The 10 Best and Worst Moments of Mirko Cro Cop's Career

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterApril 9, 2015

The 10 Best and Worst Moments of Mirko Cro Cop's Career

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    On Saturday, legendary Croatian striker Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic returns to the Octagon for the first time since 2011.

    He is 40 years old and has been fighting since 2001. Over the past few years, he became an afterthought. He is a considerable underdog to Gabriel Gonzaga, the man who changed the trajectory of his career with a historic head kick in 2007.

    But that moment, and all that came after it, do not tell the story of Cro Cop's career. Today, we will look at 10 of the best and worst moments of his career. There were glories and there were massive lows, but Filipovic's time in the sport made him a legend.

    Let's find out why.

Cro Cop Makes His MMA Debut

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    After beginning his professional kickboxing career in 1996 and spending years in the K-1 organization, Cro Cop made the transition in 2001 to mixed martial arts. He wanted to challenge himself, and he was unhappy with K-1's pay structure.

    For his debut fight, Filipovic faced New Japan Pro Wrestling's Kazuyuki Fujita, himself a former freestyle wrestler who'd come close to making Japan's Olympic team. The fight took place at a memorial event for Andy Hug, the popular heavyweight kickboxing champion who died of leukemia one year earlier.

    Fujita opened the fight by desperately scrambling for takedowns. Wearing his trademark Croatian flag shorts, Filipovic caught Fujita coming in with a knee, opening up a nasty cut above the Japanese wrestler's left eye. Blood gushed out, and the fight was stopped, giving Filipovic the first win of his MMA career.

The First Meeting with Wanderlei

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    After beating Fujita, Filipovic signed with PRIDE Fighting Championship, then the world's largest mixed martial arts organization. He went the distance with Nobuhiko Takada, one of Japan's biggest fighting stars. Because of special rules attached to the bout, however, the fight would be scored a draw if it went to a decision.

    The same rules would be attached when Filipovic returned at PRIDE 20 against then-middleweight (205-pound) champion Wanderlei Silva. Silva and Filipovic went the distance, and the fight was ruled a draw. But going the distance with one of the world's most fearsome fighters helped put Cro Cop on the map.

Fighting the Man in the Mask

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    After the Silva fight, Cro Cop went on a winning streak, knocking off Kazushi Sakuraba, Fujita, Heath Herring and Igor Vovchanchyn. He became known for his fearsome head kick, and a popular saying materialized: "Right leg, hospital. Left leg, cemetery." At the rate Filipovic dropped opponents with the kick, it was easy to believe.

    In late 2003, PRIDE created a new fighting series called PRIDE Bushido. Cro Cop headlined the first Bushido event against professional wrestler Dos Caras Jr., whose real name is Alberto Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a background in amateur wrestling and would eventually garner fame as professional wrestler Alberto Del Rio in the WWE.

    But on this night, he wore a mask. Yes, he wore a mask in an actual fight. And the results were exactly what you'd expect. Filipovic demolished Rodriguez, winning by head kick in just 46 seconds.

    It was not the most notable of Cro Cop's career wins. But any time a fighter knocks out another fighter wearing a mask, it has to be included in a list.

The War with Big Nog

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    After knocking out Dos Caras, Filipovic returned to PRIDE a little more than one month later. His opponent? Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and the fight would determine PRIDE's interim heavyweight champion.

    In the first round, Cro Cop executed an effective game plan, controlling the fight on the feet and using superb takedown defense to prevent Nogueira from attacking with his submission game. Cro Cop punctuated the end of the round with a head kick. But in the second round, Nogueira finally secured a takedown, and that's all he needed. He moved into the mount on Filipovic and then tapped him out with an armbar.

    The bout showed Filipovic's defiecencies in his ground game. After the fight, Filipovic would recruit fearsome black belt Fabricio Werdum to help with his ground game.

Fighting Fedor

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    After losing to Nogueira, Filipovic would win two more fights before losing to Kevin Randleman. But after the Randleman loss, Filipovic would go on a tear, winning seven consecutive fights in little more than a year. The streak earned him the opportunity to face PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, the man considered to be the best fighter on the planet.

    At PRIDE Final Conflict 2005 on August 28, 2005, Filipovic faced Emelianenko. He stunned the champion early and broke his nose. Emelianenko's body was discolored from powerful Cro Cop body kicks. But then the champion was able to get Cro Cop to the ground, where his weaknessess glared once again. Filipovic used up his gas tank while struggling to prevent Fedor from landing body shots, and Emelianenko dominated the rest of the fight to earn a unanimous decision victory.

    It was a loss, but it was a thrilling fight, and Cro Cop gained popularity despite losing.

2006 Open Weight Grand Prix Championship

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    After losing to Fedor, Cro Cop would go 1-1 with a win over Josh Barnett and a loss to Mark Hunt. On May 5, 2006, he entered the 2006 PRIDE Open-Weight Grand Prix tournament. The tournament was a brilliant construct and a throwback to the seemingly lawless days of early mixed martial arts competitions. It featured all weight classes competing against each other, and it was just as awesome as it sounded.

    In the first round, Cro Cop faced the ultra-popular Ikuhisa Minowa, otherwise known as Minowa-man. Filipovic finished Minowa in just over one minute, knocking him out. Two months later, he returned for the quarterfinals against former Japanese judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida and won by a vicious leg kick TKO in just over seven minutes of the first round.

    Filipovic was on to the semifinals, and it was what happened in the next two fights that would create the defining moment of his career.

    In the semifinals, he rematched Wanderlei Silva. At five minutes, 22 seconds of the first round, Filipovic landed his devastating head kick. The Axe Murderer crumpled to the canvas as the crowd erupted. It was one of the more brutal knockouts in mixed martial arts history, and it earned Filipovic "knockout of the year" honors for 2006.

    Filipovic moved on to the finals, where he faced fellow heavyweight Josh Barnett. The bout took place on the same night as the Silva fight, and both men were tired. Barnett suffered in eye poke in the first round of the finals. He submitted, giving Filipovic the victory.

    Cro Cop was the open weight champion. It was his birthday. After the fight, he told interviewer Frank Trigg that if he hadn't won the tournament, he would have retired. Instead, he became one of the biggest legends in the history of the sport.

Jumping to the UFC

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    After the open weight win, Filipovic wanted a rematch with Emelianenko. But the bout never materialized, and he began discussions with the UFC about making a jump to the North American organization.

    On December 30, 2006, UFC President Dana White announced that Cro Cop had signed a two-year, six fight deal with the company. He made his debut at UFC 67, walking to the cage to the PRIDE theme and knocked out Eddie Sanchez in the first round.

    Title contention was right around the corner, and the UFC had a bright new star.

The Knockout Heard Round the World

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    Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

    After his knockout of Sanchez at UFC 67, many believed Cro Crop would be given an immediate shot at Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight championship. But that was not in the cards. Instead, Cro Cop returned to the Octagon at UFC 70 to face Gabriel Gonzaga; a win, and Filipovic would get his chance at Couture in August of that year.

    And then everything went to hell. 

    In one of the UFC's most spectacular historical knockouts, Gonzaga caught Filipovic with his own head kick, knocking him out and sending him to the canvas. While falling, Filipovic's leg buckled the wrong way, and a gruesome visual was formed: his foot facing the wrong way, Cro Cop's leg bent backwards as he fell.

    Filipovic suffered an ankle injury and a detached ligament in his knee. It could have been worse. But now Gonzaga took Cro Cop's place against Couture, and Mirko's dreams were crushed for good. He would no longer contend for the UFC heavyweight title.

Battered by Dos Santos, Beginning the Decline

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    After another UFC loss, Filipovic left the UFC and headed to Japan's DREAM organization. He scored two wins for that organization, but perhaps his most (in)famous moment came when he was kneed in the groin twice by Alistair Overeem; one of Filipovic's testicles became lodged in his body, which obviously turned the fight into a no contest.

    After beating the giant Hong Man Choi, Filipovic returned to the UFC. In his first fight back, he drew future heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, and the results were predictable. Dos Santos battered the aging Cro Cop from pillar to post, finally forcing a stoppage by crushing Filipovic's eye.

    It was the moment when Filipovic fights turned from painful to just plain sad. It was clear he wasn't able to contend with the best that the UFC had to offer. One could only hope that he would not take permanent damage going forward.

Cro Cop, Submission Artist

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    Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

    In perhaps the last great memorable moment of his career, Filipovic faced Pat Barry at UFC 115, scoring a submission win. He also won submission of the night honors.

    After the win, Filipovic would lose three straight bouts and find himself out of the UFC once again. He went to Japan, fighting once again for Antonio Inoki, and ran up a 3-1 MMA record while also competing in kickboxing.

    On Saturday, Filipovic returns to the Octagon against the man who derailed his career. He was a heavy favorite the first time they fought. Now, he is the underdog and a considerable one, at that.

    Will we see one last moment of magic from the Croatian legend? It's hard to imagine so, but it's easy to hope. 

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