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Heavyweight Breakdown: Nogueira vs Mir

Michael DiSanto, UFC - On December 27th, former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo 'Minotauro' Nogueira will defend his interim UFC heavyweight crown against former division kingpin Frank Mir. Despite the championship label and the gold belt that will be awarded to the winner, this is really a precursor to a Super Fight against UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, with the winner of Minotauro-Mir getting his shot at the reigning champion sometime in the first half of 2009.

By Michael DiSanto

On December 27th, former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo 'Minotauro' Nogueira will defend his interim UFC heavyweight crown against former division kingpin Frank Mir. Despite the championship label and the gold belt that will be awarded to the winner, this is really a precursor to a Super Fight against UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, with the winner of Minotauro-Mir getting his shot at the reigning champion sometime in the first half of 2009.

A fight between Nogueira and Mir to determine the next in line to unify the title with Lesnar is enough to justify headline status on most fight cards, but there is more to this story. There is an under-the-radar rivalry brewing between the two that neither man will likely acknowledge.

For years, a debate has raged about whether the best fighters in the world competed in the UFC or PRIDE. A popular sub-discussion to that debate was whether Minotauro or Mir was the most dangerous submission artist in a mixed martial arts bout. That debate grew more intense when Mir won the UFC Heavyweight Championship back on June 19, 2004, by snapping the forearm of long-standing champion Tim Sylvia with a lightning quick transition into an armbar during a takedown.

The UFC ended the general debate a few years ago by acquiring the now-dormant Japanese fighting organization and signing virtually all of its top talent in the heavyweight and 205-lb divisions, including Minotauro, to multi-fight deals to compete inside the Octagon. The acquisition also set the stage to end the Minotauro-Mir debate, since both were co-competitors in the UFC.

Both men lived up to their reputations as elite submission fighters by scoring dramatic come-from-behind submission wins in 2008. Back in February, Minotauro dropped the first two rounds to former champion Tim Sylvia as the fight entered the third round. Undeterred, Minotauro kept pressing, and with just over two minutes remaining, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt pulled guard and quickly swept his taller foe. Now the fight was in his world, and he took full advantage, securing a guillotine choke that forced Sylvia to submit with 88 seconds remaining in the round to become the interim heavyweight champ.

Mir’s last bout was equally impressive. Facing now-champion Brock Lesnar, Mir found himself right where he wanted to be in the opening seconds of the fight. Lesnar had taken the action to the ground with Mir fighting from his guard. The only problem was the fact that Lesnar was in the midst of a furious assault of punches. Mir hadn’t fared well in the past when faced with brutal ground-and-pound attacks, suffering two of his three career losses in that situation. But Mir wasn’t ready to accept defeat on that February night, and after gathering his wits, he was able to apply his vast submission knowledge by catching Lesnar in a fight-ending knee bar a mere 90 seconds into the fight.

The win propelled Mir into a coaching spot opposite Minotauro on the UFC’s hit reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, followed by a fight after the season’s conclusion. So, the stage is finally set for the pair to answer the question of who is the better fighter.

Minotauro knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is the better striker of the two. The Brazilian has been training for years with the Cuban national boxing team. He has a very good jab, a nice one-two combination and a pretty decent left hook. He doesn’t possess true one-punch knockout power, but he carries enough rocks in his fists to stop guys with an accumulation of shots over the course of three or four rounds, particularly when gas tanks start running on fumes.

While he likely believes that he is also the better submission artist, Minotauro is a very intelligent fighter who focuses on exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses. Mir’s biggest weakness, aside from his conditioning, is his striking.

The Las Vegas southpaw is a big, strong heavyweight who has a little pop in his left hand. But many question his chin, and as we saw when he faced Brandon Vera, he can be completely overwhelmed by a proficient striker because he has very little head or lateral movement and, as a result, is fairly easy to hit. And Minotauro will look to hit him early and often with lead right hands, spending much of his time focusing on keeping his left foot on the outside of Mir’s right foot to properly open throwing lanes for the lead right.

If he is able to keep it on the feet, this will be a very easy fight for Minotauro. Accordingly, I don’t see the interim champion taking the fight to ground in the first half of the fight, unless he knocks Mir down, which is a distinct possibility.

Mir is a confident, if not cocky, fighter. But he is nobody’s fool. The former champion knows that Minotauro is the better striker. Mir knows that he doesn’t have the fastest or most effective striking. Barring a homerun punch that Minotauro doesn’t see coming, he also doesn’t carry enough dynamite in his fists to dent what most acknowledge as the division’s thickest beard.

Minotauro has proven time and time again that he can take almost immeasurable punishment in the form of strikes without losing his wits. In fact, the only time I can seriously remember him being hurt was when Heath Herring dropped him with a vicious kick to the head in Minotauro’s UFC debut. Of course, Minotauro survived to win a hard-fought unanimous decision. Mir knows, therefore, that he is not going to knock out Minotauro. And his lack of hand speed and slick defensive boxing skills means that he is not going to out box (or kickbox) Minotauro en route to a decision victory.

As a result, Mir’s best chance of winning the fight is to take the action to the ground.

Minotauro is so comfortable fighting from his guard that he has never developed strong takedown defense, and Mir can take advantage of that fact by ducking under a lead right and aggressively driving through with a double-leg takedown.

Once the fight hits the ground, Mir should forget playing the BJJ game with Minotauro on the ground. Both men are black belts, so the likely result is a stalemate, which will lead to a stand up, something Mir wants to avoid at all costs. Mir should therefore focus as much on maintaining the position as he does working his ground-and-pound game. The ground-and-pound attack should not be focused on stopping Minotauro because he has survived much more ferocious ground assaults than Mir could ever hope to muster. Moreover, getting too aggressive with punches opens the door to getting swept, and as much as Mir loves to fight from his guard, there is no need for him to play that game with Minotauro because he cannot likely submit the Brazilian from that position.

For his part, Minotauro should stay very relaxed if he finds himself fighting from his guard. I don’t see Mir giving him an opening for a triangle or an armbar, and I definitely don’t see him being able to sweep Mir with a kimura. So he should look for opportunities to escape out the back door or otherwise work to his feet. If those opportunities don’t present themselves, he can rest and defend from his guard, banking on the fact that Mir will run out of gas long before the end of the 25-minute fight.

Let’s acknowledge the 600-lb gorilla standing in the room: Frank Mir has never taken conditioning seriously heading into a fight, so I don’t see any reason why his preparation for this fight will be any different, even though pre-fight reports say he is taking this bout more seriously than any other when it comes to his conditioning work. Why has this been a consistent issue for Mir though? I’m not sure, though my guess is that he is too skilled on the ground for his own good.

Mir trains for one purpose: to incapacitate his tormentor in the quickest, most efficient way. And throughout his career, he has been able enter and leave the Octagon with a win as efficiently as anyone in the history of the sport. Seven of his nine UFC wins have come by way of submission in the first round (ok, his win over Sylvia was scored a TKO, but it was really a technical submission due to a broken forearm from an armbar). Taking that one step farther, six of those seven first-round wins occurred in two minutes or less, and three occurred in under a minute.

That is submission efficiency that the sport has never before seen across all promotions and all weight classes. Mir is that dangerous. But his ability to dispose of foes so quickly leads to poor conditioning. I don’t know this for certain, but his fighting history suggests that his ability to win quickly leaves him less than committed to his cardio. He regularly appears completely gassed when a fight moves toward the end of the first round. And in his two UFC fights that lasted beyond the opening stanza, he showed terrible conditioning. Granted, he scored a gut-check three-round decision win over Dan Christison in July 2006, but both men were walking zombies in the second and third rounds.

Minotauro, by contrast, has fought to the distance 13 times in his career, and he has also scored dramatic last-round submission victories. Nobody questions Minotauro’s commitment to cardio, so there is no reason to believe that he will show up in less than stellar condition on December 27.

Accordingly, it makes sense for Minotauro to focus on surviving the first two minutes of the fight. He can then use his boxing skills to drag Mir into the deep waters of the third, fourth and fifth rounds, and watch him drown.

So, who is going to win the bout? To me, this seems like an easy call. If it ends in the first two minutes, I like Mir all day every day. If it lasts beyond two minutes, then I think Minotauro walks away with it based on his conditioning and his ability to take freakish amounts of punishment without wilting.

Which scenario will unfold? The latter seems more likely, but, alas, I though the same thing when Mir faced Antoni Hardonk, Tim Sylvia and Brock Lesnar, and he beat those three in less than four combined minutes.