Contributor: Benjamin Kohn
In a matchup that has grappling fans in MMA salivating, two of the very best Heavyweight MMA grapplers of all time will battle in the co-main event of UFC 164. Both of these men have made of a living off of taking home the various limbs of their opponents and on Saturday night, we finally get to see them try and figure out who is the better fighter between them.
Frank Mir has had more UFC fights than any Heavyweight in UFC history. He has fought for the UFC 21 times, with 14 wins in the Octagon, 8 of them by submission and 3 by (T)KO. Frank is definitely a finisher at heart and wants to either knock you out, or take home one of your body parts. He is also one of those fighters who does not fight very safe and it has cost him in his losses. 6 of his 7 losses have come by KO and many fans feel that he suffers from the dreaded “glass chin”. Despite this, Frank is one of the most dangerous and skillful Heavyweight fighters today. His lethal and dangerous submission game is complemented nicely by his very much improved striking. In fact, quite a few of his best wins have come from using his improved standup skills. Dropping Kongo with an overhand left before putting him to sleep and dismantling Roy Nelson in the standup are just a few examples of him relying on his striking to carry him to victory. Frank really should go down as one of the best Heavyweights in UFC, if not MMA history, but he is going up against a man who has been a staple of the top ten for damn near 13 years and someone who is considered as good a grappler as Frank is.
Josh Barnett won the UFC title from Randy Couture at UFC 36 by TKO and solidified himself as one of the best Heavyweights in the world. After being stripped of the title for testing positive for banned substances (steroids), Barnett has fought in organizations all over the world ranging from Pride, Affliction, Dream, and Strikeforce. He has fought a who’s who of MMA Heavyweight legends such as Mirko Cro Cop 3x, Big Nog 2x, Mark Hunt, Daniel Cormier, and Sergei Kharitonov. He has 38 total fights with 19 of those wins coming by submission and 8 by KO. He has been knocked out by Pedro Rizzo and had a TKO from a shoulder injury against Cro Cop. His only other finish is a submission to punches by Cro Cop again. Josh Barnett has gone 38 fights without being submitted. That is one hell of a statistic considering he faced Big Nog twice in his prime.
Josh is a very different style of fighter on the ground than Mir is. While Mir is a classical BJJ submission artist, Barnett’s submission skills stem from his catch-wrestling background. He is a heavy top control grappler who works for position and is not someone who will recklessly hunt for the submission. He will control you with his heavy hips, wear you down with ground and pound and steadily pass the guard before choking you out. Both men have very different styles of standup too but let’s talk about that soon. Reality is, when two grapplers like this fight, it more often than not turns into a kickboxing match. Usually, that is something dreadful but here, it can turn into an exciting fight regardless. Let’s take a look at what these two have to offer on the feet.
Frank Mir is not a very fast fighter. He is on the border between the smaller and faster 240 pounders and the behemoths who have to cut weight in order to make the 265 pound limit. He is powerful, yet not overwhelmingly so. He is limber fluid, yet not very quick. His limitations in certain areas however are usually compensated by his strengths in others. He is very large and generally will be the taller and rangier fighter. He has therefore developed some very good roundhouse kicks, specifically with his left leg. As a southpaw, this technique can be really damaging to orthodox fighters and he has used it to great effect. Even when he is losing the standup, such as in his fight with JDS, he was still able to land this kick effectively throughout the fight. Frank has also effectively learned to use his left hand as a weapon which he uses in combination with his left roundhouse kick to open up his opponents to one by using the other as a diversion. When Frank fights properly and at range, these two long strikes are incredibly effective for him and can really frustrate and hurt his opponents. Where Frank really seems to thrive though is when he is able to grab a hold of the Thai Plum. His knees from the Thai clinch are really hard and he has actually knocked out Cro Cop with those knees and was able to hurt and land them at will against Roy Nelson in their fight. Overall, Mir’s offensive striking game has made some very nice strides. His defense on the other hand is another matter entirely.
Frank Mir is not a fast fighter as I mentioned before. Because of this, Frank should have been trained to have a very defensive guard in which it is very hard for opponents to touch his already suspect chin. The problem is that he really doesn’t have very good defense. Many point to his complacency/lack of urgency when getting hit as the source but that is only a problem because his defense is just not very sound. He will get hit with the same strikes over and over again without adjusting and it has gotten him knocked out on multiple occasions. If he isn’t careful, he will be in trouble against Barnett who is no slouch in the standup.
Josh Barnett has a very different game than Mir in the standup. He is much more of a boxer, both in his offense and in his defense. Josh likes to throw hard punching combinations, mostly to the head of his opponents alternating between straights, hooks, and uppercuts. While not a power puncher, he does have the ability to hurt you on the feet as evidenced in his fight with Daniel Cormier where he actually caused Cormier to wince in pain from a punch-knee combination. Unfortunately Josh couldn’t see it and capitalize as they were clinched up immediately afterwards. Josh also differs from Mir in that he is actually pretty sound defensively. He uses head movement more similar to boxers than the average MMA fighter and will bob and weave at the waist to avoid incoming strikes. That’s not to say that he can’t be hit but his chin has proven to be really damn good and he has taken many a shot and waded through them. Josh however needs to get closer to his opponent to work his striking and that may be difficult if Mir employs a kick heavy gameplan on the feet. Overall, despite Mir’s more diverse attack on the feet, Barnett has proven to have the stronger and more effective standup game throughout his career. Edge goes to Barnett.
Whoever has the ability to control where the fight takes place starts the fight with a major advantage over their opponent. If you are getting lit up, take it to the ground. If you are the better striker, keep it standing. The better wrestler usually can use it to formulate a winning gameplan. Frank Mir, while a fantastic submission specialist, is not a good wrestler. Despite his size, Mir has been held up against the cage by much smaller and physically weaker men. It’s really amazing how he just never developed the wrestling skills in his career to impose his stellar grappling. It is also the reason he will continue to be at a disadvantage against guys like JDS, strikers who can stop him from working his grappling game. Barnett on the other hand is actually very adept at getting the fight to the ground. He is able to trip you in the clinch, or shoot doubles and singles. Against guys like Cormier, he will obviously not be in control but against most of his opponents, Barnett more often than not will have the wrestling advantage over his opponent. This will be the case against Mir as well. Edge in Clinch/Takedown goes to Barnett.
Finally we move to the part that has grappling aficionados salivating at the thought of, the ground game. Barnett is a powerful and controlling style of grappler that stems from his catch-wrestling base. He has combined it with his blackbelt level submission skills to become an absolute force in the grappling department. While he is incredibly effective on top, he is not nearly as effective when put on his back. His submission game is more geared towards a steady flow of ground and pound before locking in a choke or armlock. In fact 7 of his sub wins have come by way of a choke with 9 coming by way of various arm/shoulder locks. One of my favorite things about Josh though is his ability to transition into dominant positions immediately off his takedowns. For example, in his fight with Kharitanov, he hit a trip takedown and immediately passed his leg over right into mount without wasting a second. I absolutely think too many fighters miss opportunities to advance their position off of big trips and throws and are content to stay in the position they land. When you throw someone, they are at a complete disadvantage and can be vulnerable to passes and submissions in the heat of the moment. Barnett is excellent at capitalizing on these moments of vulnerability in order to impose his heavy top game. Against someone with as good a guard as Mir though, can he really impose his will the way he likes?
Frank Mir has among the top 3 guards in Heavyweight MMA history. His list of submissions and the diversity of those submissions is truly incredible. 1 triangle choke, 2 armbars, 1 modified shoulder lock, 1 toe hold, 2 kimuras, 1 kneebar, and a guillotine choke. 3 of those submissions were technical due to his opponent’s limbs either snapping or being put to sleep before they could tap. The fact of the matter is, if Frank Mir grabs a hold of your limb or neck and you don’t tap fast enough, you will suffer a broken bone or take a nap on the canvas. Frank gives not one hint of a fuck when it comes to hurting his opponent and that is something many submission artists do not possess. We always talk about fighters having killer instinct and Frank Mir’s grappling possesses it in abundance. He can submit you from virtually any position and his ability to grab submissions, even when he is basically unconscious is really remarkable. While he isn’t necessarily the most technical BJJ blackbelt, he is by far the most dangerous because of his willingness to harm you in any way he can. The biggest problem that Mir possesses though is his complete calmness when under fire. While it has saved him on multiple occasions, it has also been the reason for many of his defeats. Shane Carwin and Brock Lesnar were landing unbelievably hard shots to Mir’s dome and he just took them until his brain decided it needed a vacation. Mir’s calmness also saved him against Brock’s incredible onslaught in their first fight and in the second fight with Big Nog where he was basically out cold and was able to ride out the ground and pound storm and break Nog’s arm. The thing is, against such an intelligent and heavy top control guy like Barnett, he won’t have the chance to capitalize on any mistakes because Josh won’t make them. He really is that damn good on top. The bottom line is that Mir has struggled with heavy top game fighters who were able to overpower his vaunted guard with steady punches and not overextending themselves. While Barnett is nowhere near as powerful as Brock, he is definitely a big and strong fighter and should the fight hit the ground, Barnett will have the edge. Edge goes to Barnett but only slightly.
This fight has potential to be one of the best grappling heavy fights in UFC history. The thing is, I don’t know if it will make it there. Barnett’s combination punching, active jab, and great chin should allow him to hurt Mir on the feet. The only issue is the way he moves his head which Mir can grab him in the Plum and knee him in the head (see fight with Cro Cop, but not the whole thing, skip through the awful fight for your own sake). Other than that, I see Barnett busting Mir up on the feet and finishing him later in the fight.
Final Verdict: Josh Barnett by 3rd Round TKO.
-Ben can be reached at email@example.com or @agentbenten.
If you liked this Breakdown, you may also be interested in looking at these:
Breakdown: Charles Oliveira vs. Frankie Edgar by Josh Hall
Ronda Rousey’s Defense of Not Fighting Cyborg is Inexcusable by Nolan Howell