On the surface, the main event at UFC 119 is the quintessential clash of styles.
Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir is one of, if not the, best heavyweight submission artists in the world. Former PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix Champion Mirko Cro Cop is the most prolific knockout artist in the history of the legendary PRIDE Fighting Championships.
But, alas, at the very top of the sport, true one-dimensional fighters are a thing of the past. Mir’s last two wins came as the result of strikes. His most recent win saw him drop world-class kickboxer Cheick Kongo with a brutal left hand before choking out his opponent seconds later. Two bouts earlier, he completely outclassed skilled boxer “Minotauro” Nogueira on the feet en route to a second round technical knockout.
The last time Cro Cop stepped into the Octagon he engaged in a timeless slugfest with fellow striker Pat Barry and ended up bringing the action to a close with a rear naked choke. It was the Croatian’s first submission win in his brief UFC career.
A slick submission artist winning with his fists. A fearsome striker beating guys with submission holds. That is the UFC in a nutshell. The promotion is filled with closely matched fighters who may have finely tuned specialties in one or more aspects of the game, but at the end of the day, all of the top fighters are extremely well rounded and can win on the feet or on the ground on any given night.
With that said, there is no way that Cro Cop is going to win this fight by submission, other than a submission from strikes. None whatsoever. Trust me on that one. Mir is too good on the ground. He has forgotten more about applying and defending chokes and joint locks than Cro Cop has learned in his mixed martial arts career. If the former politician wants to win the fight, he must do it with his fists and shins.
Mir, on the other hand, can win this fight either on the feet or on the ground. Anyone who doubts that statement needs to watch Mir-Kongo again. Kongo is every bit as fearsome on the feet as Cro Cop. Yet, Mir crumbled him to the canvas with a single punch. That isn’t shocking. Mir is a massive, highly athletic human being who trains his standup on a daily basis. It is much easier for someone with his freakish size and strength to learn how to knock out an opponent than it is for a career-long striker like Cro Cop to figure out how to deal with the intricacies of transition jiu jitsu.
If Cro Cop is not on his game on Saturday night, Mir will knock him out, whether on the feet or on the ground. The odds of that occurring are further enhanced by the fact that Cro Cop will likely be very hesitant to unleash his best weapon – his left high kick – for fear that Mir will use the strike as a way to take the fight to the ground. And to be quite honest, I like Mir’s chances in a straight boxing match with Cro Cop any day of the week. Mir’s utter destruction of “Minotauro” Nogueira in a fight that unfolded exclusively on the feet allows me to write the immediately preceding sentence without hesitation.
I’m not so confident about Mir’s chances on the feet if Cro Cop goes back to his roots and uses his legs as his primary weapons. Let’s face the facts: Cro Cop did not rise to prominence in combat sports due to his fists. He is a serviceable boxer, but certainly nothing special. His kicks, by contrast, are otherworldly.
Cro Cop is one of only a handful of guys in the sport who can legitimately win fights by knockout without ever landing a meaningful punch. He beat Hong Man Choi and Hidehiko Yoshida in K-1 and PRIDE, respectively, by chopping away at their legs with low kick after low kick. His foes were so concerned with his vaunted left high kick that they failed to effectively defend against kicks to their legs. As a result, they were methodically taken apart with a single form of strike, never having eaten a significant punch or kick to the upper half of their bodies.
Cro Cop can do the same thing to Mir.
As good as Mir is on the feet, he wants no part of a Cro Cop high kick. He will, therefore, be hyper sensitive to protecting against his foe’s best weapon. Every time Cro Cop’s hips turn for a kick, Mir will raise his arms in defense. That will leave his midsection and legs wide open for attack.
Mix that in with the fact that a low kick or even a kick to the body can be delivered much more quickly than a high kick and it becomes obvious what Cro Cop needs to do to be successful. The problem, however, is that Cro Cop has been increasingly unwilling to throw kicks in the UFC for fear of getting taken down, which has resulted in him experiencing much less success than he did in PRIDE, where Cro Cop was consistently among the top two or three heavyweights in the promotion.
Cro Cop should not worry too much about the fight going to the ground on Saturday. His opponent has only average takedowns. Cro Cop’s excellent sprawl and impressive balance should be enough to guard against traditional takedown attempts from Mir and lateral movement should prevent clinches and throws. Thus, I expect the fight to largely unfold as a kickboxing contest. But if Cro Cop telegraphs a kick, none of his sprawl, his excellent balance or good lateral movement will prevent the former heavyweight champ from taking the fight to the ground, where Cro Cop will be like a fish out of water trying to deal with a submission savant like Mir.
Remember these words: If Mir is able to get Cro Cop to the ground with more than a minute remaining in any round, he will end the fight by submission. I’m as certain of that statement as I am the sun rising in the morning. Fairly confident, I know.
From a technical standpoint, both fighters are southpaws, so Cro Cop’s best fistic weapon will be his jab, though he doesn’t often rely much on that strike. Mir’s shoulder and lead right hand will create problems for the Croatian landing lead lefts, which is his preferred way to initiate a salvo. So again, I’m not sure how effective Cro Cop will really be with his boxing game.
If I’m part of Team Cro Cop, I almost don’t care how effective he is with his fists. As mentioned, the key to him winning this fight, or just about any other fight, is to commit to his kicks – not just his dreaded left high kick, but a variety of kicks to keep his opponent guessing. And Mir’s southpaw stance creates the perfect opportunity for Cro Cop to do just that.
Because Mir will be standing with his right leg forward, Cro Cop can fire fully committed outside low kicks, really turning his hips and whipping his shin into the area just above his foe’s knee. It will be very difficult for Mir to catch that kick because of the speed and the fact that he absolutely must keep his right hand high to avoid catching a shin in the mouth.
My guess is that Mir has been training to react to any hip movement as if it is a high kick, which means raising his right forearm next to his cheek and keeping it perpendicular to the ground while shifting his open left hand inside the “L” created by his left forearm and upper arm. He will probably lift his lead leg, as well, as a defensive measure, just in case the strike is destined for his leg.
That technique will leave Mir completely out of position to counter or attempt a takedown, which means Cro Cop can safely circle away and restart his attack. As Mir starts to cheat toward defending an anticipated low kick by dropping his right hand, Cro Cop can sneak in a fight-ending high kick. But even if that opportunity doesn’t arrive, the former PRIDE Grand Prix champion has enough juice in his low kicks to end the bout through an accumulation of damage.
The question, though, is whether Cro Cop will actually commit to a game plan that includes a healthy dose of kicks. He hasn’t shown the willingness to do that in the UFC since his knockout loss to Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70 back on April 21, 2007. The fear of the takedown has to be the reason. He must forget that fear on Saturday night.
Unfortunately for the Croatian, I don’t think it is likely that he will follow such a game plan. I instead think that he will go into the cage looking to box almost exclusively with Mir. I don’t like that approach to fighting a monstrous, athletic heavyweight like Mir, as mentioned above. Mir’s hands are much better than most believe, and I think that he can successfully trade hands with Cro Cop.
So, who do I see winning the fight? This one, as with many UFC main events, is very tough to call, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either guy pull out a definitive, statement-making win. Nevertheless, if pressed to pick a winner, I lean toward Mir because of his deeper toolbox and, to be honest, the continued improvement of his game over the last five years. The one knock on Cro Cop is that he has not evolved as a fighter since joining the UFC after such a successful stint in PRIDE. He hasn’t really fully adapted to life in the Octagon, whereas Mir is probably more comfortable in the cage than he is at his own dinner table. I think that will be the difference in the fight.