Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cro Cop: Farewell

Woke up this morning to news that kickboxer and mixed martial artist Mirko Filipovic has pulled out of his co-headlining match against Anthony Hamilton at UFC Fight Night 79 in Seoul, South Korea. A shoulder injury on top of a career of them and ensuing operations seems to be the culprit. The former Croatian anti-terrorist commando and Parliament Member has long been one of my favorite fighters with his mix of stoicism, sense of humor, physique and a sprawl and brawl style that left many an opponent dazed on the canvas. Born in Vinkovci, Mirko found inspiration from the likes of Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme and worked out in his family's barn doing chin ups, kicking walls and fashioning weights from scraps of metal and concrete. Joining the Army at 19, Mirko took up boxing and amassed an amateur record of 40-5.

Turning professional in 1996 at age 22, Filipovic joined Japan's K-1 kickboxing league where he defeated seasoned veteran Jerome Le Banner in his first fight. From there the Croatian sensation fought the sports biggest names like Ray Sefo, Bob Sapp, Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, Remy Bonjasky, Mark Hunt, Mike Bernardo and Andy Hug. He would place Runner Up in the Grand Prix twice before transitioning to emerging MMA and joining Pride, Japan's premiere organization and rival to the growing UFC. There Cro Cop thrilled fans with his powerful punching combinations and destructive head kicks. Pride provided a theatrical experience with lavish opening ceremonies and blaring entrance music. Cro Cop became synonymous with walk out song Wild Boys by Duran Duran as well as his trademark spandex shorts adorned with a Croatian flag. Mirko faced the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Heath Herring, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Josh Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko but seemed to come up short in his most important bouts. In 2006, Filipovic won the Pride Open-Weight Grand Prix tournament while contemplating retirement. Instead, he took a big payday and headed to the UFC. Cro Cop would struggle in the octagon and suffer a shocking loss to Gabriel Gonzaga before heading back to Japan to join upstart promotion Dream. While Mirko suffered many disappointing losses in the UFC and never got the title shot many were expecting, he showed glimpses of what made so many people fans with an entertainingly gutsy performance against Pat Barry (axe kick!) and avenged his loss to Gonzaga this past April (elbow to the dome!). Many of Cro Cop's bouts were competitive so the issue seemed to be desire versus skill. Rarely leaving his back yard to train and be separated from his family, one wonders how Cro Cop would have benefited by not doing things his way and training at one of the prominent camps in the US or Europe.

It appeared that Cro Cop might be able to make another go at the UFC, his various stints of retirement and time off seemed to heal injuries while the fire to train and compete still burned. But at 41 years of age with 80 some fights in under 20 years, the damage has taken it's toll. After 9 operations on his knee, nose, elbow, etc, his latest shoulder injury seems to have reminded him that he's still got a long life to live outside the fight game. It's a shame we won't get to see Mirko compete one more time, especially in front of large contingent of Asian fans but he's already provided us with a career full of highlights and inspiration. After living such a varied and fascinating life already, I'm interested to see what Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic does next. Until then, keep kicking.

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