As a fan of MMA (and not just the UFC) I've grown rather found of Mirko Filipovic, the K-1 Kickboxer who moved to mixed-martial-arts just as “striking” was beginning to find its sea legs in the sport.
In many ways, he is the embodiment of that movement. The Croat with the legendary left high kick that he would eventually coin the cemetery kick, started his career in K-1 with moderate success, amassing a 12-7 record, with marquee wins over Remy Bonjasky, and Peter Aerts.
He entered Mixed Martial Arts via K-1's Memorial event in honor of the late Andy Hug, in 2001. There he defeated 7-1 Japanese star Kazuyuki Fujita via doctor's stoppage 37 seconds into round 1.
Now it may not seem like much, but at the time, Fujita was considered one of the best wrestlers in the sport. He was the first man ever to defeat Mark Kerr, and made it to the finals of the Pride 2000 Grand Prix.
Because of this it was widely considered heading into the fight Fujita would take down the green kickboxer, and finish him with relative ease.
This had, and would continue to be, the trend with past K-1 products. Jan Nortje also made his debut on that card, and was quickly submitted by a far more skilled Gary Goodridge.
As the bell rang for round No. 1, the crowd was on its feet.
The highly educated Japanese fan base knew what would take place on that night, either Fujita would get the takedown early and reduce the Croatian to a pool of red in short order, or a spectacular knockout of one of the best heavyweights Japan had to offer would ensue, either way it would end quickly.
As the first few tense moments of the fight slipped by, Fujita shot for his first takedown winding up with a face full of rope. Perhaps nervous in his opening bout, Mirko would circle away and look to counter-punch.
As takedowns came fast and furious, he continued to showcase surprising takedown defense for a man so new to the sport. Fujita's tenacity, though, eventually would win out, as he managed to drag him down following a messy clinch spell.
In an instant, Fujita was in side control and already looking to pass to mount...but hang on a second...Fujita would be picked up to let the doctor look at him.
As he turns to look at the camera, the severity of the situation became clear. With copious amounts of red pouring from a nasty gash, the fight was unquestionably over by Japanese MMA standards.
As they showed replays, you finally see what caused it. As Fujita recklessly charged in head down, the former Croatian Special Forces member catches him with a magnificent catch knee just above the eyebrow.
With the victory, however controversial, he instantly gained credibility as an MMA fighter, and almost immediately signed to fight in the somewhat thin heavyweight division of PRIDE Fighting Championships.
In his first bout, he would take on 2-5 wrestling star Nobuhiko Takada. Due to the special rules in place, Takada would fall to the floor. With no judges' decisions, Takada simply killed off the fight, earning a draw but alienating himself from the Japanese fans.
In an effort to keep Cro Cop's star from fading, K-1 matched him up with well known pro wrestler Yuji Nagata. Nagata had no MMA experience, and Mirko made short work of his overmatched opposition.
With his name established in Japan, at PRIDE 20 when Wanderlei Silva needed an opponent, Cro Cop would get the call.
A small heavyweight who routinely sits at 225 pounds for his fights. Japanese brass thought the matchup was just the ticket for their two young stars.
On April 28, 2002, The Yokohama Arena rumbled with anticipation, as the two provided the most electric staredown in MMA history.
As the bell rang the electricity never died down after a few tense moments, and a heated exchange, Wanderlei would be the first man in PRIDE to take him down.
After almost grabbing a body kick that landed flush, Silva would take advantage of the off-balance Croat. Grabbing a body lock, he immediately got the take down.
The crowd, possibly the loudest MMA audience ever, lost its mind.
However due to the special rules put in place during the bout, Mirko would again cheat a submission, by sweeping Wandi multiple times fighting his way to the ropes for stand ups, rather than the traditional center resets.
This rule modification was controversial and even the announcing team didn't approve of it. Even still, the match would end in an automatic draw despite many having scored the bout (including myself) 30-27 Silva.
Fittingly, he would return again at Pride Shockwave 2002 a mixed PRIDE and K-1 event, in a main event bout against Japanese hero Kazushi Sakuraba.
At this time PRIDE was still grooming future stars, and their heavyweight division was still not ready to support headline fights. As a result, they put the two together.
Sakuraba was stepping into the ring for the first time since he suffered his second defeat to Wanderlei Silva, after being slammed, he was forced to tap out due to a noticeably broken collarbone.
The fight was a back and forth affair, and again Cro Cop would be put on his back, but his excellent defensive guard would stymie Saku.
If it wasn't known up to this point, it was now. You weren't going to undress Cro Cop on the ground like so many K-1 fighters had been in the past.
A noticeably winded Sakuraba came out in the second round. As leg kicks took their toll, he would catch the Croatian off balance, taking half guard.
However, Cro Cop was the aggressor from half guard, with a rare head and arm choke from the bottom. Sakuraba would fight through it, but the message was sent loud and clear, Cro Cop was good enough on the ground now to repel him.
As time passed in the second round, Cro Cop would land an elbow from his back to Sakuraba's left eye. This resulted in a TKO, as Cro Cop fractured Sakuraba's orbital bone.
Meanwhile, Fujita had made his return to the ring, a year after his defeat to Cro Cop, finishing sumo wrestler Tadao Yasuda.
The wheels were in motion and the rematch was set for Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2002: K-1 vs. Inoki in December.
However, the sport was starting to leave single dimensioned fighters like Fujita behind. Unable to do anything once he got it to the ground, the fight wore on Fujita. He could no longer complete a takedown, and was brutalized with knees to the head.
He would survive, however, losing via unanimous decision.
Following this fight, Filipovic would take sometime off to prepare for his much anticipated K-1 bout with Bob Sapp.
After defeating Sapp in April, he would return to the ring to finally throw his hat into the heavyweight title picture, when he took on Heath Herring at PRIDE 26.
Coming into the fight, Heath was the more established heavyweight after defeating Enson Inoue, Mark Kerr, and Igor Vovchanchyn.
The ideal gatekeeper, Herring had been defeated by Vitor Belfort, Antonio Nogueira, and relative unknown Fedor Emelianenko.
Herring was the favorite coming into the fight, as many saw the more well-rounded Herring eventually submitting him or winning a unanimous decision.
The fight would be extremely one-sided in favor of Mirko. The wild Herring was thrown to the floor multiple times. At one point, Filipovic offered to help Herring up, which was met with some laughs from the crowd.
As the fight went on, however he would routinely stuff any attempts to get the fight to the ground eventually landing a devastating body kick, which floored the Texan.
The former ATJ Lucko member would move in for the kill, ending the fight via TKO in the first round.
After this, Cro Cop would never return to K-1. He was a mixed-martial-artist now.
Just two months later, he would return to a PRIDE ring once again taking on “Ice Cold” Igor Vovchanchyn, at PRIDE Total Elimination 2003 adding the first high kick knockout to his resume in MMA.
Then in a bout of Japanese insanity, he would take on pro wrestler Dos Caras Jr. at PRIDE Bushido. He would make it back-to-back head kick knockouts.
Just four weeks later he would fight Antonio Nogueira at Pride Final Conflict 2003 for the Interim Pride Heavyweight Title.
With confidence overflowing the undefeated Mirko Cro Cop entered the ring.
In the first round he would dominate the fight for the entire first round, almost finishing “Minotauro” on multiple occasions.
Sensing a need to end the fight quickly Antonio shot for a takedown, and as Mirko's leg slipped out from under him he was powered up against the ropes.
Arrogance perhaps got the better of him however, seeing what he thought was an opportunity to sweep back to his feet he powered through.
Expertly, Minotauro spun and threw his leg over catching the Croatian in a deep armbar, forcing him to tap out 1:47 seconds into round 2.
This was Filipovic's first-ever defeat.
Filipovic would take some much needed time off and return to the Pride ring in 2004, at the bottom rung. As he took on Ron “H2O” Waterman at Pride 27, stopping him late in round 1.
In what amounted to a tune-up fight for the 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix. He would face another Japanese pro wrestler in Yoshihisa Yamamoto. Again, he would not let his opponent see the second round.
On April 25, 2004, PRIDE's Grand Prix began.
In the opening round, he would face underdog Kevin Randleman. The wrestler was battle tested, but had been outdone before by strikers like Bas Ruten.
Mirko had feasted on wrestlers his whole career. His excellent sprawl, and seemingly untouchable striking would surely be too much for Randleman.
Well that's the power of a Grand Prix, wacky things happen, and this one was surely no exception.
Randleman would fake a takedown, landing a huge punch. As Cro Cop struggled to circle away the quick Randleman swarmed, managing to land several machine-gunning strikes, rendering him unconscious just 1:57 seconds of round 1.
For the second time, he'd find himself back at the bottom of the heavyweight rankings. Questions would begin to be asked about whether he could ever again challenge for the PRIDE Heavyweight Title.
He would get back into the ring at PRIDE Bushido 3, just three weeks after being knocked out. He would take on Hiromitsu Kanehara. Another pro wrestler, Kanehara had impressive wins over Jeremy Horn, and Dave Menne.
Despite dominating the fight, Cro Cop would endure more public pressure, after failing to finish a game but overmatched Kanehara.
With his inauspicious performance, Mirko would have to dispose of Yoshida student, and friend of now Pride-General Director Nobuhiko Takada, Shungo Oyama at PRIDE Bushido 4.
Overmatched, Oyama would succumb to strikes at exactly 1:00 of round 1.
At Final Conflict 2004, he'd get an Emelianenko, but not the one he wanted. Fedor's brother Aleks would take the ring across from him, undefeated in three fights with a win over Assuerio Silva at Bushido 1. He was an up-and-coming fighter looking to make a name for himself.
Mirko would take out his frustrations on the prospect, dismantling him for two minutes before landing a devastating left high kick that would mark the third high kick knockout of his career.
After he would be asked to take on recently suspended and stripped UFC heavyweight champion, Josh Barnett in the main event of PRIDE 28.
The bout would be anticlimactic as Barnett would randomly dislocate his shoulder under a minute into the first round.
At PRIDE Shockwave 2004, Cro Cop would get his chance at redemption as he took on Kevin Randleman.
He would shock the world as Kevin shot, he would sink in a deep standing guillotine, forcing the tap 41 seconds into round 1.
This would be the only time Mirko would ever submit a fighter.
After this fight, he would ask for a title shot.
However, he would be denied. Instead, Fedor would get Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, while he would have to defeat another of Team Hammerhouse's fighters.
This time Mark Coleman would be chosen to take him on at PRIDE 29. The events moniker, “Fists of Fire,” would prove prophetic, as again he would showcase his takedown defense before dismantling a wrestler on the feet. Cro Cop ended the fight by way of knockout due to strikes at 3:40 of round 1.
He would again ask for a title shot, however after his win in the PRIDE Heavyweight Grand Prix, Emelianenko was not ready to fight again. So instead he would have to settle for Ibragim Magomedov, at PRIDE Critical Countdown 2005.
The 13-2 fighter held wins over Ben Rothwell and Valentijn Overeem.
With Fedor ring side, watching his next opponent. Cro Cop would control the fight picking his shots before landing a crushing liver kick that would make the Russian quit.
After a seven-fight win streak, he would finally get his title shot.
At PRIDE Final Conflict 2005, he would face undefeated Fedor Emelianenko. “The Last Emperor” had cut a swath through the PRIDE Heavyweight Division and Mirko was one of the last fighters he'd yet to face in the organization at this point.
The fight was one of the most anticipated fights in PRIDE Fighting Championships history.
The first round the crowd was electric, as both men exchanged strikes Cro Cop was getting the better of it, landing a darting left hand through Fedor's wide punches. He cut Fedor just above the hairline, and busted his nose.
However, in an effort to end the fight with his devastating left high kick, he slipped giving Fedor his guard. As Fedor wildly passed to North/South, Cro Cop was able to fend off a mount attempt, reversing back to guard.
Fedor would continue to attempt to pass with little success, and as the round ended, I was left with a 10-10 round on my scorecard.
The round was incredibly taxing for both fighters. Knowing this the Russian attacked the body, causing the challenger to begin to slow in the later stages of the fight.
As the Croat's breathing got heavy, the champion seemed to grow stronger, swinging the momentum of the fight, Cro Cop could no longer offer much resistance either on his feet, or on the ground.
He would lose a unanimous decision to the now-thought invincible Russian.
Back to the drawing board again. He would accept a rematch with Josh Barnett. After three rounds, Filipović received a unanimous judges' decision.
At Pride Shockwave 2005, the Croatian would face aggressive striker Mark Hunt. Billed as a high entertainment value fight, they had met before in K-1, and had a lot of respect for one another.
It was widely assumed that Cro Cop would win this bout, on a road to a rematch with Fedor in the upcoming Pride 2006 Heavyweight Grand Prix.
However coming into the bout, he made the interesting decision to wear some sort of wrestling shoes in effort to give himself more traction, and stability. They seemed to do the opposite.
With Cro Cop's unsteady footing, Hunt took advantage charging forward and smothering the previously thought title contender. As Japanese fans, and judges favors aggression this was all Hunt needed to earn a split decision in a even battle.
In May, he would enter the Osaka Dome to begin the run. As the brackets were made, Fedor Emelianenko received a bye to give his chronic hand injuries time to heal.
In an attempt to schedule their rematch for Final Conflict, Filipovic received a favorable road to the semi finals. In his first match, he would take on Japanese heartthrob Ikuhisa Minowa.
Minowa's high-risk fighting style didn't make him an especially good matchup for the cautious countering of his opponent.
Despite an intro featuring Minowa's yearbook photos, shots of him working out in the woods shirtless, and him attempting to out run a jet, the small Minowa could not handle Cro Cop's power collapsing 1:10 into the opening round.
Brouhaha would ensue in the run up to the next round. Tournament favorite Fedor Emelieneko would pull out, citing his hand injury. PRIDE would scramble in replacement Wanderlei Silva.
While people broke down the potential rematch, Mirko was left to care of Hidehiko Yoshida. In a highly anticipated match in Japan. He would brutalize the judoka with crushing leg kicks, unable to stand the bout was mercifully ended.
Wanderlei had previously made short work of the resurgent Fujita, setting up the rematch.
However money troubles started to emerge for Dream Stage Entertainment. Close to bankruptcy, the company promised a $150,000 dollar prize to the winner of the Grand Prix, Filipovic didn't think the number was high enough.
He would eventually reach a compromise, keeping him in the main event.
The highly anticipated final rounds entered full swing with the Croatian sitting as a heavy underdog to win the tournament. As a matter of fact, of the four finalists, he sat dead last.
When the semi-final started however, the odds were proven totally worthless.
Heavily hyped Wanderlei Silva entered the ring, but the man he fought all those years ago was no longer standing across from him.
Out gunned from the word go, Silva would be dropped multiple times, before getting melted by a stunning left high kick, at 5:26 of round 1.
In what was thought to be the finals. Josh Barnett added the third top 10 heavyweight of his marvelous run, defeating Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira by way of split decision in a grueling war of attrition.
A noticeably swollen eye questioned Josh's availability for the finals.
As the final started, he didn't know it, but it would be the final time the Croatian would step into a PRIDE ring.
And he'd leave the organization on his biggest achievement.
Barnett would come out looking no worse for wear then he did when he left the ring; however, this would prove to not be the case.
As the match went on, it was clear something was wrong with the eye of the American, and with the minutes piling up, Barnett would be caught in the corner.
Not giving his opponent a moment's reprieve, Cro Cop would swarm, catching him with a combination that would force the wrestler to tap out 7:32 into round 1.
For the first time, Mirko could call himself a champion (sort of), and as his career moved forward after Pride's disintegration. Cro Cop would be referred to as the 2006 PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix Champion.
He would spend a long portion of time on the sidelines contemplating his next move, as Open Weight Champion, he should have gotten a title shot at PRIDE 32, but that was out of the question after suffering a foot injury, during the finals.
His last window would be shut at PRIDE Shockwave 2006. As the foot injury would keep him from competition, they opted to substitute Mark Hunt who had defeated Filipovic exactly a year previous.
In February, Cro Cop's contract would come up. With PRIDE unable to compete with ZUFFA's contract offer, the now renamed Mirko “Cro Cop” would call the Nevada based Ultimate Fighting Championships home.
Following PRIDE 34 on April 8 DSE would enter into sale with ZUFFA INC. It would take until October for the two sides to agree on liquidation terms.
On Feb. 3, 2007, he would make his debut at UFC 67: All or Nothing, taking on undefeated prospect Eddie Sanchez, who entered a +800 underdog.
Eddie would try to overwhelm him early, but five seconds in he would eat a left hand that wobbled him. With no respect for Sanchez, Cro Cop would walk down the overmatched American, circling to his right.
After two body kicks grazed Sanchez, he was in total flight. After a few flurries, Sanchez would slip, allowing Cro Cop to take mount and rain down punishment. However, the stoppage was controversial because Sanchez appeared to be actively defending himself.
The message had been sent. Cro Cop was a contender for the UFC title.
At UFC 70, Cro Cop would return again to take on Gabriel Gonzaga for a shot at Randy Couture's UFC heavyweight title.
As the fight started, Mike Goldberg would prophetically bring up his defeat to Kevin Randleman.
As the bell rang, Cro Cop was tentative looking to stuff takedown attempts and counter. But Gonzaga early looked to be the bigger stronger man. As the action stalled, Mirko threw a body kick that would be caught by Gonzaga.
The Croatian would resist, but ultimately pull guard. Working his good defensive jiu-jitsu he worked to force a stand up with 30 seconds to go in round 1.
As they circled, Mirko incorrectly assumed that Gonzaga couldn't get his leg high enough to hit him in the head, after multiple pathetic looking body kicks, earlier in the fight. He dropped his hands to stop a body kick.
Gonzaga lunged into the air, with his plant foot leaving the mat to land the most technically unsound, head bazooka in MMA history, at 4:51 seconds of round No. 1.
During the fall of his lifeless body, Mirko fractured his ankle.
With his reputation in shambles, Cro Cop re-entered the octagon at UFC 75.
Cro Cop would win the first round decisively. Afterward Cheick Kongo would use his reach advantage to force him back, eventually gaining a clinch and earning a takedown.
After multiple triangle attempts, and an incredible pace in the second round. Cro Cop's usually excellent conditioning began to leave him in the third round as the big Frenchman bullied him.
With nothing left in the tank, he lost a unanimous 29-28 decision.
Following the fight, Cro Cop was released. Physically depleted, many wondered if the 35-year-old had anything left to offer the sport.
Post fight, it would be learned that Cro Cop have broken a rib in his bout with Kongo and it sapped his strength. Looking at the footage, the likely spot he received it was when Kongo dropped an axe kick to Cro Cop's abdomen.
It would be the first and only time Cro Cop would ever lose two consecutive fights.
When DREAM opened, it needed names to build a show, so they brought him in to fight Tatsuya Mizuno on the undercard of DREAM.1.
An obviously out of shape Filipovic entered the ring and dismantles the Japanese fighter, knocking Mizuno out at 1:10 into round 1.
At DREAM.6, he would take on Alistair Overeem.
The athletic difference was on display for everyone to see. As the bell rung the 20-pound heavier man was moving much better trapped in the clinch; he'd be thrown down and pounded on for the first five minutes of the fight.
Overeem eventually decided to stand up after another tussle and ground and pound session. With a dominant display so far, he began to mix knees to the body, and knees to the testes.
The ref missed many of these, however, one forced the Croatian to his knees. He got up only to get another helping. Cro Cop would be unable to continue and the bout was ruled a controversial no-contest.
Not because of the result, but the performance put in, Cro Cop again looked old and past his prime.
At K-1 Dynamite 2008, he would return to take on Hong Man Choi, brutalizing the man with leg kicks at 6:32 in round 1.
Convinced he didn't get a fair run of luck in his first UFC go-around, he chose to return to the UFC, on a one-fight deal, at UFC 99: The Comeback.
Against an overmatched Mostafa Al-Turk, he again looked slow and out of shape. Although he would technically knock out the Brit, Al-Turk was enraged by an eye poke that caused the run up to the stoppage.
After much hullabaloo about a five-fight deal with DREAM, he would return for what would turn out to be the final fight of his MMA career, at UFC 103 this month against Junior dos Santos.
With his athletic ability dwindling, and his cage experience being non-existent, he was chased down multiple times forcing the Croat, to stand and bang, something he's never been comfortable with.
As he started to learn the limitations of his new self, dos Santos's cardio, and general wear and tear eventually won the day forcing the Croatian to verbally submit, due to blindness exactly 2:00 into round 3.
His confidence gone following the fight, a candid, reflective Cro Cop spoke to a Croatian newspaper. In the interview, he retired from the sport.
The questions of why are left for another day, and another article.
All I'll say is when it goes, it goes. It's nobody's fault. He leaves the cage 2-3, which will infinitely be brought up as footnotes to his career. Or as a centerpiece to articles of bitter UFC fans who insist there product was, is, and will forever be better.
At the age of 36, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic retires at 25-7-2 with one no-contest. He leaves the sport to better days with his family, fishing in Privlaka. He's voiced interest in the past of returning to his former role with ATJ Lucko.
Whatever you feel about UFC, or Pride, these are ancillary things at the end of the day. What's important is this week we've lost one of the greatest strikers to ever put on a pair of four-ounce gloves.
We should be celebrating his career, not sullying with the trappings of the end. He could press on collect a few more pay checks and tarnish his legacy even further.
Instead he entered the octagon to learn if he still had it. The moment he learned the truth, that his skills have eroded to the point that, he can't beat anything above a third-tier heavyweight, he's announced his retirement.
Enjoy it. Because situations like Wanderlei Silva, and Chuck Liddell will be your norm.
Should he be remembered as a world beating heavyweight? Absolutely not. Should he be remembered as a class act, who fought (and defeated) some of the best heavyweights of his era?