One of the greatest backstories of “The Ultimate Fighter 8,” debuting Wednesday night on Spike TV, doesn’t even come from one of the 32 fighters vying for the 16 available slots on the series. It belongs to Frank Mir, who coaches one of the squads.
Mir’s four-year journey back into contention for a second UFC heavyweight title is not your typical MMA comeback tale. In 2004, the Las Vegas native was struck by a car going 50 mph while riding his motorcycle to work.
Mir was thrown nearly 90 feet from his bike on impact, hit the pavement with his head, and settled on the grass with a broken femur. The accident nearly crushed his spirit as well.
Forced to strip the then 26-year-old champion of his title when he couldn’t return to defend it after 13 months, the UFC was hesitant when Mir re-entered the Octagon in February 2006 to face Marcio Cruz.
Mir wasn’t prepared to fight again, though he didn’t just lie to himself. During his pre-fight physical, he squatted on one foot for the doctors so they wouldn’t notice that his right leg was four inches shorter than his left.
The subsequent bout against Cruz was a mess, with the Brazilian landing shot after unchallenged shot into Mir’s bloody guard for four tortuous minutes until it was stopped.
“After the Marcio Cruz fight, I was like, ‘I really shouldn’t have taken the fight,’ but because I knew how injured I really was, it didn’t hurt my feelings that bad,” Mir says.
What resonated was the ultimatum that came two fights later, following a crushing first-round loss to rising striker Brandon Vera at UFC 65.
“I was told before the Antoni Hardonk fight that if I didn’t win impressively, I was out of the UFC,” says Mir.
The defeat to Vera –- which came from a gruesome knee that smashed into Mir’s unprotected head –- wasn’t all he had to contend with that night. After a few hours sulking and talking of retirement, Mir then faced the wrath of his wife, Jenny.
“She said, ‘You think you’re the first fighter to have a bad day? You think you’re the first guy to struggle with a book or struggle with a song or struggle in life? What are you –- a bitch?” recalls Mir. “I remember sitting there, my nose is ripped open, I have stitches holding it together, my one eye is completely shut and I’m looking at her. I’m like, ‘Wow, this hurts worse than the knee.’”
His wife’s fiery words and refusal to let her doubting husband give in turned a new page in Mir’s career, punctuated by new coaches, a new training regimen, and a fresh outlook on fighting in general.
Mir conquered Hardonk, which earned him a shot at the sport’s biggest newcomer –- former WWE champion Brock Lesnar -- in February 2008. The fighter once heralded for his speedy submissions graced the cage again when he bear-trapped the bulky wrestler’s leg into a kneebar. Prior to his motorcycle accident, Mir says he wouldn’t have had the mental fortitude to withstand the flash-flood ground-and-pound attack Lesnar unleashed before the submission.
This is the Frank Mir that comes to TUF 8 as a coach, a man much more seasoned in facing adversity than he was just four years ago.
“I just came across as myself,” says Mir of his TUF appearance. “I tried to be. At first, I tried to stay kind of reserved, but that’s my problem, is when I start talking or doing anything, the cat’s out of the bag.”
Always an eloquent speaker, Mir (11-3) hopes his knowledge and passion for the sport shines through from week to week on the show, which culminates with a December showdown against rival coach and UFC interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Along with his jiu-jitsu gifts, knowledge and passion happen to be Mir’s strong suits in MMA. During his slow trek back into competitive shape, Mir was tapped to become a commentator for the UFC’s second promotion, World Extreme Cagefighting, in January 2007. His tenure over 12 WEC events has put his understanding of the mechanics of the sport on display and received ample positive reviews from fans in the process.
Mir’s commitment to the sport is unquestionable. Father to 16-year-old son Marcus and 5-year-old daughter Isabella, Mir named his second son, now three years old, Kage.
On the show, which finished shooting in late June, Mir admits he grew emotionally attached to his team, sharing their triumphs and falls as the series’ hectic schedule churned out a fight every three days.
“I took on a bit of a cheerleading role,” says Mir. “Some of the guys thought I might have a heart attack at some points.”
Not as savvy on the keyboard as he is on the mats, Mir says his wife Jenny will be gauging fans’ reactions to her husband’s reality TV performance. Jenny might not have much to flinch at. Mir describes his interaction with fellow coach and idol Nogueira as respectful and amicable.
“Anybody that’s watching the show to see if me and Nogueira go at it in any other context besides competing with the fighters is going to be sorely disappointed,” says Mir. “No animosity. There were times when we looked at each other. There were times when I didn’t like him because his guy might have beat my guy’s a--. There were times where I know he didn’t like me, but it was a very competitive nature. There was never any childish thing between him and I -- but the fighters made up for that.”
Though outrageous behavior is nearly guaranteed to fuel the fighter’s house and the ratings, Mir says he was pleasantly surprised by the talent pool.
“In past seasons, you’d see there was sound fighters on there, but there was a mixture of those guys that were there to add fluff,” he says. The eighth crop of prospects doesn’t follow that model, according to Mir.
“There’s some guys that have more fights than I do –- twice as many. There’s guys there that are black belts in jiu-jitsu that I was rolling with that I’ve incorporated to come out and help me get ready for Nogueira now,” he says. “I’ve actually pulled training partners out of this, those guys have such a high level.”
The list of candidates that won’t make it to a UFC preliminary bout down the road is much shorter than those that likely will, says Mir.
“There’s only maybe two or three guys I can sit there and go, ‘Well, you’re probably not going to see this guy later on,” he says. “More than half, I think are on prelims.”
Mir knows just how valuable a shot in the prelims can be. It’s where his career began in 2001 against black belt Roberto Traven at UFC 34. Seven years later, he’s guiding others down the same path.