After nearly four years outside of the Octagon, Mirko Filipovic, Cro Cop, the Croatian sensation himself, has re-signed with the UFC.
The news broke today, with Dana White confirming, and while the signing gives the UFC heavyweight division some much needed star power, the return of Cro Cop seems dubious, at best.
For starters, let’s begin with the obvious. Cro Cop is 40 years old, and the loser of his last three UFC fights, all by knockout or TKO. Sure, Filipovic won two straight fights in 2014, both over Olympic Judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii via TKO, but even outside the Octagon, Cro Cop submitted to an Alexey Oleinik neck crank in late 2013. So can he even be competitive with the UFC’s top heavyweights at this point?
There is certainly no denying that, in his prime, Cro Cop was one of the sport’s most exciting and dynamic strikers. A PRIDE veteran and winner of the 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix, Filipovic defeated MMA legends like Kazushi Sakuraba, Igor Vovchanchyn, Josh Barnett (twice), Wanderlei Silva, and UFC Hall of Famer Mark Coleman.
But by the time Cro Cop finally made his Octagon debut in 2007, his stock already began to plummet, falling victim to one of MMA’s most memorable highlight-reel knockouts, which came at the feet of Gabriel Gonzaga, leaving Filipovic bent backward on the canvas, his knees buckled and contorted.
Cro Cop would eventually spend 2008 outside of the Octagon, racking up wins in the K-1 and Dream promotions, working his way back into the UFC. And after a controversial knockout of Mostapha Al-Turk at UFC 99, Filipovic did the unthinkable, reneging on a verbal agreement with White and the UFC, attempting to flee for Dream.
Again, Cro Cop would be forced to go back on a very public announcement. Again he would change his mind, this time returning to the UFC, after never really leaving. He would go 2-4 during his last two years inside the Octagon (4-6 overall between the two stints), and following his loss to Roy Nelson, many believed he was done forever with the UFC and Zuffa.
But it’s funny what happens when rival promotions begin to take interest.
Fightland’s Andreas Brauning has already explained how Bellator MMA and Viacom’s interest in Cro Cop triggered the UFC’s radar. The heavyweight division has been thin of late, especially with champion Cain Velasquez and former titleholder Junior Dos Santos regularly forced from competition due to injury.
The UFC has done a decent job of spinning the injuries into gold, namely with interim champion Fabricio Werdum carrying the promotional torch into Mexico and Latin America, where he not only serves as the UFC’s Spanish-language analyst, but also raised his media profile as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America.
Werdum has been an exceptional force in the Spanish-speaking world, but with international expansion playing a major role in the UFC’s future plans, the promotion needs someone to drive numbers in Eastern Europe, where there have long been rumors of shows in Poland and Cro Cop’s native Croatia.
Much like Conor McGregor and his fellow SBG teammates Paddy Holohan and Cathal Pendred have helped lay the framework for the UFC’s invasion of Ireland, Cro Cop, Croatian-American heavyweight Stipe Miocic, and light heavyweight Igor Prokrajac – a loser in four of his last five outings, with one No Contest - could help the promotion enter the Zagreb market.
There is no doubt that local appeal in essential for all international cards, just look at how the UFC has re-committed itself in Japan or entered the greater-China region in Macau. In order to fill the seats, fans want to see their own in competition, and Cro Cop, at any age or incarnation, could be the perfect remedy.
Poland could be another option for the UFC to enter Eastern Europe, and with women’s strawweight contender Joanna Jedrzejczyk set to compete for the belt against current champ Carla Esparza at UFC 185 in March, Zuffa could be just one win away from its very first Warsaw show. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt for them to sign Jedrzejczyk’s Arrachion MMA Olsztyn teammate Mamed Khalidov, one of the top middleweights currently outside of the UFC.
So there it is, an open door to Eastern Europe, just on the heels of the UFC announcing its Russian broadcast deal with the VGTRK network. And suddenly, that open door looks more like a blown out crater on the MMA floodgates in yet another region with a fanbase rabid to host the Octagon.
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