Stop for a moment and take stock of what is happening. Mirko 'Cro Cop' Filipovic is headlining a UFC event in 2015. If you had told me that in 2012, I'd have laughed in your face.
Yet, here we are.
Did Cro Cop go on a tear outside the UFC that you didn't hear about? Nope. He's 3-1 in his last four MMA bouts. Two of those wins are over the undersized Satoshi Ishii, and the loss came by way of scarf hold.
What about kickboxing? You heard he was having success there? Well, he's been grinding his way through bouts—holding and hitting, clinching constantly—and some questionable hometown judging won him the 2012 K-1 Grand Prix. Most recently, Filipovic was put at the top of the bill for Glory 17, the free TV preliminary card which led into Glory World Series' first Pay-Per-View event.
That pay-per-view contained an eight-man tournament and featured Artem Levin, Joe Schilling, Wayne Barrett and a host of other elite fighters. What I consider one of the best pay-per-views I have ever seen drew just 6,000 views.
The premature jump to the PPV format, which is already dying on its arse, might have had something to do with it. But the wheezing, stumbling, mess of a bout between Cro Cop and Jarrell Miller which played on Spike TV immediately before the appeal to buy the pay-per-view probably had a cooling effect on viewers too. Cro Cop's name, as a headline, might have shifted a ton of pay-per-views. His fight, as a preview of the event to come, almost killed Glory.
The sole interesting moment, Cro Cop buying a breather off a phantom groin shot.
And that's the problem—name power means way more than actual fighting ability in combat sports. You can move thousands more people to hope for one last Cro Cop high kick or Mike Tyson knockout than you can to watch some new up-and-comers go at it.
This is hammered home by the success of the dreadful Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar match up in Bellator and the presumed future success of the upcoming Ken Shamrock vs Kimbo Slice bout. And it is the reason that men like Mauricio Rua, Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira can headline cards on losing streaks. We at least know who they are. Names mean more than ranks and accomplishments, and it takes forever to build a name.
The worst part is that while titles are lineal, hype is non-transferable. Folks want to see Mike Tyson, they couldn't care less about seeing Buster Douglas defend the title he won from Tyson. I can tell you that Chris Weidman is one of the greatest all around talents and tacticians I've seen in combat sports until I'm blue in the face, the UFC can produce hype videos to that effect, it doesn't change the fact that Joe Average would rather watch Anderson Silva fight because they know who he is.
And that's the way the sport is going on, for now at least. Non-pay-per-view cards are headlined by old timers who are spiraling into irrelevance, new blood is relegated lower down the cards, and organizations end up fighting over people like Quinton Jackson and Mirko Cro Cop, while ignoring legitimate talents like Ben Askren.
But just in case you're thinking “Jack, this is an unforgivable attack on an MMA legend”, I would underline that I have always been a mark for Filipovic. I watched, wide eyed, as he tore through PRIDE—having followed Cro Cop over from K-1 where I adored him for trying to axe kick with the great Andy Hug. The Filipovic—Nogueira—Emelianenko holy trinity of PRIDE's heavyweight division was one of the most exciting times to be a fan.
Cro Cop at his best—leading with a body kick out of nowhere, side stepping a return, and countering with his gorgeous left straight.
Mirko's fall from grace has just been one of the most difficult to watch both for its abrupt beginning, and the way it has dragged on like a terminal illness.
Conspiracy Theories, Fixed Fights, and Drugs
You would be hard pressed to find a fighter with ten tougher bouts straight off the bat than Mirko Cro Cop. Remember how Conor McGregor and Dan Hardy got all the way to UFC title shots without ever fighting a wrestler? Cro Cop, a pure kickboxer, was thrown straight in against Kazayuki Fujita.
By the time he had eight MMA fights under his belt, Cro Cop had beaten Fujita twice, drawn with Wanderlei Silva, bested an undersized Kazushi Sakuraba, knocked out the terrifying Igor Vovchanchyn, then pulverized Heath Herring. Herring had been considered number three in the world at heavyweight until Cro Cop made parfait out of his liver.
In just his ninth MMA fight, Cro Cop battered Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a fight for a shot at Fedor Emelianenko's heavyweight title. Nogueira, to his tremendous credit, took everything Cro Cop had and finally managed to get the Croatian sensation to the mat and lock in an over-the-back armbar.
While Cro Cop never actually managed to beat Nogueira or Fedor, cementing him at number three in that trinity, he did brutalize Josh Barnett three times over, starch Mark Coleman, and manhandle Aleksander Emelianenko.
So the million dollar question is “why the drop off”? There's a number of theories, ranging from the ridiculous to the downright slanderous. It would be improper of me to pretend that these theories aren't out there though, and so I will lay out the most common.
Firstly, there are accusations of fight fixing in PRIDE FC. Cro Cop fought his fair share of freak fights, but if you think it was all some elaborate theatre, you're a fool. Those of you who have actually seen a fixed fight will know the difference. Watch Mark Coleman achieve side control on Nobuhiko Takada, only to move himself back to guard so that Takada could catch him with a heel hook. Or watch the well rehearsed theatre between Masakazu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki in their second bout.
Or even the pair of bouts between Ken Shamrock and Minoru Suzuki. The first was legit, and Suzuki tore Shamrock's leg apart, the second was reportedly staged to ensure that Shamrock was not the King of Pancrase when he met Dan Severn at UFC 6. There's a reason that fighters who cross over into the movies are almost universally awful, acting convincingly is a hard skill to master.
The second accusation is of steroid abuse. Though if you're using drugs to advance your career, make lots of money, and getting off scot free, I'd argue that you're not so much 'abusing' steroids as using them perfectly. This is not a theory we can dismiss as readily as the idea of men willingly allowing Cro Cop to kick them in the head in some kind of theatrical performance. Japanese fight promotions tended to completely avoid drug testing and PRIDE, in fact, stipulated that it would not perform test in its contracts. Certainly, you wouldn't see many heavyweights going for a full ten minute round in the UFC, they can barely go for three.
That being said, many of the people subscribing to this theory seem to think that coming from Japan to the UFC would necessitate a complete abandonment of performance enhancing drugs. Which, of course, underestimates just how easy it was to cheat in the UFC up until just a year ago. Sure, guys weren't coming into fights juiced up to the eyeballs, they had to pass scheduled tests, but there was no random testing, and nothing to stop them cycling on and off of PEDs between bouts. In fact, before UFC 185 the Texas commission announced in a manner eerily similar to PRIDE's contracts that they would not be performing additional (read: 'unscheduled and therefore actually effective') testing.
But then if you never fail a test, no matter how ineffectual the protocols are, you're clean. So let's stop the witch hunting and the oversimplifications, and talk about what actually visibly changed in Cro Cop from his PRIDE tenure to his UFC one.
The Physical and Technical Decline
Cro Cop was never the absolute best kickboxer in the world, but he was pretty top tier. He didn't combination struck all that effectively, and almost all of his best offence came off of his left side, but as a sharpshooter, there was no-one like him. A little circling, a little feinting, and then that left leg would shoot out.
Looking at a young Cro Cop in the ring with men like Peter Aerts, he was the small guy. He would be the one running along the ropes and looking to avoid the brawls. But boy, could he hit. Circling to his left, taking slight angles and shooting in that lightning left straight, Filipovic made something of a specialty in breaking opponent's orbital bones (Sakuraba, Barnett, and Sapp all found themselves with this same blindingly painful, fight ending injury).
It was the speed of his footwork, deflecting the charges of his opponent and forcing them to reset, along with the speed of his strikes that made him so dangerous. There were not deep set ups or combinations, just speed, power, and movement.
That legendary left kick was aided in great part by Mirko's tremendous flexibility. It was no more laboured to throw up a high kick than it was to whip up a kick underneath the elbow. Standing still in front of Cro Cop was to be looking at a firing squad and not knowing whose bullet was going to kill you.
When Cro Cop moved to mixed martial arts, he didn't need to combination strike. His single strikes were fast enough that they could get through against these under-trained strikers with ease. If you can stun Peter Aerts with pot shots, you'll have a field day against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Heath Herring.
Nice left straight, beautiful pivot off line.
What's more, Cro Cop's style in kickboxing had always been very clinch centric anyway. Punch, clinch. Kick, punch, clinch. He was wrestling with big, strong men as it was—once he got a wrestling coach, he was quick to learn to apply his clinch strength in fighting off takedown attempts. His stuffing of Josh Barnett in the clinch through three matches demonstrated that nicely—and Fedor had to reach deep into his back of Judo combinations to plant Cro Cop each time.
The downside of being a terrifying striker, as Cro Cop was built up to be in PRIDE, is that you get used to opponents running from you. The fleet footed sharpshooter, who side skipped in his wide stance and fired back with left straights, became a flat-footed hitter, marching towards opponents. In many of Cro Cop's later fights he simply followed opponents around the ring and seemed utterly flummoxed when put on the back foot.
We often talk about how it is impossible to kick while backing up—and I point to Fedor Emelianenko's masterful exploitation of this in his bout against Cro Cop—but the best kickers can move, side step to relieve pressure, and find moments. That was what a young Cro Cop did.
Knocking Heath Herring out with a half kick.
Against a young, dangerous, never before stopped Bob Sapp, who twice finished Ernesto Hoost, Cro Cop was on the back foot the entire time. But he still turned Sapp and found moments to land his thudding kicks and left straights.
Moving right, a left kick, a left straight, and already circling back to the left as Sapp falls.
After a brief return to the counter striker against Wanderlei Silva in 2006, the fleet footed Cro Cop disappeared for years. A short return was glimpsed against Roy Nelson, where Cro Cop's footwork looked the sharpest it had in years. It was as if he had woken up from a half decade slumber. But the chin wasn't there. Glancing blows from Nelson had Cro Cop wobbling and stumbling, and in the third round he was TKO'd.
Cro Cop on the counter in his second bout with Wanderlei Silva.
We have seen it time and time again, the fighters who rely on their physical attributes—speed, reflexes, raw strength—age so much faster than those who rely on craft. It was the speed of Cro Cop's left straight, and the speed and flexibility of his hips on his kicks which carried him through so many bouts.
That wicked left straight had Mark Hunt trying to slip, and doing so right into Cro Cop's left shin.
The same left straight had Igor Vovchanchyn's right hand sneaking in to parry and left his head completely unprotected or the right side.
The left straight bloodied up Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and exposed his ribs to round kicks as his hands crept up.
Cro Cop's left straight was the staple of the entire game, but it was a speed based movement. There were no clever set ups, the straight itself was a set up for the kicks.
The speed evaporated, his feet became cement blocks, and his chin became more and more of a question mark. The left hand heavy game became a left hand only game. The few set ups Cro Cop did have vanished, and the hip flexibility—while still admirable for a man of his age—was no longer enough to hide full swing high kicks even against men like Roy Nelson.
The truly sad part is that Cro Cop had his chance to leave on top. After finally winning a K-1 Grand Prix in 2012. In the final of the tournament, Cro Cop knocked Ismael Londt down with a left high kick. It was slow and telegraphed for days while he heaved it up there, nothing like the Filipovic of old, but it landed and knocked Londt down. Cro Cop won the fight and his only K-1 Grand Prix. He cried, I cried, I'm sure somewhere in Russia the Last Emeperor cried, and that should have been it.
But again, here we are.
Do watch UFC: Krakow, but not for Cro Cop-Gonzaga II. Watch it for Joanne Calderwood, for Jimi Manuwa, for Gareth McClellan, and the many other exciting fighters who don't yet have the name to reliably draw in the casual fans.
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