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The Blueprint: Mir vs. Nelson

Who will take Saturday's UFC 130 bout between Frank Mir and Roy Nelson? Michael DiSanto breaks it down...
The two couldn’t be more opposite, physically or philosophically.

Frank Mir lives bushido. He practices the way of the warrior in every aspect of his life, living, breathing and embracing the true spirit of being a martial artist since his earliest years. Martial arts is his life. Even if the UFC didn’t exist, Mir would be in a dojo somewhere training his mind and body in the search of perfection.

Just think about the transformation Mir made to his physique and strength in an attempt to try and counteract the amazing physical advantages held by monstrous heavies like Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin. Think about the guy who has added nearly 40 pounds of lean muscle since his 2002 UFC debut, forcing him to cut approximately 15 pounds in order to make the 265-pound weight limit when he squared off against Carwin.

When Mir realized that all the extra muscle actually made him a bit slower than he believed optimal, he dropped back down to a lean 250 pounds. After all, Mir’s fighting style is one of a smaller guy, since he is at his very best fighting from his terrific offensive guard. He now fights at that weight.

Think of how he has transformed himself from a rudimentary striker who looked extremely vulnerable on the feet five or six years ago to a guy who scored a savage knockout victory over Mirko Cro Cop and dropped Cheick Kongo before submitting him. Those are two of the more successful kickboxers to transition into mixed martial arts over the last decade.  Oh yes, he was also the guy to hand heavyweight legend and former PRIDE and UFC Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira the first knockout loss of his illustrious career.

That is bushido.

Don’t get me wrong. The guy isn’t a monk. He has a personal life. Enjoys himself like any other financially secure 30-something athlete. But when it comes to martial arts, he takes himself as seriously as anyone in the heavyweight division. And he is completely committed to becoming the absolute best heavyweight he can possibly be, as evidenced by his two separate reigns as a UFC champion.

Roy Nelson. Well, let’s just say that this guy marches to the beat of his own drum, regardless what others think.

“Big Country” sports one of the portliest figures in the promotion. This guy has a belly that would make any beer drinking champion green with envy. Seriously.

For whatever reason, Nelson chooses not to embark down the disciplined dietary road that many professional athletes travel. He instead embraces his belly, often rubbing it lovingly during his post-fight celebration. Do you know how many cheeseburgers, ice cream cones, potato chips and beers (or other sugary beverage) it takes to grow one of those bad boys? He might as well embrace it.

Strip him of all of his unnecessary body fat, and we are probably talking about a guy who weighs in the neighborhood of 235 pounds, which means he is a smallish heavyweight in terms of natural frame. Yet, Nelson fights like a huge man, often imposing his physicality. That is something that Mir has never done, despite his once hulking frame.

Despite the 179 words spent talking about Nelson’s physique, the guy is a legitimate, high-level professional athlete and an extremely talented fighter. He hasn’t really reinvented himself as a fighter at any point in his career. He knows what he is good at and where he is weak. He trains, not necessarily to shore up his weaknesses, but rather to make sure he can keep the fight where he is strongest.

That isn’t bushido. Then again, who is to say that bushido is all that relevant in 2011, especially when dealing with a natural born fighter like Nelson.

The differences don’t end there.

Nelson grew up fighting for peanuts on mid-major shows, desperate to someday earn a shot at competing under the bright lights and for the lucrative paydays of the UFC. Mir cut his MMA teeth in the world’s toughest promotion by facing the best of the best on a night-in, night-out basis.

Nelson craves the opportunity to prove that he is worthy of a title shot. Mir is a two-time champion (including his brief stint as interim UFC Heavyweight Champion).

The biggest difference of all is a little known fact: Nelson owns a win over Mir in a grappling tournament. Granted, that was years ago. Of course, grappling and MMA are about as different as rugby and football. Yet, Nelson has that little seed of confidence knowing that he has beaten his opponent at the dimension of his game that is universally regarded as Mir’s strongest.

You read that correctly. Nelson squared off against Mir in the realm that former champion considers to be his bread and butter, and he won. That bit of history won’t have any impact on the fight from Mir’s perspective, unless he finds himself on his back getting pounded in the face. It will, by contrast, give Nelson just a little more confidence than he otherwise should have heading into this matchup.

Enough with the long-winded introduction. It is time to get down to the nuts and bolts of the matchup.

Both of these guys will look to stand and bang at the beginning of the fight. Mir has been committed to fighting all opponents on the feet, since his December 2008 bout against Minotauro. He sits down on his punches and pays little attention to defending the takedown because his guard is one of his most dangerous offensive weapons.

Nelson, who shares Mir’s status as a BJJ black belt, also looks to stand and bang. Not because his best position is his guard. Rather, Nelson just loves to stand and bang, and he has the whiskers to do it with just about anyone without serious fear of a one-punch knockout loss.

So, what does all that mean?

The early moments of the fight will be a battle of footwork. Mir and Nelson will push to try and establish the outside position with their lead foot. Doing so opens up throwing lanes for lead power shots. It also puts the aggressor in prime position to drive forward for a takedown attempt, if the need arises.

Five years ago, I would have said that such a game plan was MMA suicide for Mir because Nelson has extremely thick whiskers and good pop in his own punches. But this is a new Frank Mir. Maybe even Frank Mir 5.0 – (i) the guy who won the title from Tim Sylvia, (ii) the guy who returned after the serious motorcycle accident as a shell of his former self, (iii) the guy who resurrected his career with a win over Lesnar, (iv) the guy who reinvented himself as a 280-lb striker, and (v) a slimmer, faster and even more polished standup version of Mir 4.0.

As Mir looks to pot shot Nelson with his straight left hand, he should continue looking to circle to his own right, always keeping the outside position with his lead foot, and mix in hard outside lead leg kicks. He can use that strike to transition into another left cross. Clean up right hooks will also be a comforting friend against a guy with limited lateral movement like Nelson.

Mir must be careful, however, to avoid loading up on his shots. Nelson’s chin is too sturdy for that. Junior dos Santos hit him on the button with everything in his arsenal, plus the kitchen sink, several dozen times. Dos Santos is one of the most efficient fistic destroyers in the game. One punch is typically enough to bring a fight to a sudden, violent end. Not against Nelson. Big Country shook off right hand after right hand and kept coming forward in search of more.

Mir does not have the same devastating show-stopping power in his punches as dos Santos. The former champion must be prepared to go three hard rounds, if the fight remains standing. If the dos Santos bout left lingering deleterious effects on the sturdiness of Nelson’s chin—a real possibility—then Mir can surprise himself with a spectacular early knockout. I wouldn’t plan on it, though.

Nelson will also look to come out firing lead power shots, only his version will be with the right hand, since he fights from a conventional stance. He will also throw a healthy dose of jabs, despite the fact that fighting an oppositely faced opponent often nullifies the effectiveness of a jab.

If I was in Big Country’s corner, I would not encourage him to get comfortable kickboxing with Mir, unless he is having a lot of early success. He should use his striking to score points and set up takedowns. I don’t think Mir will expect a guy like Nelson to shoot in, so that is exactly what he should do.

As good as Mir is from his back, he still doesn’t want to be in that position against Nelson. The former TUF winner is ridiculously talented at using his massive midsection to actually hold down opponents and strike, without putting himself in particularly vulnerable positions for a submission. He knows that if he holds Mir down for three rounds and remains active with his ground and pound, he will win the fight.

Note: the operative phrase is “for three rounds,” which obviously assumes Mir is not successful locking in a submission hold. That is not a safe assumption.

Nelson’s belly may be an asset when it comes to holding down opponents. But it is a liability when dealing with a guy of Mir’s skill level because it actually forces the former champion to remain very active in his guard. Nelson’s midsection will make it difficult for Mir to close his guard and control his opponent’s hips. Mir will therefore need to either employ the butterfly guard or rubber guard to try and nullify Nelson’s ground-and-pound attack.

Or, he can simply focus on keeping his hips high and active, which will put Nelson in a general defensive posture. The Mir who terrorized Sylvia and Lesnar from his guard is the same guy who can cause Nelson problems. His submissions are very difficult to see coming because he is so good at transitioning in the blink of an eye from move to move. He also can rely on his insane physical strength to complete moves that don’t seem quite deep enough to cause a submission.

Remember Sylvia’s forearm snapping? His elbow was clear of Mir’s hips, so the armbar should have been ineffective. Not against a behemoth like Mir.

If Nelson finds himself in deep water on the ground, he should cautiously retreat back to the feet. He can then employ a second strategy, one that worked wonders for Carwin. Crowd Mir against the cage and look to win with dirty boxing.

I like to call that game plan the “Couture special,” after living legend Randy Couture. Nelson has the size, weight and, oddly enough, proper distribution of weight to effectively employ leverage to keep Mir pinned against the cage, if he is effective at getting him there in the first place.

The way to get Mir to the cage is to apply unabashed pressure on the feet. Mir’s first instinct is to back up in the face of pressure. Once he realizes he is backing up, Mir will look to move laterally to create angles for solitary strikes. Nelson can take advantage of that hole in his opponent’s game to literally rush in the second he sees Mir take a backward step. He can then grind and smother his way to an ugly win.

At the end of the day, anything can happen when two UFC heavyweights step into the Octagon. This is one of those matchups, though, where a few outcomes are more likely than others.

If the bout ends by spectacular knockout on the feet or slick submission on the ground, Mir will almost certainly be the one left standing.

If it turns into a grueling ground fight that goes the distance, I like Nelson.

If it lasts the distance on the feet without a lot of time spent in the clinch, I like Mir every day all day.

And, if Big Country is effective at smothering his foe in the clinch, I again like the former TUF winner.

If pressed to pick an outcome, I like Mir by decision after a hard-fought, standup-focused affair. We’ll see if I’m correct.


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