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Former UFC heavyweight champ Frank Mir tours Cuba, discovers gold mine of talent

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - APRIL 08:  UFC heavyweight contender Frank Mir poses at Jacksonâs Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness Academy on April 8, 2013 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  (Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images)

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - APRIL 08: UFC heavyweight contender Frank Mir poses at Jacksonâs Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness Academy on April 8, 2013 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

As a kid, the two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, Frank Mir (18-10), heard stories from his father, Francisco Santos Mir, about what it was like to grow up in Cuba, but family history was hard to find.

“It’s sad for me,” he told Fox News Latino in a telephone interview. “My mom’s side of the family, they’ve been [in the U.S.] forever, but with my father – he came here at 9 years old. His father passed away when he was in his 20s. There’s a side of my family that we lost connection with because of the embargo. It was hard for the connections.”

So when Mir heard the news late last year that Pres. Barack Obama had announced his intention to reestablish diplomatic relations and to loosen travel and economic restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, he knew his dream of visiting the island nation could become a reality.

“It was always a goal of mine to go back to Cuba, where my paternal lineage comes from,” he said. “When it became an easier adventure to go, Malki Kawa from my management [team] said he had the connections, and … I took advantage of the opportunity.”

Mir was able to visit Cuba earlier this year, where he visited his father’s birthplace and watch first-hand Cuban athletes train in MMA fighting in Havana.

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“I was impressed with the Cuban mixed martial artists and that they knew who I was,” he said. “With the embargo I thought it would be hard to know who our athletes are in the sport of mixed martial arts and in general. I have a huge support and strong following.”

Top ranked middleweight Yoel Romero is one of the more successful Cuban-born MMA fighters active in the UFC.

Mir, who recently lost to Andrei Arlovski in September by unanimous decision, was born in the United States to a Cuban-born father and American mother. His father arrived in Miami in the 1960s, but later relocated to Nevada. At first, his father questioned his son’s trip.

“My dad got emotional,” he said. “I think many of the Cubans are cut off from their heritage, but now they are kind of open-minded – not that the government is moving around. I think the hope of reconnecting with that aspect of their life is promising.”

Needless to say, Mir ventured around the island, but came home empty-handed in terms reconnecting with family. He did visit family burial sites.

But his trip also served as an eye-opener for him, seeing Cuban athletes train and compete in MMA fights. He also met with the members of JudoKickBox, an organization of Cuban professional martial arts athletes who teach and organize MMA tournaments on the island. Cuban-Americans Carlos Finales and Eric Castaños, who both reside in Miami, founded the group. Castaños said it is an honor that Mir visited the island.

“Frank has been one of the greats in the heavyweight division,” Castaños said. “He has been a great example. He also showed resilience after overcoming a motorcycle accident and coming back to compete. He is a living legend.”

Mir said Cubans have potential to become MMA stars.

“When it comes to wrestling, judo and boxing they are at a good level,” he said. “They can compete in an international level. On the amateur level it is extremely high. Transitioning to MMA for them would be easy. I think we will see a lot more Cubans in MMA as it gets easier for them to complete.”

Watching MMA isn’t as easy to watch in Cuba, but Mir said natives find ways, even if it is a few weeks after the fact. He said Cubans burn fights onto CDs after receiving digital files from family and friends in the United States.

When it comes to the gym, the equipment is rundown, but they figure out how to work with what they have.

“They don’t have great punching bags, but guys are putting tires on the side and using them as a low kick bag,” he said. “I was impressed with their innovation. They’ll find a way.”

However, Mir did run into trouble after posting a picture of himself in Cuba on social media.

“When I posted a picture on social media I had some comments of people saying I was supporting communism by going there,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that’s like me hating you for who the president of the United States is. How much of an affect does each U.S. citizen have on who is in government?... [They have] even less control over the officials in Cuba.”

Although relations are improving between both countries, there are yet some Cubans who live in the United States who oppose the changes. However that won’t deter Mir from visiting the island with his family, his father and possibly a UFC official very soon.

“It’s a tropical island about an hour away from Miami,” he said. “It’s a gold mine.”