The UFC has branded Saturday's event in Cologne, Germany "The Comeback." But for Mirko Filipovic, a more apt subtitle might be "Do or Die."
CroCop signed with the UFC in late 2006, only a few months after his dominant performance in the Pride Open Weight Grand-Prix, which earned him his first championship. Many expected to witness a swift and brutal coup d'etat of the UFC Heavyweight division, fraught with pinpoint striking and devastating head-kick knockouts.
After an uninspired victory against an overwhelmed Eddie Sanchez, CroCop's ascension was shockingly halted by Gabriel Gonzaga, who folded the Croatian to the mat with a head-kick of his own.
He was then pitted against French kickboxer Cheick Kongo—a fight he lost, this time by decision much to the chagrin of the UFC and fans alike.
After losing two out of his three fights in the octagon, it was clear something was amiss. So the UFC agreed to "loan" CroCop back to Japan, where he planned to rack up a few wins in the familiarity of his preferred stalking ground—the ring.
His quick wins against the outclassed Tatsuya Mizuno and Hong Man Choi bookended a fight against Alistair Overeem that CroCop probably would have lost had it not been ruled a no contest due to knees to the groin.
Now, fighting in the UFC for the first time in nearly two years, the fate of his second stint in the UFC (and possibly his future in MMA) hinges on the outcome of Saturday's fight against Mustapha al-Turk.
While al-Turk is the former Cage Rage Heavyweight Champ, the UFC again seems to be looking out for the best interests of the Croatian.
Despite al-Turks grappling credentials, which include a victory at the 2005 ADCC European Championships, the Londoner has shown a tendency to stand and trade. This strategy payed dividends in Europe against lower caliber opponents, but he was dissected by Cheick Kongo at UFC 92 in December.
Gonzaga's victory over CroCop proves that anyone has a puncher's (or kicker's) chance, but Mirko won't get caught again. If al-Turk is as smart as his degree in pharmacology indicates, he should take a page out of Overeem's book and try and get the fight to the mat as soon as he can.
CroCop has never been fantastic off his back, and that's really the only place al-Turk has an advantage.
For Mirko to salvage his career, he only has to win. However, if he can manage to neutralize al-Turks take downs and goad him into playing his game, he might re-establish himself in the UFC HW division with a long overdue highlight-reel knockout.