UFC heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos was supposed to play a video game against former champ Frank Mir once. This was months ago, before they found themselves thrust together by circumstance and high testosterone levels. This was before Dos Santos' original opponent -- Alistair Overeem -- was pulled from the main event of UFC 146 following a surprise drug test that apparently surprised him a little too well. This was also before Mir all but begged for the opportunity to take Overeem's place in the May 26 main event title fight.
At the time, there was no apparent discord between Dos Santos and Mir, so the UFC thought it would be no problem to have them both come down to the MGM on the day of the UFC 141 weigh-ins in late December and do a fun little appearance for the fans that would also give the UFC's video game a helpful push. Harmless enough, right? Just two professional athletes playing some Xbox on a stage inside the MGM Grand on a weekday afternoon. No big deal.
Only that didn't happen, because once he actually sat down and thought about it, Dos Santos figured he might have a problem on his hands. You see, Mir had just snapped the arm of one of his mentors -- Brazilian MMA legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, another former UFC champ -- a few weeks earlier at a fight in Toronto. To get up in front of fans and mash buttons with the guy who had maimed his friend might not be looked upon so kindly back home, the heavyweight champ decided.
"It wasn't that he beat [Nogueira]," Dos Santos told SI.com via a translator. "It was that he talked a lot of trash after that fight, saying things that the Brazilian fans considered very disrespectful. I didn't really want to put myself in a situation that was going to be doing a public appearance with Frank where I knew we were going to be laughing and having a good time. Something like video games is just more of like a hangout scenario, and I thought it might be taken the wrong way by the Brazilian fans."
This was a bit of a surprise to Mir, who responded to Dos Santos' comment by saying he'd be "really curious to [hear] a quote of what I said about Nogueira after the fight that was so disrespectful." After all, it wasn't his fault that Nogueira chose not to tap. If Brazilian fans expected him to be all torn up about someone else's decision to let his pride get in the way of good sense, they were out of luck. "I think it's just the Brazilians being nationalistic, and the fact of an American beating a Brazilian at jiu-jitsu, and one of the legends of jiu-jitsu at that," he said. "I think that's the part that stings."
Still, Dos Santos wasn't about to alienate the fans in his home country for the sake of a public appearance. He told the UFC to get someone else, and the UFC complied. Champions can do stuff like that. Mir? He got the order to stand down. Former champions have to swallow stuff like that. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a big deal. At the time, the idea of Dos Santos and Mir facing each other in a real-life fight seemed so far off as to be hardly worth thinking about, and who cares about video games anyway? These are grown men we're talking about.
But if you look closely, you can learn something about each of them even from a situation as innocuous as this one. For instance, there's the fact that, as soon he heard he'd be playing the game in public, Mir called up his youngest brother -- "an avid player of video games," according to Mir -- and hunkered down for a serious tutorial in the ways of 'UFC Undisputed 3.' He did this because that's exactly the type of thing Mir would do, because he's intensely competitive even when it comes to activities he doesn't care about.
"Of course I didn't want to go up there and look silly," he explained. As if anyone but him would have cared. As if fans would have left the MGM Grand that day chuckling to each other, 'Can you believe how bad Frank Mir is at Xbox? What a joke!'
And then there's Dos Santos, who's as jovial a knockout artist as you'll ever meet, and who seemed genuinely apologetic about even the possibility of hurting Mir's feelings by asking for a different video game partner. All the same, he's got an image to think about. He's got fans back home who tend to take this stuff pretty seriously, and who are on high alert for any indication that fame and success has Americanized their fighters.
When the UFC put on an event in Rio last August, the Brazilian crowd booed even their own heroes if they dared to speak English in their post-fight victory speeches. The minute the fighter got the message and switched back to Portuguese, those boos became cheers. You can imagine how those same fans might have felt about Dos Santos getting too friendly with the man who snapped Nogueira's arm, then relished in the attention afterward with a kind of smirking nonchalance about it all.
"I guess I hadn't realized that the Brazilians were so nationalistic," Mir said in response. "I didn't realize it mattered so much that I beat Nogueira, a Brazilian, and I'm an American."
Yeah, that kind of smirking nonchalance.
The UFC knew what to do with the situation. With Overeem out and Mir in, the organization needed to find a way to make the fight seem like something other than a back-up plan, which it was. So it ran with the Nogueira angle, playing up Dos Santos' desire to get revenge on behalf of his countryman and his mentor. At first, even Mir didn't buy it, he said.
"I thought it was just something to sell the fight. Even if he were to go out there and beat me, it doesn't change the fact that I still submitted Nogueira. Unless, somehow, he feels like he's going to go out there and submit me."
But when he sat down and watched the UFC's Primetime show, he said, he came around to the idea that maybe Dos Santos and Nogueira had more of a bond than he thought. Maybe there was also more to keeping the Brazilian public happy than he knew.
"After I realized that Dos Santos couldn't play [video games] with me because he didn't want to upset the Brazilians I thought, wow, am I really that disliked?" Mir said.
Not by Dos Santos necessarily, who described Mir as a dangerous fighter when things are going well, "but when he tries to go for a certain technique and it doesn't work out, I think he gives up easily."
It's a criticism that Mir shrugs off. After more than a decade in the fight game, almost all of which he's spent at or near the top of the heavyweight division, he's heard unfavorable pre-fight analysis of his skills and his character before. People said he lacked the boxing skills to beat Nogueira the first time they fought, right before he dropped him like a big bag of fertilizer. Some still doubted him in the rematch, right up until Nogueira was lying on the mat, looking at his own broken arm as if it belonged to someone else.
Now it's Dos Santos, the one-punch finisher. It's Dos Santos, who's so concerned about his image back home that he couldn't be on the same stage as Mir, even back before they had signed to fight each other. It's Dos Santos, whom people say has a good ground game, even if we've yet to see much of it in action. And OK, Mir's willing to buy that.
"I think he has a good ground game. That being said, I think Nogueira had a great ground game."
Mir isn't winning any fans in Brazil with quips like that, but that's fine. As long as he can keep the heavyweight title from heading back there, he doesn't have to.