasn’t a devastating blow to his career at the time. He was still marketable after leaving the promotion with three wins, and the only Andrei Arlovski punches Brendan Schaub in their heavyweight bout at Rogers Arena on June 14, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)blemishes on his record in the previous four years were to Sylvia. So he got big fights and won them, knocking out Ben Rothwell and Roy Nelson in 2008. But then the roof caved in when he lost four straight to Fedor Emelianenko, Brett Rogers, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Sergei Kharitonov.

By 2011, he was a cautionary tale. In that same year, Mir won two fights over Nelson and Minotauro Nogueira which kept him in the heat of a title picture he had remarkably returned to. It was a long road for Mir, but he regained his UFC title (at least the interim version of it), engaged in a heated two-fight series with Brock Lesnar, and re-established himself as an elite heavyweight.

There would be no more talk of Arlovski vs. Mir, at least not for a while.

As the fight world turned, a spin that takes place even faster in a heavyweight division where one punch from a gloved fist owned by a 250-pound man, Arlovski soon found his mojo again while working with Greg Jackson’s MMA squad in Albuquerque, and Mir hit the wall in 2014 after four consecutive losses.

 Frank Mir of the United States greets Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva of Brazil after won their heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night at Gigantinho Gymnasium on February 22, 2015 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)And that’s when the Heavyweight SuperFight of 2006 started to become a reality again. With the dawn of 2015, Arlovski was back in the UFC and unbeaten in two fights over Brendan Scaub and Silva. Mir returned from a self-imposed sabbatical in February with a first-round knockout of Bigfoot. Whispers turned to shouts when Arlovski dispatched Travis Browne in May, and Mir did the same to Todd Duffee in July. And though some campaigned for an Arlovski vs. Werdum rematch for the title, when it was announced that the new champion would face Cain Velasquez a second time, the door was finally open.

On September 5, 2015, we get the fight we always wanted in the co-main event of UFC 191. Yes, it’s ten years later, but if you talk to Arlovski and Mir, they believe that while they’re older, they’re also wiser. And better.

“When I prove them wrong, I love it,” Arlovski told me in a recent interview for UFC magazine. “It’s the best feeling. I took a lesson from those losses and from my lifestyle ten years ago, and everything happens for a reason. I feel like I have that fire in my eyes. I have great trainers, great teammates, and great people in my camp.”

Mir, also in conversation for UFC magazine, believes that if not for the accident that stalled his career, we wouldn’t still be talking about him in 2015.

““I'm so glad that hardship happened because I don't think I was mentally that tough at that time,” he said of the motorcycle accident and its aftermath. “I was nowhere nearAndrei Arlovski prepares to enter the Octagon before his heavyweight bout against Brenand Schaub at Rogers Arena on June 14, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC) as tough as I am now. I thought ‘These things are bad, but I have to move forward. I have to find a way. This sucks and this is awful, but I can't stop moving.’ That's what that era really bestowed upon me.”

Now, one generation later, they meet. It’s not for a title – either an official one of UFC heavyweight champion or an unofficial crown of baddest man on the planet – but it’s still important, whether it’s for legacy, a move closer to regaining the title, bragging rights, or just because of something actor Mickey Rourke once told Arlovski.

“I remember Mickey Rourke told me two things,” Arlovski said. “He said ‘Everybody likes a comeback story’ and ‘I don’t believe in luck; I believe in hard work.’”