For the last 15 or so years, it was hard to spend any time around Frank Mir and not eventually hear him speak about Fedor Emelianenko.
A former two-time UFC heavyweight champion, Mir always sought the affirmation that a bout with the legendary Emelianenko would bring. For years, Mir believed he was the best heavyweight in the world while most who paid attention to mixed martial arts believed that honor belonged to Emelianenko.
“When I was younger and I’d look at the polls, and I was the UFC heavyweight champ of the world, and I’d look at the world rankings, not the UFC rankings, on Sherdog and whatnot, and no matter what, I’m No. 2, not No. 1,” Mir said. “I could never be the No. 1 guy no matter what because Fedor was over there [in the Pride Fighting Championship] and the prospect of ever trying to fix that or remedy that or even having a shot at that was usually bleak.”
That will change on Saturday, a lot closer to two full decades later than one, when Mir meets Emelianenko in the first round of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix at Bellator 198 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
Neither man is the same as they were when there were talks about pairing them in the early days of the 21st century for what would have been a true superfight.
Mir is a few weeks away from his 39th birthday, hasn’t fought in more than two years and has lost his last two fights. Emelianenko is 41 and coming off a first-round knockout loss to Matt Mitrione.
There remains a mystique around Emelianenko, despite the passage of time, the decline in his skills and losses to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva, Dan Henderson and Mitrione.
It won’t be the same for Mir as if he were facing the Pride-era Emelianenko, who was as close to unbeatable during that stage as any fighter in MMA until Jon Jones came along.
“How could I say it would be the same when we’re not fighting each other when we are both at the top of the heap,” Mir said. “I could try to sugarcoat it and say it’s not true, but anyone with a half a brain could look at it and see that he was knocked out by a light heavyweight and he was dropped by shots that I don’t think would have dropped him 10 years ago.”
But because of who it will be across the cage, because of what he has accomplished, because of the glimpses of the old greatness he still occasionally can demonstrate, this isn’t just another fight for Mir.
It’s not only his Bellator debut after 16-plus years as part of the UFC. It’s not just his first fight after a two-year PED suspension. It’s the match he’s sought for years against a guy he has idolized.
And so despite everything else, it still carries great meaning for him. He just knows it won’t seem the same to everyone else.
“The thing now is, if I beat him this time on the 28th, the conclusion will be, ‘Oh, he’s a shell of himself,’ ” Mir said. “Whereas, if it had been 10 years ago, it would have been, ‘Ah, you just got lucky. You just caught him. It was a freak accident.’ It was almost the same narrative that came out with Fabricio. Fabricio caught him in an arm bar and it was like, ‘Yeah, OK, but you know, that happens.’ It was like there was such an aura and mythology about him that the guy was inhuman and [couldn’t be beaten].”
Mir has had many significant wins, but a win over Emelianenko will be among his best. He’s noted for his victory over Brock Lesnar in Lesnar’s UFC debut, as well as two wins over submission artist Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He couldn’t say a win over this version of Emelianenko would be his best.
“It would be in the top three,” Mir said, noting that Emelianenko has a big name internationally still.
More than anything else, though, Mir is pleased just to be back in the cage and doing what he loves. It was a long, hard grind during his suspension. He insists he was innocent and had taken a contaminated supplement, but it was too expensive for him to fight it.
He chose to accept the penalty and return at the earliest opportunity. He’s not sure how much he has left and didn’t want to waste any more time.
“I’ve been doing this for a long, long time,” he said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs along the way, some great moments and some not-so-great moments. When you’ve been through so much, you appreciate the opportunity and cherish it even more.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Jeff Passan: The remarkable plague that has hit nearly all of MLB
• Charles Robinson: Even Cleveland can’t make this big of a draft mistake
• Shams Charania: Sorry, Indiana, LeBron is still the NBA’s great equalizer
• Batter’s 21-pitch at bat could upset MLB commish