Editor’s Note: This is a guest article by probably one of the biggest Mirko Cro Cop fans alive, Gary La Plante. Feel free to follow Gary on Twitter, or add him to your friends on Facebook. We hope you enjoy this article.
I assume fellow Cro Cop fans like me are in their basement drying tears with their Croatian flags with Wild Boys playing in the background. While yes mourning is expected in a time like this, we need to keep our heads high because this is a time to have a look back at the legend that is Mirko Cro Cop.
Mirko Cro Cop is a man who fans know for a myriad of reasons. Some know him for his masterful runs in K-1, some know him for making Bob Sapp cry, some know him for getting knocked out by Gabriel Gonzaga, but we all know him for being the premiere striker in all of Mixed Martial Arts. At the time Cro Cop turned professional he had already amassed an amateur boxing record of 40 wins and five losses. He made his professional debut at the young age of twenty two. You may be asking yourself who Cro Cop made his debut against. I will tell you, none other than the runner up in the 2002 K-1 World Grand Prix the powerhouse from France, Jérôme Le Banner. While the baby faced Cro Cop was only a shadow of what he was going to become, he showed a lot of promise. He displayed versatility of strikes and he out worked the much larger Le Banner from the clinch.
Cro Cop took a three year break from K-1 than returned in 1999 his first three fights back he went 2-1. Even though Cro Cop was coming off of a loss he still received a wild card invitation to the 1999 K-1 World Grand Prix. In the first round he got matched up with the very accomplished Mike Bernardo who already had win two wins over the Swiss legend Andy Hug and three wins over The Dutch Lumberjack Peter Aerts. This fight Cro Cop had a beautiful left straight right hook into that left head kick that could make anyone giggle like school girl. Cro Cop than went onto defeating Musashi and Sam Greco on the same night to advance to the finals to face Ernesto Hoost. Going into the fight, the Croatian had sustained a broken rib from the previous fights he had that same night. Hoost proved to be too much that night and stopped Mirko in the third round.
After defeating Hiromi Amada with his patented straight left, he went onto face the dangerous, unpredictable and innovative Andy Hug for the WKA World Muay Thai Super Heavyweight title. If you love axe kicks you will love this fight. This was one that if you watched it live you will never forget it…. Ever. The two fighters exchanged straight lefts upper cuts hooks axe kicks leg kicks head kicks and this went on for five rounds. Cro Cop lost closely contested decision. After losing to Hug Cro Cop reeled off three straight wins and ended up in the finals of the 2000 K-1 World Grand Prix in Fukuoka, the winning being granted to fight in the K-1 World Grand Prix. Cro Cop would face the man he beat, nearly one year to the day Mike Bernardo. Cro Cop the favorite going into the fight was expected to win after knocking him down three times within 80 seconds in their first matchup. That is not what happened this time, the fight ended up in a corner stoppage with Mike Bernardo being the victor. Cro Cop was however able to participate in the 2000 K-1 World Grand Prix because of Bernardo suffering from an injury and wasn’t able to compete in the Grand Prix. In the first round he faced the man who took his dreams away from being the K-1 World Grand Prix champion, Ernest Hoost. The fight ended up having to go to an extra round, which Hoost took to advance in the tournament.
In 2001 Cro Cop was upset by the Canadian Michael McDonald this propelled him to peruse a career in Mixed Martial Arts. In his debut he fought the Japanese legend Kazuyuki Fujita or as most of us knows him as Iron Head. Cro Cop draped in his fan favorite fully red and white checkered Vale-Tudo shorts. The fight starts out with Fujita rushing in for takedowns from feet away and Cro Cop side stepping the first few, than with Cro Cop up towards the ropes. Fujita rushed in for another takedown and he got hit with a picture perfect knee. The knee couldn’t have been more perfectly timed and placed; it opened up a cut on Fujita that would stop the fight only seconds thereafter.
At Pride Total Elimination 2003 there was a matchup for two European power houses. Mirko Cro Cop vs. Ice Cold Igor Vovchanchyn, it was old school vs. new school. The man who was considered one of the greatest strikers in MMA up to this point in Vovchanchyn and the man who came over from K-1 and was displaying striking that would put fear into people. To me this fight is the moment that Cro Cop became the fighter that we all know and love. This was a passing of the torches, Igor who was one of the greatest heavyweight strikers we have ever seen who was on the down side of his career. Mirko who was a ferocious up and comer who was looking to obtain a title that he came so close to in K-1. This also was the first time we got to see Mirko do what he ended up doing oh so often in MMA is land that left head kick. After beating Igor, Cro Cop was fed former luchador now turned WWE superstar Dos Caras Jr. or as he is now known in the WWE world Alberto Del Rio. Cro Cop knew what the fans wanted, delivering a crushing left head kick that turned Caras’ lights off. Mirko then received an interim title shot vs. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira. This was it, this was going to be Mirko’s moment where he won a title and went on to dominate with his legendary sprawl and K-1 level striking. For the first ten minutes of the fight Cro Cop looked absolutely unstoppable, Nogueira ended up getting him into his guard and he defended everything Nogueira was throwing at him from the bottom avoiding the triangle and throwing some ground and pound when needed. After spending about three minutes in Nogueira’s guard Cro Cop was finally able to stand back up.
This is where he started to just light Nogueira up on the feet. Repeatedly throwing kicks to the body and coming after him with combinations and ending that with straight left. He was shrugging off takedowns like nothing, than slowing walking away and signaling for Nogueira to stand up. With a few seconds left in the round, boom. There it was. The Left Leg cemetery, Nogueira got hit by the left head kick that no one could withstand. It was suppose to be over. Cro Cop was supposed to stand victorious with the Pride victory theme blaring in the Tokyo Dome, but Nogueira had different plans. As Nogueira was stumbling on his back and Cro Cop went to rush in the round ended. As the second round started everyone expected the same thing to happen, Cro Cop defending the takedown with his superb sprawl and out classing Nogueira on the feet. That didn’t happened, Nogueira ended up getting the takedown and eventually getting mount on Cro Cop. He defended as long as he could as he was transition out of mount Nogueira grabbed a hold of his arm and finished the fight in one of the greatest come backs in MMA history, the ones that Nogueira became best known for.
Cro Cop went on to have two dominate performances against Ron Waterman and Yoshihisa Yamamoto. These two fights lead to the 2004 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix. If both Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop won we would get to see the matchup that everyone was waiting for in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately we would have to wait nearly a year and a half for that fight to happen. Randleman hit Cro Cop with a left hand and finished up with some nasty ground and pound. Randleman being the classy guy he is though went to Cro Cop and made sure he was okay. Cro Cop obviously heartbroken over the loss Randleman, Randleman went and consoled him which I personally thought was touching.
Cro Cop’s next major fight was vs. one of the Emelianenko brothers, not the one that we have all been craving to see fight Cro Cop but a top flight fighter none the less. This fight well, just close your eyes and picture how a Cro Cop fight should go chances are the fight would look at lot like this. Cro Cop slipped out when Aleksander was trying to grapple with him, throwing him to the ground fairly easily at one point as well. Then out of nowhere with zero set up needed Cro Cop swiftly and quickly snaps that left head to the side of Aleksander Emelianenko’s head and followed up with a few hammer fists for good measure. While this knockout is iconic in its own right. The thing that always stuck out to me the most was the footage backstage of Fedor watching his younger brother fight. That was the most emotion we have ever seen Fedor show. While he wasn’t speaking English you could hear the anger in his voice. Right then and there we all knew that eventually these two power houses would meet up down the road maybe it wouldn’t be their next fight or even the fight after that, but after seeing Fedor react to Cro Cop knocking out his brother the contract was already signed.
Three hundred seventy eight days and wins over Josh Barnett, Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman and Ibragim Magomedov. Cro Cop got the fight he was asking. This was the moment where the two best heavyweights in the world will step into ring and go to war. Two fighters so stoic, having that same look on their face when in the ring. Emotionless would be an understatement. The fight has been described as many as the greatest mixed martial arts fight ever. It was a masterful performance by both fighters. Cro Cop fought the perfect fight, keeping his distance throwing straight punches not using too many kicks as Fedor was looking to counter them. This was the best Cro Cop we have ever seen. Mirko Cro Cop peaked August 28, 2005. He couldn’t have been more prepared, he couldn’t have done anything more to win this fight. Cro Cop fans were crushed. He has gotten opportunity after opportunity to get a title and it hasn’t happened. Even when he fought the perfect fight it still couldn’t happen. But we did get to see the GOAT, the greatest mixed marital artist to ever lace up the gloves that night against The Last Emperor. At this time most people thought Cro Cop was going to go down as the greatest fighter in MMA to never earn a title. Than we had the 2006 Pride Open Weight Grand Prix.
This Grand Prix gave us so many memorable images of Cro Cop. The first of which came in his quarterfinals fight with the Japanese legend, the judoka Hidehiko Yoshida. After Mirko cut him down with brutal leg kicks and ending up stopping him, one lucky photographer snapped a picture of him and Yoshida’s protégé Kazuhiro Nakamura carry the crippled Yoshida out of the ring. After Cro Cop defeated Yoshida he had one day and two opponents to obtain the 2006 Pride Open weight Grand Prix title. The thing that has avoided him his whole career was winning a title and this was his time. His first fight was a rematch with the Axe Murderer Wanderlei Silva. Cro Cop used his more technical striking reach and length to beat Wanderlei to the punch and ended up finishing him off with…. yep a left head kick. Cro Cop made it to the finals, to face a man he already defeated twice josh Barnett. This fight was a acumination of Cro Cop entire career. He showed everything, good striking, a good sprawl, good ground and pound and he finished Barnett in 7:32 into the fight. This was it. Cro Cop finally got what he had desired for so long. Seeing the confetti fall down and having the belt being strapped around Cro Cop’s waist as he held he brought his hand up to his face to wash away the tears was a powerful moment. You could tell how much it meant to him.
He had so many opportunities to become a champion and for whatever reason it never happened until now. Cro Cop came so close so many times that after this he was emotionally spent. I know a lot of people say that Gabriel Gonzaga stole Cro Cop’s desire, but that isn’t the case. When you have had five title shots in your career and have came so close to winning them only to have fall short it is emotionally draining. Cro Cop finally succeeded on his sixth try. Cro Cop knew that if he didn’t win a title people would criticize him saying he couldn’t win the big fight. Well he did, and his career was a success now he had nothing left to prove after that. He had one of the greatest one day performances in the history of the sport defeating Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett back to back.
Mirko Cro Cop made his UFC debut February 3, 2007 he facing Eddie Sanchez in which he earned a TKO victory. Then he was matched up against Gabriel Gonzaga the winner to face Randy Couture. Cro Cop was expected to win, expected to walk right through Gonzaga and than Face Randy Couture who many thought with his top notch sprawl and top of the notch striking would run through as well. That did not happen. Gabriel Gonzaga caught Cro Cop with a head kick. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen the same weapon that Cro Cop used for ages to leave men asking “what happened” time and time again was used against him.
The MMA gods got it all wrong. Cro Cop was going to take the momentum built up from his Open Weight Grand Prix championship and ride it into the UFC. He was going to leave the fans saying PRIDE NEVER DIE! Sadly that wasn’t the case. Like I said before I know people say this is the fight that took Cro Cop’s desire away from fighting but that isn’t the case in my opinion. Cro Cop went through so many hardships after he achieved his goal during Pride Final Conflict Absolute he didn’t have the same fire he once had. Cro Cop went on to have some good and not so good performances in Dream and in the UFC. Than at UFC 115 Cro Cop’s first and only fight in Canada we saw a Cro Cop we rarely have gotten to see. A fighter that is always so stoic a fighter that never took to the media was showing his humorous side. He had lines such as “In case of winning he will that will spend two years staring through the window but he will also must have one thing on his mind that in case of lost the fight if I going be lucky and throw high kick he might stare through the windows two years too” This was a side rarely seen by the Croatian. Cro Cop also entered the fight with what appeared to be a bad cut on his forehead, he joked about it saying that “I had late training in my room few ladies came in…..” He later added when asked if he was okay “…I’m okay but they’re not.” Going into the fight you got the feeling it was just going to be a fun fight.
Barry star struck he admired Cro Cop as much as his fans did he had a grin from ear to ear going into the fight. Near the end of the first round we saw one of the most realest moments in MMA history, Pat Barry threw a left head kick the Cro Cop special and missed. They both grinned at each other like they were two kids and there was no crowd just to kids having the time of their life. They touched gloves and they kept circling with the same grin on their face, they touched gloves again and then they embraced in a hug. It was a touching moment seeing a legend and the man who looked up to him his whole career embrace in the middle of a fight. Cro Cop went onto win the fight via a rear naked choke. In the post fight interview with Rogan Cro Cop took the mic from Rogan and he started pacing back and forth giving a speech in Croatian it was shades of Pride it was truly an amazing moment. Cro Cop than went onto fight two more times both of which he lost via KO to Frank Mir and Brendan Schaub.
Mirko Cro Cop made every single fighter better whether they recognize that or not, up until Cro Cop no one had striking like his. He did as much for the stand up part of the game as Sakuraba did for the ground game. If Cro Cop does decide to retire he will retire as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. He gave us many head kicks, many straight lefts, a few uppercuts some ground and pound and enough memories and violence to last us a life time. Thank you Mirko for entertaining us and leaving everything you had in the ring you will never be forgotten. Pride Never Die.