The Abyss Stares Back
Frank Mir had an accident.
Everyone knows about it; it’s old hat. When I ask Frank about it, I can see his eyes roll back in his head with boredom. “Another idiot with a pencil,” I can hear him think. He knows he has to talk about it. It’s an integral part of his story, the elephant in the room. He’s going to be talking about that damn accident for the rest of his life. He gives me a tired grin. Frank is a big friendly guy, with a cherubic face and massive, veined hands that belie his boyishness.
There’s a twist to that old accident story, as Frank is approaching the fi ght of his life against one of the most legendary fi ghters in MMA: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a mythic Brazilian with the purest drive ever seen in the sport. Nogueira had an accident of his own, long ago.
Nogueira’s technique is good, his Jiu-Jitsu is excellent, and his boxing has improved. But it’s his heart that is legend; he’s never been stopped. Mark Kram wrote an excellent book called Ghosts of Manila, and he wrote this about Joe Frazier: “Most of his fi ghts have shown this: you can go so far into that dark and desolate place where the heart of Frazier pounds, you can waste his perimeters, you can see his head hanging in the public square, may even believe you have him, but then suddenly you learn that you have not.”
It could have been written about Nogueira. Renzo Gracie said, in his broad Brazilian accent, “Nogueira… he goes through hell. But he always believes, until the end. Even if he physically or technically makes mistakes, and the other takes advantage… if they go all the way to the end” (Renzo means death) “he will win. Even against Fedor, if you start the fi ght in the morning and it goes into all the way at night, I believe he will fi nish Fedor.” Having been there, watching the last PRIDE fi ght between the two, I agree. At the end of the third round, despite being pounded all over the ring, big Nog was still coming on.
Nogueira had his crippling accident as young boy while living a few thousand miles south in Brazil. A truck backed over him, rupturing his internal organs. Like Frank, he was too tough to die—his guts smashed, in and out of hospitals for years with infections, alone in the darkness. He and Frank have that in common—they both have stared their own death in the face. Nogueira did it clawing at the tires of a truck; Frank did it looking at the inside of a vomit-fi lled motorcycle helmet.
Much has been written about warriors coming to terms with their own death. The code of the samurai was predicated around acceptance; it made them that much more fearsome. Tajima-no-kami, a famous swordsman, had a pupil approach him who had never handled a sword. But mentally, the pupil already seemed a master, and Tajima couldn’t understand it—until he realized that this pupil had no fear of death. Tajima said to him, “the ultimate secrets of swordsmanship also lie in being released from the thought of death.” (From Zen in the Art of Archery, Herrigel)
No one has ever questioned Nog’s heart. But since Frank’s accident and slow recovery, he has faced questions—the hardest from himself. He admits he had bad fi ghts; he came back too soon; and he wasn’t ready, at fi rst physically, then emotionally and mentally. Had the accident destroyed him? Or made him stronger?
Just a few short months after winning the UFC heavyweight title with maybe the most committed armbar in MMA history, Frank was on his motorcycle and got hit by a car that ran a red light. He was thrown 50 feet, and the impact destroyed his knee and snapped his femur. (And Frank’s femur is no joke.) There were doubts that he would ever fi ght again.
Frank spent more than a year in rehab, limping and gimping and fi lled with questions about his own mortality. He started his comeback not close to physically ready, but he somehow believed that Frank Mir at 50% would be enough to beat some of these jokers in the heavyweight division. It wasn’t. He lost, won, and lost some fairly dull outings. Frank was more aware than anyone of the naysayers, the critics. He wondered if they were right. Was he all through? Three bad fi ghts … maybe he should quit? Frank is nothing if not honest in his own appraisals, and he knew he wasn’t showing well.
“My athleticism was always the thing I relied on as a fi ghter,” Frank says. “I was 230 pounds in the tenth grade, I wrestled for 2 years in high school, and I was State Champion because I was a good athlete. When that went away …” He shakes his head. “People think everything is independent.” He fakes a questioner’s voice. “What’s more important? Conditioning or strength? Intelligence or speed?” He drops into his normal rumble. “Dude, they’re all intertwined. It’s legs on a table. One is conditioning; one is strength; one is skill, confi dence, and preparation. If you kick one away, the table falls. Even if it’s only a small percentage, it still falls.”
“When athleticism went for me, other things went too: self-confi dence, motivation, courage. I felt paralyzed and uncertain. That killer instinct, when I’d go after people … it takes a clear mind to do that. If a baseball pitcher starts wondering if his shoulder is going to hold up in the middle of a pitch, the ball ain’t going nowhere.”
Frank is a smart, well-spoken guy; a smooth commentator for the WEC and ESPN. He knew there were other things he could do. He grew up shy in Las Vegas and played Dungeons and Dragons until his size and athleticism brought him out into the world. Like a young Mike Tyson, Frank was a big man young. “I remember scoring three touchdowns in a football game, and the next day girls were asking about me. I thought, ‘Wow! If I hurt people on the fi eld, or pin them on the mat, you’ll like me?’ All right! It’s on.”
But that easy life, blessed with athleticism, was gone in a fl ash of squealing brakes. Frank had to fi nd his way back—the slow, long process of a man rediscovering himself.
“Most guys, after three failures on that stage, would have thrown the towel in,” he says. “But it was my lifestyle. I’m stubborn … I was born into it.” Frank’s Cuban father (also a Francisco) ran a Kenpo school. “Maybe if I was someone else, late to martial arts, who hadn’t started until 16 or so … maybe I would have quit. But I was born into it; my kids are going to do it. I competed my whole life. I was 5 when I was in my fi rst Karate tournament. It’s over, and I’m only 25? No way. It’s not over. I didn’t accept it. There are guys who came through a lot worse hardships than me.”
When Frank went back to the gym to prepare for Anthony Hardonk, a kickboxer from the famous Vos gym in Holland that produced Ernesto Hoost, he was acutely aware of his failings. “Here’s maybe the most dangerous guy yet, and I’m going to the gym and having NO success,” he remembers. “I felt like someone who had been dieting for 2 years, hadn’t lost a pound, but still was sticking to that diet!” We joke about the defi nition of insanity—when you do the same thing over and over and expect different results. “Maybe I was a little insane then,” Frank says, and he isn’t quite joking.
It was then and there that Frank met Ken Hahn, and an association and friendship started that would subtly change his career.
Ken Hahn is probably best known now for being Frank’s striking coach on the TUF show, but he’s an old-school dude. I met him years ago with the Miletich crew. Ken was a bare-fi sted World Champion, one of those Karate guys who fi ght in the gi, grab lapels, and blast one another with body shots. He’d won the Sabaki Challenge. He was a second-degree black belt in Enshin Karate, which includes a lot of Judo stuff. He and Frank connected while discussing martial arts—Frank remembers liking everything Ken was saying.
Ken still looks like one of those Karate guys, a stone-faced Asian assassin (although he’s lost a lot of weight since his bare-fi sted days). Ken’s a true martial artist— in it for the ineffable, not the money; and in it since day 1. The joke around MFS was that if you kicked Ken while you were sparring, you hurt yourself; his body was so tough. Of course, since his Karate days, with the growth of MMA, he has become a Fairtex Muay Thai trainer, a K-1 trainer, and just about everything else.
“I was just around. I never sought Frank out, but I had trained some guys who infl uenced him,” Ken says. “So we started working together.” As they became friends, Ken, the traditionalist, noticed some things.
“I asked him, ‘Are you just a fi ghter? Or are you a martial artist?’ I wanted him to reestablish his whole thought process. His other coaches would push him, and yell at him when he got tired. They would increase the beatings … and it was conditioning him to pace himself. So he wasn’t really increasing his cardio, but learning to survive. And his trainers thought he was doing fi ne—but he was gassing in fi ghts because he was forced to fi ght outside of his pace. So I had to fi gure out why he was like that.”
Ken cracks a ghost of a smile on his impassive face. “Basically, he’s lazy. I told him, after the accident, ‘You’re not young anymore. You’ve been getting by on talent, but now you’re a middle-aged fi ghter. You need to make that decision: Are you a fi ght-byfi ght guy, living for the paycheck, or are you a martial artist?’ ”
I ask Ken to elaborate. “A martial artist is always trying to get better. You’ve got to love the sport and want to train, not have to train. It can’t be a burden. A martial artist, every day is the same thing. You do it just like you brush your teeth. Every day you wake up, stretch, practice. It’s a way of life.”
That hit home for Frank, who had grown up in a Kenpo school steeped in traditional martial arts and was comfortable with the concepts of honor, respect, and self-improvement. “Up to that point in my fi ght career, everyone had been very businessoriented,” Frank says. “Brazilians approach fi ghting as a business … but I’m not sure I would fi ght if it was just for the money. That might work for some, but not for me.”
At the Hardonk fi ght, Ken was cornering Frank and saw that Hardonk had brought Ernesto Hoost as his corner. “It was awesome. We’re going against Hoost!” Ken says and cracks another rare smile.
Frank took Hardonk down and submitted him in less than 2 minutes—and brutally. That’s one thing about Frank; his submissions are truly brutal. He grips it and rips it. People thought the old Frank Mir was back, but really, they were seeing a brand-new Frank Mir and didn’t know it.
“I’m trying to be as well-rounded as possible,” Frank says. “I don’t want any defi – ciencies. Guys in the cage, they don’t lose because of their strengths. A guy loses because of the thing he’s bad at, right? So that’s what I work on fi rst.”
Frank was known as a Jiu-Jitsu guy, and although he’d started in Karate, he wasn’t a striker at heart. That was something Ken wanted to change.
“I told Frank, ‘Whatever you want to do in there, do. You have a Kenpo background, so throw those kicks. If you fall down, you’re a Jiu-Jitsu black belt! You love to be there. Orthodox and southpaw, train both. In Jiu- Jitsu, do you just train the move to one side?’ He told me, ‘I have a nice sidekick, but they said it won’t work.’ And I said, ‘Use it!’
“We make him spar pro boxers, kickboxers. I’ll make him spar an hour straight with different guys. Five-minute rounds, a 1-minute break, always fresh guys. We start with lightweights, so he has to be up on his toes and moving. Then we go to heavyweights, so when he gets tired he has to keep his form, not get sloppy, and keep his defense. But his whole attitude has changed—he’s been training hard for 5 months. And he used to not go into the gym at all until he was 8 weeks out. He’s turned into a mar-tial artist. If the fi ght gets cancelled, he still trains every day.”
I ask Ken what he thinks about Frank’s striking. I also ask him that age-old question about grapplers coming later to striking: Do they mind being hit?
“His striking has improved 500%,” Ken says. “And look at the Brock Lesnar fi ght: Frank walked in, spider-guard through his punches, no matter what … taking a few shots to get to where he wanted to be. We have boxers teeing off on him, and he’s used to it. But you got to do it the correct way. If it’s the wrong way … no good. You don’t want to damage the goods.”
Ahhh … the Brock Lesnar fi ght. When I heard about that fi ght, my fi rst thought was, “What a great fi ght for Mir.” Sure, Brock’s a big, fast, tough guy, but you’re talking about the heavyweight with best hips in the whole division in Frank Mir. Where’s Brock gonna put him? Can Brock, with a few months’ training, survive where Tim Sylvia failed?
“Before the fi ght, people were talking about how Lesnar was going to kill me. Really?” Frank is slightly incredulous. “Lesnar is a big, powerful guy, but he really had only a wrestling background, which means he wasn’t going to knock me out and he wasn’t gonna fi nish me with a submission. That means he was going to have to wrestle me and beat me down for 15 minutes straight. I just didn’t see that happening. I knew I’d be losing the fi ght until I won it, but I had no doubt I’d catch him in something.” In the fi ght, Brock knew there was danger from Frank’s Jiu-Jitsu, but he didn’t quite believe it until it was too late. Frank is a killer off his back.
Frank hasn’t left his Jiu-Jitsu alone, fi guring it’s “good enough.” He’s brought in Robert Drysdale, arguably the most cutting- edge grappler on the entire planet, to train with him. Drysdale won Abu Dhabi and tapped Marcelo Garcia, which is like out-swimming Michael Phelps.
“A lot of guys fall into the trap of staying in their comfort zone,” Frank says. “They have notoriety. You’re known as this dangerous guy in one area, but you still need to be improving in everything all the time. It can be hard to get your ass kicked in the places where you’re strong. So I brought in Robert Drysdale, and not only can he tap me all over the place, but there’s no humiliation at all in being choked or tapped by him—he’s the best guy in the world. So I just learn. I fi ght him full blast, and I don’t worry about how I look. Whereas if I was rolling with someone else, maybe some great brown belt, and he started to pass my guard, maybe I’d freak out and go to my bread and butter or shell up and defend. You have to fi nd ways around your ego in training.”
Working with Drysdale, I can see Frank laying a trap for Nogueira with an old classic boxing phrase—“Let him get to where he wants to be …”—with the implicit idea that once he gets there, things won’t be what they seem. Frank is a student of strategy and tactics. His bedside Bible is The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Mushashi.
So that leaves conditioning. That’s where the naysayers have had their way before, criticizing Frank’s conditioning. It has been his Achilles heel. Frank knows it. He’s acutely aware of how he’s perceived.
“The only area that scares me is my conditioning,” he says. “Even though I know it’s good, I haven’t proved it in the ring. It’s like my leg injury. Even though it was healed, I didn’t have confi dence in it until I won a decisive battle in the cage. Hardonk kicked me once, and I thought, ‘My leg is still there!’ Now I had taken way worse kicks in the gym, but it was in the gym. Until I prove it under fi re, it doesn’t count.” Frank looks down and then continues. He has more to say on the subject.
“That’s why I fought in the fi rst place. I didn’t want to be that asshole who opens up a martial arts school but has never really been in the ring, in a real fucking fi ght. I’d been in fi ghts on the street, but I used to beat the shit out of anyone I wanted to, pretty much. I wanted to test myself against a guy my size! A big guy never picked a fi ght with me in my life. Big guys don’t fi ght. It’s always some little fucking dude who wants to fuck with me!” Frank laughs.
“So I wanted to prove myself against a big guy who trains and eats right, not a loser in a bar. I wanted to know. Sure, I harbor the illusion I can kick your ass … but how to be sure? Maybe I can’t. So let’s put on the gloves, and we’ll fi nd out.”
As far as conditioning goes, Frank is in shape. He trains hard, and he sleeps in the altitude tent at night after he puts his kids to bed. He spars an hour of 5-minute rounds. Because one thing he can be sure of is that Nogueira will give him the opportunity to show off his cardio.
I ask Frank about being on the TUF show with Nogueira, the weight of the fi ght coming down. Frank’s defenses against reporters are instantly up. His tone of voice changes, he disengages. Maybe he’s thinking about the disclosure problems of reality television.
“I have a high opinion of him,” he says. “He’s a nice guy. He’s a hard guy not to like. He’s laid-back, he takes martial arts seriously, and he never has anything negative to say. He’s great for the sport. I got nothing against him, and I know he’s got nothing against me. If things were different, we’d probably hang out.”
Frank had said in another interview I read that it was a little like “two fat kids in a room with one cupcake,” always being aware of the title and who wants it. He laughs a little when I mention it, but says, “You’re always a little aware, but it doesn’t consume me. I’ve fought enough now.”
“Nogueira’s experience is a strength and a weakness. I know he’s fought Fedor; he’s fought tough guys in tough crowds for a very long time. At the same time, that’s taken a toll on him. It’s like a quarterback in the NFL. You want one with 4 to 5 years’ experience; that’s great. A rookie makes mistakes, but a 15-year vet … every time he gets hit, the whole team wonders if he’ll get up. You can see the way Nogueira moves now. He’s acquired his share of lumps and bumps over the years. He’s paid the price for experience. No one can doubt that he’s one of the most mentally tough guys in the world, but he’s paid a price for it.”
Frank and I fall into a discussion of The Book of Five Rings, a master swordsman’s discussion on fi ghting that was written when fi ghting was about life and death. (And if you’re reading this magazine and haven’t read it … you probably should.) I ask him what his favorite part of the book is.
“Probably the Fire Scroll,” he says, “the idea that if you swing a blade but you didn’t consciously control the blade all the way in, you didn’t mean to hit but were just swinging wildly, you can’t count that as a victory.
“You have to train to control every element of the fi ght. I try to do that now. It helps me slow down a lot of things. I think people make things faster than they really are, especially in striking. Mushashi has shown me that, how everything can be slowed down, so you can see the punch and slip and your brain is already developing the left hook. In grappling, nobody ever slaps a choke on by accident. But sometimes you see brawlers throwing in fear and catching guys—but their minds are clouded.”
In the Fire Scroll, Mushashi writes about “reaching into the Abyss.” There is something very Nietzschean about the idea (although, of course, Mushashi predates Nietzsche). Mushashi is writing about the depths you must go to, to truly beat the enemy.
“When you have merely beaten the enemy superfi cially, he may still be able to regain composure…At times it may be diffi cult for you to continue with your attack when the enemy is not yet beaten in body and spirit, but it is precisely at this time that you must reach into the abyss and bring yourself to the point where you are able to totally destroy the enemy. By reaching into the abyss yourself, you are able to reach into the abyss of the enemy and slay him properly…”
No one will test Frank Mir the way Nogueira will. To fi ght the Brazilian, the only man to hold both UFC and PRIDE heavyweight titles, is to go deep in your heart, to confront some questions about your own nature.
Earlier, Frank had been riffi ng on motivation and he was talking about himself when he said, “The most dangerous guy in the world is the guy who won’t stop trying … the guy who tries and fails but never stops. That’s the guy I don’t want against me.” I stopped and looked at him; did he realize he had just described his opponent?
Can Frank Mir reach into the abyss, into his own abyss, and stop Nogueira? A man who has never been stopped? It’s why they have the fi ght.