I recently saw Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic referred to as "the myth who turned into a man." That's so accurate that it's painful.
This week, Cro Cop -- a UFC heavyweight hopeful and, before that, the Croatian version of The Fucking Terminator in legendary Japanese MMA organisation Pride -- made a sudden retirement announcement. This only a couple weeks out from a scheduled co-headline fight at UFC Fight Night 79. He cited chronic, nausea-inducing injuries that caused his shoulder and knees to fill with fluid, necessitating multiple bouts of physical therapy every week. Like many aged fighters, Cro Cop's once pristine, athletic body was paved over with a twisted tarmac of scars, tears, and breaks. Oh, and let's not forget the concussions. Nothing makes you mortal faster than a swift kick to the head -- especially when said kick is being thrown by a professional, arriving with more than a thousand pounds of force behind it. If someone offered me a choice between that and a savage beating with a baseball bat, I'd probably pick the bat.
Crop Cop used to deliver kicks like that. He used to be one of the best in the goddamn world at it.
Call the cops
Cro Cop was a scary dude long before he ever set foot in an MMA ring. Prior to his MMA career, he was a fairly high-ranking K1 kickboxer, and before that he was, well, a cop in his homeland of Croatia (have you figured out the origin of his nickname yet). After years of service in the 1990s -- during which time he also trained boxing and won multiple amateur championships -- Cro Cop worked his way into the Lučko Anti-Terrorist Unit, Croatia's elite special forces police unit. He was not, in other words, some shitty mall cop or something. He was the real deal, and I have no doubt that it helped him develop an aura of utter fearlessness when he entered the ring.
I mean, look at this guy. His facial expression says, "I'm going to assassinate you in 15 seconds, and it will probably be boring for me."
Despite all that, people didn't expect much from Cro Cop when he took his first MMA bout. He was a relative unknown (and a striker, during an MMA era in which grappling ruled) going toe-to-toe with Kazuyuki Fujita, one of the best wrestlers in the sport at the time. To many, the story of the fight seemed almost predetermined: Cro Cop would try to strike, Fujita would grab ahold of him, and they'd be on the ground in a heartbeat -- with Cro Cop thrashing around like a fish out of water.
Cro Cop won in 37 seconds. Fujita tried to get him to the ground, but his initial efforts were in vain. Cro Cop circled and shucked, exhibiting this thing called "takedown defence" that many of the best fighters of the time were only just beginning to figure out. Fujita did, however, eventually get him down -- but not before Cro Cop landed a single, massive knee that split Fujita's forehead wide open. It caused him to bleed so profusely that the fight was waved off. Cro Cop won by doctor's stoppage.
That's about the time MMA fans decided to start taking Cro Cop seriously.
His next few fights were up and down affairs, as Cro Cop found his legs against more experienced competition like eventual legends Kazushi Sakuraba (Cro Cop won) and Wanderlei Silva (it was declared a draw, but Cro Cop probably should have lost).
Many fans consider Cro Cop's fight against Heath "The Texas Crazy Horse" Herring to be the moment where he truly came into his own, and not just because he smashed the stars and stripes out of a man who called himself "The Texas Crazy Horse." Herring was a top-tier heavyweight, and Cro Cop made him look like a clumsy child. He tossed him aside on multiple occasions and even offered to help him up once.
Moreover, this was a fight where key elements of Cro Crop's game cemented themselves: the elusive, shockingly fast movement; the precise, measured straight punches; the viscera-obliterating body kicks; the head kicks that nearly left opponents headless. Before this fight, Cro Cop was a series of promising pieces. In this fight, they really came together. That was bad news for everybody else.
Right leg hospital, left leg cemetery
The left high kick. Oh, the left high kick. It turned Cro Cop from good fighter to nightmare bogeyman. It was the machete to his Jason, the chainsaw to his Texas Crazy Horse Chainsaw Massacre. As he once put it: "Right leg, hospital; left leg, cemetery." Cro Cop's signature move was not just respected; it was feared.
This is because he was uncommonly good at deploying it -- especially for a heavyweight. Sometimes he'd bludgeon people with it, crack open their guard like an egg and follow up with sizzling punches. Other times he'd be more sneaky about it, completing a punching combo and then waiting a split second longer than you'd expect before tossing up the kick -- creating just enough time for his opponents to relax a little, let their guard down. Case in point, here's the first time he ever scored a knockout win with one in MMA:
Fighting against Igor Vovchanchyn in Pride, Cro Cop found a home for his devastating signature move right after a flurry of aggressive jabs. With the flurry apparently over, Vovchanchyn tried to resume his typical stance -- to fall back into the fight's established rhythm. That's when the kick struck him like a lightning bolt to the brain. He was out cold in a heartbeat.
Cro Cop would go on to score some of the most terrifying knockouts in MMA history with that kick.
Cro Cop's first loss came in a fight he was thoroughly dominating. He got submitted by the man widely regarded as the second best heavyweight in Japanese MMA history, Antonia Rodrigo Nogueira, after nearly putting him in the dirt over and over. Not too long after, however, Cro Cop lost a fight he was supposed to win against a wrestler -- aka Cro Cop's favourite type of lamb to slaughter -- in Kevin Randleman. The KO loss was a massive setback, but the best was still to come.
A resurgent seven fight win streak -- which included Pride legends like Josh Barnett, Mark Coleman, and eventually Kevin Randleman in a rematch -- put Cro Cop across the ring from Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, regarded by many MMA fans as the greatest fighter of all time. This was a match both fans and Pride itself had been praying for. It was a literal clash of the titans, a battle at the pinnacle of heavyweight MMA's finest era. Fedor was considered invincible, an ice-cold Russian killing machine who stepped into the ring with a face as placid as a summer lake. But Cro Cop had his arsenal of kicks from hell; he wasn't a WMD on legs so much as his legs were WMDs. Fedor might have been an unstoppable cyborg, but even cyborgs have their breaking points.
Cro Cop lost. The first round was competitive, and Cro Cop looked to have the upper hand on the feet. He landed some thudding punches, leaving Fedor wobbly. However, when Cro Cop flashed the high kick, he lost his balance, and Fedor -- as is his way -- capitalised to devastating effect. The two spent (relative) eons on the ground with Fedor on top, and by the time the fight found its way back to the feet, Cro Cop's lungs were like punctured grocery bags, inflating and deflating uselessly. He was worn out, and his movements became telegraphed, sloppy. From then on, Fedor more or less did as he pleased. Granted, Cro Cop still landed some good shots (including some especially nasty kicks in the final round), but when the final bell tolled, it was clear who'd won.
Cro Cop's legendary Pride run did not end there. He won a handful of fights after that -- including two more victories over the perenially dangerous Josh Barnett -- and famously dismantled another of Pride's biggest stars, Brazilian slugger Wanderlei Silva. The kick that finished him was one of Cro Cop's most singularly spectacular. It shattered an already battered Silva in a way that, honestly, left me feeling a bit ill.
Pride dissolved shortly after that (money issues and rampant corruption -- what a fun cocktail; the UFC purchased the remains), and so too did Cro Cop's legend.
Call an ambulance
When Cro Cop signed with the UFC, fans thought his title fight would be nothing more than a formality. The UFC's heavyweight division has always struggled over the years (talented big men are a bitch to find), and its 2007 iteration was especially -- shall we say -- a goddamn fucking joke. At the time, Randy Couture -- a 44 year-old man in the twilight of the twilight of his storied career -- had just claimed the belt from Tim Sylvia, a clumsy mountain of a manchild famous for shitting himself during a fight a year earlier. Cro Cop, everyone figured, would stroll in, kick Couture's head into space, and rule over the UFC's slimmest division with an iron shin.
Things did not go according to plan. Things never go according to plan.
Cro Cop's first UFC fight -- against a relative no-name in Eddie Sanchez -- was lacklustre, hardly the destruction everybody expected. He won by TKO, but he only looked... alright. Cro Cop's second UFC fight was the most devastating loss of his entire career.
When Cro Cop stood across the cage from Gabriel Gonzaga, a mostly unheralded jiu jitsu fighter, he was supposed to be punching his ticket to a title shot. Instead, the chain tethering him to his consciousness got chainsawed in two. Adding horrific insult to injury, Gonzaga -- who, remember, was supposed to be a consummate ground guy -- did it with a high kick, with Cro Cop's own signature fucking move. It was not pretty.
Cro Cop collapsed to the mat with his own leg grotesquely twisted beneath him, foot practically facing backward. It was a nauseating sight. In that moment, Cro Cop's dreams of holding UFC heavyweight gold crumbled, and the hearts of fans across the globe shriveled and died. Their immortal terror of a hero was finally truly human.
But maybe it was a fluke. I mean, MMA is an unpredictable sport. People get "caught" with crazy strikes all the time. The stork flies in and nails someone with an out-of-nowhere cartwheel kick, and that's how upsets are born. So Cro Cop continued his UFC run and... lost again. Against middle-of-the-pack French striker Cheick Kongo, Cro Cop looked like a shell of his former self. He was tentative, plodding, and easily bullied around the cage. He bore almost no resemblance to the fearless killer who haunted Pride fighters' most harrowing dreams. It was heartbreaking.
What happened? It's tough to say. Over the years, Cro Cop has claimed that age and (especially) injuries caught up to him. To an extent, that's likely true. But Pride was also a strange and not particularly well-regulated organisation. At various points many fighters have claimed that practically everyone was on performance-enhancing drugs. Match-fixing was also likely a thing. Did Cro Cop benefit from either of those helping hands? It's unlikely, but we'll probably never know for sure.
Kill them with kindness
There was a slight upside to Cro Cop's downfall, though. During his first UFC tenure, we got to see a bit more of his human side, his personality. He started talking at press conferences -- cracking jokes, even. As it turned out, he was actually a pretty likable, down-to-earth dude. For example, here's him jawing with an opponent who was also his biggest fan, Pat Barry:
Cro Cop was legitimately funny, cracking jokes about giving Barry two autographs -- one in pen and one in the form of a knockout kick -- and the mysterious origins of a new cut on his face. Despite his cold demeanour in fights, he ended up being a real charmer.
Unfortunately, he kept losing. Don't get me wrong, he won some too, but he repeatedly faltered against a new generation of heavyweights. Cro Cop never again looked as good as he did during his Pride glory years, not even during another brief stint fighting in Japan for organisations like K1, Dream, and IGF. He retired once, but he worked his way back into MMA through kickboxing. Eventually, that meant a return to the UFC -- one last ride.
It was supposed to be a revenge tour, and for a single, shining fight, it was. A 40 year-old Cro Cop rematched Gabriel Gonzaga -- the man who removed his cranium with his own signature move -- and even though Cro Cop looked like dog anus for two rounds, he pulled out a surprise TKO win in the third.
His next scheduled fight, against mid-tier fighter Anthony Hamilton, got called off. Yesterday, Cro Cop hung up the gloves again, likely once and for all this time. His body, once a machine of perfect destruction, has initiated a countdown to self-destruct. He explained:
"I tried to save a shoulder injury and repair in all possible ways: daily therapy, injections of blood plasma and various cocktails of drugs but didn't work out. The only cure would be a break of two to three weeks, and that I could not afford in the midst of final preparations [for the fight in a couple weeks]. By daily trainings the injury gets worse. Part of the muscle is snapped, the shoulder is filled with a lot of fluids, and the great danger is that tendon ruptures and then go to operation again."
"People of course see only one side of the medal, material things, and for the passion, pain, blood and tears no one asks or cares, but it is so in life. Now it's two in the morning, and I can not fall asleep, I tinkling thoughts and swirling my career in front of my eyes. I am aware that I have come to the end of my martial times, but training with pain I want no longer. My body is battered by countless trainings, I collected nine surgeries, the body has become prone to injury, after each workout I put ice on my knee operated on because it's filled with fluid, therapies twice a week. The next fight would be 80th professional and that is a lot, especially in the competition: K-1, Pride, IGF, UFC. The biggest problem will be my adaptation to 'civilian life,' without two workouts a day and the eternal journey around the world, and that wouldn't fall so hard. I will train as long as I live because it's my life, but not at this rate and I'm glad in some way."
It's a bittersweet farewell for Cro Cop, as well as for his fans. It was hard to watch him get knocked around while competing years past his expiration date, but people are still sad to see him go. Rare is the fighter who calls it quits at just the right moment. It's tough, after all, for athletes to accept that their bodies -- monuments to the human form that they have spent decades sculpting to a point of godlike perfection -- are turning on them. For fighters, especially, life after years of competition is a terrifying prospect, especially for those with a billowing list of long-term injuries and few career prospects. So they try to chase one last moment of glory -- or maybe one last paycheck -- and end up chasing oblivion instead.
It sounds like Cro Cop called it quits because he didn't really have any other choice. He finally accepted that his body had nothing left to give. He began to imagine a life after fighting, a life trapped in this mangled machine, and he didn't like what he saw. It was nice to see him avenge his loss to Gonzaga, but frankly I wish he'd called it a career sooner. The Cro Cop we once knew -- the myth, not the man -- has been dead for years. Of everyone involved, I think it took Cro Cop himself the longest to accept that. However, I very much like Cro Cop: The Man, and I hope he has a long and fruitful life ahead of him. I hope he didn't slam on the breaks too late. He gave us so many wonderful memories. If his battered mind and body were to conspire against him -- to rob him of those memories -- it would be a grim and terrible thing indeed.