A fight that, in the grand scheme, means nothing and everything
On Saturday, Bellator is promoting a show headlined by Fedor Emelianenko vs Frank Mir as part of their Heavyweight Grand Prix. It is a fight that, while still intriguing, is happening too late; at least by seven years in my estimation. A Fedor-Mir fight at some point during the 2004 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix would have been absolutely monumental; Mir won the UFC title, breaking Tim Sylvia’s arm, the day before Pride’s tournament started. Fedor signing with the UFC in 2008, instead of Affliction, could have provided a fight that would have incredibly, Imagine Frank Mir coming off a win against Brock Lesnar fighting Fedor. But alas, those fights never happened, and instead we are left with this fight, still interesting but mostly based on traces of what could have been.
For MMA in 2018, the fight has only nominal value. Neither man is going to make a serious run at the Top 10 and the Bellator Heavyweight Title, the prize for the eventual Grand Prix winner, isn’t particularly relevant. In terms of major organizations title belts, the winner of this tournament will rank somewhere between Wilson Reis’ EliteXC Bantamweight title and Bobby Southworth’s Strikeforce Light Heavyweight strap — they will be on the Wikipedia page into perpetuity, but in any serious conversation of who the best fighters in 2018 were, the man holding the Bellator Heavyweight Title shouldn’t come up. Maybe the winner of the Grand Prix, whoever that may be, will crack the Top 10, but that is a distinction on par with being second runner-up in a group of four.
The interesting angle to this fight is it’s implications on the past and how it will frame the last 15 years of MMA discourse, or rather how others will frame it. Although the fight is happening in 2018, really this is a fight that is as much about 2004 and 2010 then anything remotely contemporary. For Fedor, this fight is an opportunity for him to finally and emphatically cement himself as the best heavyweight of his era and one of the greatest fighters of all time — look, in my view he already is easily one of the 5 best fighters ever, but this is a UFC world and the longer we go without another promotion to challenge them, the more ingrained the idea that the best fighters fought in the UFC, and only the UFC, becomes reality. Go read a mainstream media piece about the UFC, you’ll come away thinking Dana White built the octagon in his backyard and came down from Mount Shasta with the Unified Rules engraved on stone tablets. So in that way, a loss to Frank Mir in 2018, however trivial it may seem at this moment, aides the narrative that Frank Mir and by proxy the UFC’s heavyweight division from 2003 to 2010 were superior to any other group of fighters in that weight range on the planet.
Not only does Frank Mir stand to alter the way the Heavyweight paradigm is viewed in the future, he also has an opportunity to solidify his place as one MMA’s truly premier heavyweights. As it stand now, Mir is a fringe Top 10 heavyweight of all time, but nowhere near the top. Think about Mir in comparison to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a man who Mir has two emphatic wins over, and yet still doesn’t surpass him in terms of career achievement or legacy. In some ways, Mir is lucky to even be mentioned in this group, a motorcycle accident took some of the best years of Mir’s career, and his return from said injury was a real rough patch. I don’t recommend it, but watch him fight Pe De Pano at UFC 57, Mir is a husk of a human being, a big fat husk but a husk none the less. Really, it is Mir’s run from 2008 up until 2012 — starting with his win over Brock Lesnar and ending with his loss to Junior Dos Santos, that allows him to be considered at all, instead of being a giant “what-if.” A win against Fedor has a chance to change that, not for today and probably not in the next 5 years, but in the macro view of MMA, decades down the road, a Mir win has the ability to recontextualize the MMA worldview.
The view circa 2004, and to a lesser degree today, is that the Pride heavyweight division was far superior to that of the UFC, but as we get further and further away from that era, the less emphatic and accepted that viewpoint becomes. Pedantic people like me who prattle on about Fedor and Frank Shamrock and the brillance of Mark Kerr’s early career are in the minority and as the narrative becomes more and more a product of The Zuffa/WME machine. So, no matter how accepted a fact was or is, without the capital and force behind it, it can fade away. That is why Fedor-Mir is an important touchstone. These head-to-head fights, these Pride vs UFC fights, no matter where and when they happen, are still essential pieces of this narrative. In 2008 and 2009 when Fedor beat Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski under the Affliction banner, it seemed to be a definitive stamp on Fedor’s, and by association Pride’s superiority. Now here in 2018 Mir has an opportunity to perhaps flip that script. A win over Fedor, especially a decisive one, gives him wins over Fedor, two wins over Nogueira, and one win over Mirko Cro Cop, in addition to his other victories in the UFC. So as the memories fade, as less people remember the sound of Fedor obliterating Nogueira’s face with punches from the guard, as less people remember how, and I hate to use this word but it really does fit here, epic the Fedor-Cro Cop fight was, the more simple wins and losses matter.
On Saturday, Frank Mir and Fedor Emelianenko will fight as part of a tournament that seeks to draw upon the magic of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2011, which in turn sought to draw upon the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2004. What happens in the cage may not have implications for how we view the MMA space in 2018, but instead may have an impact on how the MMA space as a whole in viewed decades from now.