History and the Checkered Hero

Rise & Decline

By Jordan Breen Sep 25, 2009
In the wake of his loss to Junior dos Santos, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic told the world that the places in his mind once filled with a focus on kicking opponents in the head had been replaced by thoughts of fishing in Privlaka.

Given the dismal turn the former K-1 standout's career has taken in the last two years, it comes as little surprise that he's thinking about calling it quits. Nonetheless, the stark and one-sided beating he took from the Brazilian heavyweight prospect last Saturday at UFC 103 has led to fans and pundits alike wondering how we came to this point, where MMA's formerly most feared striker has been relegated to a disappointing also-ran in a division he was supposed to reign over with impunity.

The answer is much less simple than you might think.

Most discussion of his decline has centered on the physical, which is understandable, as it is certainly the most visible component. It is important to consider why Cro Cop was seen as the ideal K-1 fighter to cross over into MMA in the first place: While he was never a large heavyweight, he's always been a physical specimen, and not just in a superficial beach muscles sense, though obviously the size of his legs goes without saying. Rather, he was explosive and athletic in a way that even far superior K-1 contemporaries like Peter Aerts and Ernesto Hoost were not. This made him far more apt to tussling with potent wrestlers and capitalizing on the hunt-and-kill nature of MMA -- a nature that suited his striking style better than styles based on volume and workrate.

There can be no doubt those physical attributes that made him the posterboy for K-1 converts have diminished. His reflex and strike speed lags, and he struggles to explode away from the clinch as he once was able to when desperate fighters latched onto him. Though some are quick to say that Filipovic is "only 35," that misses the fact that age -- especially in MMA -- is extremely relative.

"You're only as young as you feel" sounds like a hollow line from a dental adhesive or margarine commercial, but it couldn't be more true in this sport. While Randy Couture is constantly used as MMA's refutation of aging, "The Natural" started MMA 12 years ago at age 33 after a fairly healthy wrestling career. Cro Cop has been training and fighting for nearly two decades at this point, and it has taken its toll on him. In recent years, he's had surgeries up and down his body to fix nagging issues from a deviated septum to a busted foot to a faulty elbow to nagging knees. That process isn't about to stop, and if anything, it will only exacerbate. Prizefighters are like porn stars: When it's gone, it's gone. You might have another stellar scene or two, but you're sure as hell not going to sweep the AVNs.

But it's wrong to view Cro Cop's current predicament strictly as a product of wear-and-tear. If anything, his physical depreciation has served to highlight the technical flaws of his game that have always been present and often ignored.

Part of what has been difficult for fans to digest is that he hasn't just looked awful as of late: He's looked awful on the feet despite being hailed as the greatest striker in the sport for years. However, chinks in the armor have always been present. Apart from his bouts with Mark Hunt, the southpaw Cro Cop has circled left on orthodox fighters since his K-1 days. Circling into your opponent’s power tends to be a major no-no, but it has always given Cro Cop the best chance to land his left cross and left head kick, by far his two best weapons. When fighters with real striking skills have opted to be aggressive against him, though, he's suffered as a result.

He walked into Fedor Emelianenko's right hook repeatedly, and shortly after, barrages of left hooks followed. Hunt's right found him repeatedly in their MMA rematch. While people remember the Cheick Kongo bout for Cro Cop's testicles being battered, the Frenchman dominated latter proceedings with his right cross and right kicks to Cro Cop's exposed body. In one of the most brutal starchings the sport has ever seen, he walked right into Gabriel Gonzaga's shin at skull-level. And Saturday night, Junior dos Santos pelted him with both hands, but especially rights.

Compound this issue with the fact that he generally struggles going backward. At his finest, Cro Cop was less the tiger he was once nicknamed for and more akin to a shark, circling opponents quickly at short range. Watch the Nogueira bout to see the ideal range and movement for his attack; it is little coincidence that he displayed nearly all of his offensive weapons in that bout's first round. When forced backward, his primary weapon to halt opponents was his left cross -- the same punch that destroyed Bob Sapp and got the wrecking ball rolling on Wanderlei Silva in their second bout. However, from Hoost to Cigano, when opponents are fleet enough to avoid the punch, or stay close enough to stifle it, he's less a fighter and more a cornerback.

Maybe most critically of all, for all his striking acumen, Cro Cop has never been a quality counterstriker. At his best, whether in K-1 or MMA, he attacked first, hurt his foe, then finished the job. When ambushed, he's always pushed opponents away and circled out wide to reset. Even against Josh Barnett, whose game plan in their second bout was haphazard punch-swarming to set up the clinch, Cro Cop was still almost entirely defensive. Even his punches on Sapp and Silva were not really pure counters as much as fighters walking directly at him with their hands down.

The point about counterpunching is especially relevant, as it is the method through which the cleanest chances for damaging blows in combat sports are created. It is no coincidence that virtually all of the top fighters in the sport right now are adroit at either slipping punches to counter (Emelianenko, Penn) or parrying punches to counter (Machida, Rampage). At this stage in the sport, it's not good enough to just endlessly circle left, hoping to set up a roundhouse kick to the dome.
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