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Ricky Lundell is a problem solver. Not any kind of problem, but the ones which would keep mere mortals up at night for weeks at a time. He’s a figure out a Rubik’s Cube in two minutes kind of guy, so when he put his thinking cap on to figure out the riddle of Frank Mir, he had quite the task ahead of him.
The former two-time heavyweight champion isn’t a fighter who says “point me in the direction of my opponent and I’ll go fight.” He has to know the reason for everything. In that way, Lundell and Mir are perfectly matched as head coach and student.
“He brings a lot of science into the coaching,” Mir said of Lundell. “When he’s trying to game plan, he understands how my brain works.”
But even after Mir took a year off from the Octagon following his February 2014 loss to Alistair Overeem, Lundell was stumped as to why Mir was having difficulties in certain situations. Enter boxing coach Angelo Reyes, who brought his star pupil, women’s boxing and MMA standout Ana Julaton, to Lundell for some MMA training.
“He (Reyes) saw us boxing, we listened to his philosophies, and Ricky said ‘this will work for us,’” Mir recalled.
It did. Since bringing Reyes on board and returning to the Octagon in 2015, Mir went from written off former champ to former champ on the verge of a title shot, as he knocked out “Bigfoot” Silva and Todd Duffee in a combined 2:53. The secret? Making sure that Mir’s offense on the feet kept him from having to resort to defensive strategies as the big men of the Octagon pinned him to the fence, something that had plagued him throughout the last several years.
As Mir explains, “The boxing emphasis was really because Ricky said ‘the grappling aspect we have down, but look at the percentage of punches you eat up the middle, and you don’t have a way of establishing any boundaries because of a lack of an authoritative jab. I really feel we need to figure this out. This isn’t about grappling; people are able to just walk right up and grab you and push you against the cage.’”
Mir understood and agreed. Now he just had to stop being a stubborn veteran.
“If you can stop being the old dog,” Lundell told him. “Maybe we can teach you a few new tricks.”
Those tricks have been on display in his last two fights, and if necessary he’ll show them off again this Saturday when he faces a fellow former champion in Andrei Arlovski. It’s a fight that fans expected they would never see following the serious motorcycle accident that stalled Mir’s career and nearly took his life in September of 2004.
“A couple of the physicians I had seen at the time told me that I should be more worried if I could walk correctly anymore, not so much if I could fight at a high level anymore,” Mir recalled, nearly 11 years, 18 fights and a world title later. The first Mir comeback story was compelling, and so is the 2015 version. In fact, it might be the feel good story of this year if not for Arlovski’s similar tale of rising from the ashes to return to title contention at 36, the same age of Las Vegas’ Mir.
“He also had stumbles in his career,” Mir said of Arlovski. “But he persevered, pushed forward and was able to work his way back into the UFC, and now here he is, after three wins in a row, and if he was to win on September 5th, he’s in the conversation for getting the next title shot.”
Mir is obvious in his admiration of his opponent, and that feeling is mutual, but that’s not going to stop either of them from fighting like bitter enemies to get the win and to keep the story going. It may be even more important for Mir, whose series of ups and downs all took place on the sport’s biggest stage, so when he lost four in a row in 2012-14, all eyes were on him, wondering if he should just walk off into the Vegas sunset.
“Retirement talk was in every interview I gave leading up to that fight,” Mir said of his February bout with Silva. “It became overwhelming at times. At times there was a lot of stress. My wife’s stressed out, then I’m stressed out. To the world, I’ve basically written my own obituary. So I had to really clear my mind and focus on the task at hand. It was almost as intense as some of the title fights.”
Not as long though, as he took just 100 seconds to knock Bigfoot out in Brazil. Five months later, he did it again, this time needing 73 ticks of the clock to halt Duffee, and while he ate some thunder in the July fight, he points out that what he did after taking a hard shot shows how far he’s come with his striking attack.
“He snapped my head back, but you immediately see me fade off to my right because I know that if you just hit me with this hand, you just loaded the back hand, and that’s from sparring enough times.”
That sparring hasn’t been with just anyone though, as former world champion boxers Bermane Stiverne and Marco Huck have been in the gym with that old dog learning new tricks.
“These guys are better boxers on my worst day than I’ll ever be on my best day,” Mir said. “It improves and brings up my ability. And it’s a threat that my opponents are always going to have to look for. I’m just adding more aspects on the chess board. The more threats I can pose to my opponent, the more threats he has to identify and be ready for.”
Doesn’t sound like a man on the brink of retirement anymore, does it? Call that another problem solved for Team Mir. As for the former champ, he’s got those new tricks in his pocket, but he’s keeping one thing the way it’s always been.
“When you watch a movie and the action star comes in and he’s beating up the bad guys, he’s not just slipping, moving and throwing guys down,” Mir said. “There has to be that definitive ‘I’m trying to come out there and blast through you.’”