Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009 | midnight
Frank Mir returned to Bonanza High School recently the same way he left it — unnoticed.
With the school deserted on a quiet Saturday morning, the former UFC heavyweight champion slipped in undetected to his old wrestling room for the first time since graduating from Bonanza in 1998.
For Mir, going anywhere in Las Vegas without getting recognized is a tough chore these days. It was a different story as a high school student-athlete, though, when Mir says he mostly flew under the radar.
“I wasn’t part of the popular group; I wasn’t really disliked or liked,” he said. “The only thing that made me noticeable to anyone was my athletic achievements. I never went to house parties. I stayed home, watched a lot of TV, got into fantasy books early on.
“I was kind of a shut-in, I guess.”
Walking through the halls of Bonanza produces little evidence that Mir was even a student there. Flipping through yearbooks offers even less.
His senior picture is nowhere to be found in the 1998 edition. In a colored photo taken of the entire senior class, Mir’s face is barely recognizable as he is the only one looking away from the camera.
The list of past state champions painted inside the wrestling room could be considered the strongest proof of Mir’s attendance, and even it is a little off, listing him as champion in 1997 though it actually happened in 1998.
It’s an oversight that sits just fine with Mir, though, as he’s never been one to put his accomplishments on display.
“He’s always been a quiet kid, never one to boast about his ability,” said his father, Frank Sr. “He was content to be who he was. He wasn’t out there saying, ‘Look who I am, I can hurt you if I wanted to.’ He was just the opposite.”
Mir’s reserved way of handling his athletic abilities applied to his social skills as well, particularly with his female classmates.
Frank Sr. described his son as acting like ‘an old man’ when it came to settling down with just one girl for long periods of time as a high school kid — a description Mir himself couldn’t argue with.
“For some reason I didn’t have a lot of social skills, I didn’t date a lot of girls,” Mir said. “I always had the thing where I was in love with one girl. I wish I would have been a little more open-minded back then. So, that’s what I try to teach my kids.”
Up until his junior year at Bonanza, when he finally decided to join the wrestling team, Mir also showed a desire to stick with just one form of mixed martial arts.
His fighting background began at an early age when he’d spend hours practicing Kempo karate in the school his father opened in the mid-1980s.
At first wrestling failed to appeal to Mir because he believed it didn’t relate well to fighting. Eventually the sport won him over, though, and he even began using knowledge he had picked up in karate to help him during his state championship run.
“My senior year I was wrestling a guy and I put my hands on my knees and acted like I was tired,” Mir said. “He did the same thing because he was thinking, ‘OK, we’re taking a break.’ As soon as he did, I shot and took him down.”
The love for combat sports stayed with him after he graduated high school. Never that interested in attending college, Mir toyed with the idea of starting an amateur boxing career before settling in on MMA.
Although he made his debut with the UFC at 22, the organization wasn’t paying the type of money it does now, and Mir was forced to find a part-time job as a bouncer at Spearmint Rhino, a local gentleman’s club.
“I had already had a couple fights in the UFC and was picking up part-time jobs here and there to make ends meet,” Mir said. “I kept a pretty low profile — just rode a motorcycle with a backpack and stayed at coaches’ houses.
“When I was 22, I had the opportunity to work as a bouncer. I only had to work one or two nights and could make enough money to spend the rest of my time training.”
Working at a strip club wasn’t exactly what Mir’s father had hoped for his oldest child.
But Frank Sr. never worried about his son falling in with the wrong crowd.
“As a parent, you want your son to go to college and get a degree, but I knew he was more geared towards the competitive field than going to school,” Frank Sr. said. “It wasn’t a shock to me that he chose not to go to college, but I wasn’t expecting him to go work at Spearmint Rhino.
“But I was pretty laid back. Frankie has a strong spirit, and I wasn’t worried he was going to have his mind twisted. He always hung out with good people.”
Mir won the UFC heavyweight title in 2004, only to vacate it the following year after suffering injuries in a motorcycle accident that sent him flying 90 feet through the air.
The accident left him with a broken femur in his left leg, the kind of injury that could have ended many other fighters’ careers.
However, Mir made a full recovery from the injuries and returned to UFC in 2006.
He now looks back on the experience as a gift that allowed him to see the opportunities he had wasted up to that point in his life and that inspired him to never back down from anything again because of fear.
“Whenever I do something in life, I take it as far as I can take it,” Mir said. “A lot of people think the easy road is to avoid adversity. But trust me, when you’re an old man, you’re not going to remember why you didn’t do those things. You’re going to remember you (shrank) away from them.”
On Dec. 27, 2008, Mir claimed the interim UFC heavyweight title with a TKO win over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria and shortly thereafter agreed to a rematch with Brock Lesnar, who he already had defeated earlier that year, at UFC 100 for the undisputed championship.
Even after watching recordings of it, Mir still doesn’t understand what prompted Lesnar to get in his face following that championship fight.
Mir temporarily blacked out after taking some hard shots from Lesnar that forced referee Herb Dean to stop the fight in the second round.
When he came to, he was already standing and was surprised to see Lesnar pointing in his direction and yelling.
“I remember I panicked when he stuck me against the cage and then I remember staring at Herb,” Mir said. “I even made a joke like, ‘I didn’t get out, did I?’ When I saw Brock screaming and yelling at me I was confused because I was thinking, ‘What happened from the time I blacked out and the time I woke up?’”
Although Frank Sr. said he can’t say specifically why, he believes that Lesnar's disrespect has sparked a change in his son ever since.
“He shouldn’t have lost that fight, in his heart and in his mind,” Frank Sr. said. “Brock’s demeanor after that fight really fueled him. After a fight it should be, ‘You won. Let’s shake hands.’ That fuels him now.
“Brock is going to be ever present in his mind until he gets back in and deals with him.”
Those closest to Mir will tell you there are two huge factors that have made him into the UFC fighter he is today.
The first is his raw, athletic ability. The second is his fierce hatred of losing.
According to Russ Leet, his high school wrestling coach at Bonanza, Mir refused to lose to the same opponent twice, even during his junior year in which he dropped his first seven matches.
And Frank Sr. says that Mir’s distaste for losing was evident to his father much earlier than that.
“He hated to lose with a passion, whether it was a checker game, marbles or connect the dots,” Frank Sr. said. “Something as ridiculous as checkers, if he didn’t win, he’d walk away. He could not conceive he didn’t win.
“Being a young guy we’d all tell him, ‘Come on, man. It’s a checkers game, give me a break.’ He’d just walk away in anger because he couldn’t believe he lost.”
In October, news broke that Lesnar had pulled out of a scheduled fight with Shane Carwin at UFC 106 because of an illness so severe that his career was potentially over.
Mir was so distraught at the thought of never fighting Lesnar again that he became physically ill.
“When he got sick it screwed up my training because he was such a driving force for me,” Mir said. “I went into a depression for two to three days where I didn’t go to the gym, I got sick — I drove myself insane thinking we may possibly not fight again.
“I couldn’t live with that.”
After the initial shock wore off, however, Mir has been able to return to preparations for his upcoming fight with Cheick Kongo in Memphis at UFC 107.
He says he will still be bothered if Lesnar's health prevents a third meeting between them, but he's learned to accept it for now and focus on the tasks at hand.
One of those includes giving kids attending Las Vegas high schools like he once did something to cheer for and look up to.
"Growing up in Vegas there is that complaint that we have no sports team," Mir said. "We have boxing, but no boxers are ever from Vegas, they're always from the east. We never had anything we could join up to. A couple years ago I learned that kids recognized that I was a (Las Vegas) fighter and they were cheering for me. I took it seriously after that."
Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].