This weekend, Glory 14 will take place in Zagreb, Croatia, and the card will be headlined by a bout between Remy Bonjasky and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. This intriguing match caps off a great card, which also features Glory's middleweight grand prix and defending lightweight champion Andy Ristie.
The bout between Cro Cop and Bonjasky is a rematch of their 2002 meeting, where Filipovic (who is considered a constant underachiever in kickboxing) became only the second man to stop Bonjasky.
Yes, as far removed as he is from his best days, Cro Cop was really something when he was on his game. Few fighters have experienced the kind of fall from grace that he has had or the crazy journey he has taken to get where he is now.
Since he is a favourite of both the MMA and kickboxing communities, I thought I would highlight some of his finer moments and perhaps introduce him to newer fans who perhaps never saw him at his best.
Igor Vovchanchyn: PRIDE Total Elimination 2003, August 10, 2003
Something that often draws comment from Cro Cop fans is the incredible learning curve that he faced in his MMA career. In his first 10 MMA fights, he faced (in addition to a couple of no-hopers):
- Kazuyuki Fujita (twice)
- Kazushi Sakuraba
- Heath Herring
- Igor Vovchanchyn
- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
That is a murderers' row. Fujita and Herring were solid heavyweights with strong wrestling backgrounds who would love to spoil the party of a one-dimensional. Kazushi Sakuraba was, as most of you know, the greatest fighter of his age, and though a middleweight, he would be a terrible matchup for any kickboxer who is transitioning to MMA.
Vovchanchyn, however, was the original kickboxer in MMA. In his youth, he won numerous one-night tournaments against men who were twice his size, and he was known for his terrifying punching power. In all seriousness, you would be hard-pressed to find a more devastating puncher in MMA today.
What Cro Cop showed against Vovchanchyn was his simple but polished double threat. Filipovic, at his best, had a venomous left straight. Now it wasn't going to score him too many falling-tree, Vovchanchyn-style KOs, but it was wickedly fast and could outreach and cut inside of the Ukrainian's wide, palm-down hooks.
The surprising number of broken orbital bones on Cro Cop's record (Bob Sapp, Sakuraba, Josh Barnett) will also attest to his aim.
Now a double attack, just like in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is the threat of two attacks that play off of each other. For a simple example, think of Sergei Kharitonov's right hook to the body. He would throw it all fight until the opponent started to adjust, and then he'd throw a right hook upstairs and score the knockout.
Bringing the right hand into action against Cro Cop's left straight would leave an opponent with nothing in the way of the ever-present threat of a left high kick. And to attempt to slip the left straight was to do a nose dive into a shin.
Vovchanchyn's right hand came in, and before he could get it back into position, Cro Cop's left shin smashed through the few inches of extra swing that the Ukrainian had given him.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: PRIDE Final Conflict 2003, November 9, 2003
After rocketing his way through two ranked heavyweights in Herring and Vovchanchyn, Cro Cop met the No. 2 heavyweight in the world, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in what was considered to be the fight of the year.
Again, that simple double threat was on display. Nogueira had his hand braced well away from his head in case of a high kick. Cro Cop would slap a light high kick against it and then throw a left straight inside of it.
Through the first round, Filipovic was able to sprawl on Nogueira with ease and alternated between bloodying the Brazilian up with the left straight and wearing him down with hard body kicks.
Bas Rutten summed up the early going: "He's taking him apart."
This was Filipovic at his best: on the balls of his feet, fighting on a hair trigger. We can talk about elite kickboxing technique all day, but Filipovic was a speed fighter and a movement fighter. When those elements disappeared later on, he started to look awful.
The first round ended as Cro Cop sneaked in a glancing high kick over Nogueira's right hand (which was dropping due to body kicks). Nogueira fell to the mat, and Cro Cop chased him with a punch as the bell sounded, which effectively saved the Brazilian.
In the second round, however, he managed to take down Cro Cop. Here was where the Croatian's inexperience showed through, as Nogueira quickly mounted him and began punching. Cro Cop returned fire from the bottom before attempting to bridge over, whereupon Nogueira caught a beautiful armbar.
This losing effort summed up the problem that Cro Cop was going to face throughout his career. He was always incredible but tended to fall at the last hurdle.
Mark Coleman: PRIDE 29, February 20, 2005
Filipovic's takedown defence was remarkable for any fighter, not just a kickboxer. A year and change after Nogueira submitted him, Cro Cop was sprawling on Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman (both impressive takedown artists) in back-to-back fights.
There's not much to say about the bout with Coleman, because it was so horribly one-sided. Once Coleman realized he couldn't ground Cro Cop, he began to rush his shots more and more, making it easier and easier for Filipovic to see them coming.
Here's a quick highlight of the bout, which Cro Cop won in the first round:
2006 PRIDE Open-Weight Grand Prix
The great tragedy of Cro Cop's career was that despite being so feared in his division and being considered one of the top three heavyweights in the world, he had never succeeded in winning a title. He had never won a K-1 Grand Prix in kickboxing or a belt in PRIDE. That is, until the PRIDE 2006 Open -Weight Grand Prix.
Whereas Fedor Emelianenko usually won the open-weight grands prix (and indeed, everything else), in 2006 he was forced out with one of the hand injuries that plagued his career. Competing in his place was PRIDE middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva.
The semifinals and finals of the tournament were fought in one night at PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute. Cro Cop met Wanderlei Silva in the semis, while Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira met Josh Barnett. Barnett ground his way past Nogueira, and Cro Cop destroyed Silva, setting up a Cro Cop vs. Barnett finale.
Filipovic had already fought and beaten Barnett twice. The American simply struggled to take Cro Cop down and got roughed up in the clinch as a result. While attacking from Barnett's guard, Cro Cop was able to injure Barnett's orbital bone, and the bout was waved off.
Cro Cop had finally won his first belt, and he cried the manliest tears ever seen in MMA.
K-1 Grand Prix 2012
What followed was a horrible decline. Cro Cop's feet had been slowing for a while, and his path through the 2006 Open-Weight Grand Prix was fortunate in that he got the undersized and wild Silva and then a tired Barnett, who didn't have the tools to do much.
Once he moved to the UFC, Cro Cop began to look worse and worse. Knockout losses and scraped wins over no-namers were heartbreaking to watch. Against Roy Nelson in his last UFC bout in October 2011, Filipovic looked the best on his feet that he had in years. He outmoved and countered Nelson at every turn, but his chin just couldn't hold up to even the lighter blows.
It was clear that he had little left to offer the MMA world.
When he announced his return to kickboxing, most people were dubious, but he shocked everyone by stringing together a good streak of wins. Aided by larger gloves, the ability to cover up and referees who refuse to penalize him for holding and hitting, Cro Cop has been surprisingly competitive.
In 2013, at the strangely named 2012 K-1 Grand Prix, the fates finally conspired to bring us the feel-good story of the decade in combat sports. K-1 was a shell of its former self, and most of the real kickboxing talent had been pilfered by Glory, but K-1 decided to throw money at another grand prix—this time in Zagreb, Croatia.
Don't be fooled by the hosting of the event in Zagreb. While the field wasn't especially strong, Badr Hari was there. As hit-and-miss as he is, it was hard to see him struggling with what Filipovic had become. But fate had other ideas. In beating Zabit Samedov, Hari injured himself and was forced to withdraw from the tournament.
Through some generous judging and some solid fighting, Cro Cop found himself in the final against Ismael Londt. Cro Cop took the fight to the younger man time and again, and Londt found success by simply raising his knee to wind Filipovic each time he stepped in.
Cro Cop began to slow. Then, this happened:
Everyone lost their minds. Londt got up, but Cro Cop took the decision. He had finally won a K-1 grand prix. Sure, none of the greats were in there, but he did it in front of his home crowd, and he landed his legendary high kick while doing so.
My readers already know that I'm a cynic. I begrudge nonsense fights, mismatches and bad decisions. But even I felt good for Filipovic that night. It took me back to 2005 and to the Cro Cop of old.
And more importantly, it gave him the title to reaffirm what many of us already knew: He was a truly great fighter.