It's better late than never for Frank Mir vs. Josh Barnett
There will be no shiny championship belt on the line. The bout won't even be talked about as a steppingstone toward that lofty prize, either, unless one of the combatants chooses to stretch the truth or warp reality a bit. That's something both fighters have been known to do, of course, so strike that: We will experience championship-level swagger, lots of it, some delivered with over-the-top absurdity and some conveyed with such sobering authority that for a moment you might even believe that these --
No, you won't believe a word of it. But even though we will not take the alleged ascendancy ramifications of the fight seriously, the hype will be an integral part of the package, part of what makes this so eagerly anticipated of a showdown.
Josh Barnett. Former UFC heavyweight champion.
Frank Mir. Former UFC heavyweight champion.
For these two ex-champs, the "former" part is deeply ingrained in the distant past. Barnett is 35, Mir 34. Barnett won the belt in 2002, Mir two years later (although he owned an interim UFC title as recently as 2009). They continue to compete at a high level, but both have seen better days.
When the UFC announced earlier this week that Mir will be the opponent when Barnett makes his long-awaited return to the promotion Aug. 31 in Milwaukee, Wis., a lightbulb went on. It was a dusty bulb that had been sitting in the darkness, waiting for someone to hit the switch. This is a fight that should have been made 11 years ago.
The shared story of Barnett and Mir begins on the evening of March 22, 2002. And what an evening it was. UFC 36 had a lot of story lines, especially as we view it in retrospect. The eight bouts at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas featured nine fighters who at some point would wear one of the promotion's championship belts.
The early prelims were a showcase for future champions, including Matt Serra (welterweight) and an unbeaten Sean Sherk (lightweight). When the pay-per-view main card began, we saw a win by Evan Tanner, who a year earlier had failed to wrest the light heavyweight belt away from Tito Ortiz but who later would capture the middleweight title. Andrei Arlovski, a future heavyweight champ, was knocked out by Pedro Rizzo, who'd already made three fruitless bids for the big-boy belt. And then there was the UFC swansong of Pat Miletich, less than a year removed from his reign as lightweight champ. He lost to Matt Lindland, whose next fight would be an unsuccessful challenge for the middleweight strap.
The first of the evening's two championship bouts was Matt Hughes's coming-out party as welterweight king, the beginning of a distinguished run that, over two reigns, would include seven title defenses. Four months after taking the belt from Carlos Newton, Hughes smothered former Shooto middleweight champ Hayato Sakurai on the way to a fourth-round TKO. Interestingly, the bout originally was scheduled to feature a challenger who would have given the card its 10th UFC champ. Anderson Silva, who'd taken the Shooto belt from Sakurai the previous summer, was slated to face Hughes -- wow, right? -- but instead signed with the Pride Fighting Championships.
The main event was a wow, too. Barnett, who had sprung onto the UFC scene with three finishes (and had been finished once himself, by Rizzo), challenged a heavyweight champion by the name of Randy Couture. The future Hall of Famer, who would wear the heavyweight leather three times and the light heavyweight strap twice (plus an interim reign), was a mere child of 38 at the time. Josh was 24. Randy controlled the first round and was in charge on the ground in the second when Barnett reversed him and put "The Natural" in an unnatural position on his back. Thus began an unabated onslaught of fists and elbows that prompted referee John McCarthy to jump in with 25 seconds to go in the round. "The Baby-faced Assassin" was world champion.
Briefly. A post-fight drug screening of Barnett revealed the presence of the anabolic steroid Boldenone. The UFC stripped Josh of the belt, and there were no further discussions of a new contract. The fighter went off to Japan to make his living for several years in various promotions in MMA and pro wrestling.
But let's get back to UFC 36 for a moment. Early in the evening, in one of the pre-PPV prelims, an up-and-coming heavyweight named Frank Mir competed. In his fourth career bout, second in the UFC, Mir remained unbeaten by quickly submitting veteran Pete Williams. Frank needed just 46 seconds to secure a shoulder lock that later would be dubbed the "Mir lock."
Mir's octagon innovations would continue. Two fights later, he would finish Tank Abbott with the only toe lock sub in UFC history. And three outings after that, he'd win the heavyweight belt with an armbar submission of Tim Sylvia.
How tantalizing a thought it was back then to envision a tangle between Mir and Barnett, both artistes on the canvas. It's taken us a decade to get there.
So where are we now? Barnett has been toiling away on the periphery of heavyweight relevance for years. He did enjoy some glory years in Pride, particularly in making it to the final of the 2006 Openweight Grand Prix. He suffered his third loss to Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in that fight, and a few months later lost a decision to Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira. After that he bounced from promotion to promotion, mercenary-style, while building an eight-fight win streak. That run of success ended a year ago in the final of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, when Daniel Cormier manhandled him.
Cormier figures in the Mir story, too. Frank is coming off two straight losses, but consider the competition. He didn't get much done against either former champion Junior dos Santos or the unbeaten Cormier, but who does? And the image of Frank snapping the arm of Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira with a kimura is still fresh enough in our minds to be a relevant part of the buildup to this fight.
It might seem that this heavyweight collision is coming along way too late, and that's surely the case if what makes you care about a fight is shiny brass and leather. But let's adjust our expectations here and open our eyes to a show that might very well pull off some old-time magic.