Filipovic’s high kick remains one of MMA’s most enduring weapons. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Pride “Total Elimination 2004”
April 25, 2004 -- Saitama, Japan
As Pride’s 2004 heavyweight grand prix commenced, there were three decided tournament favorites: Cro Cop, Nogueira and Emelianenko. Total Elimination was expected to be a showcase for those three as they moved towards inevitable collision. Cro Cop’s opponent, Kevin Randleman, was a talented but inconsistent fighter who had lost two straight. His only hope was thought to be holding down the Croatian.
This conventional wisdom heading into the fight led to one of the most memorable calls in MMA history. When Randleman dropped Cro Cop with a heavy punch, then Pride and current Strikeforce play-by-play announcer Mauro Ranallo was every bit as exasperated as the viewing audience. As Randleman knocked Cro Cop unconscious with hammerfists on the ground, Ranallo repeatedly cried out: “Kevin Randleman has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop!”
A wrestler knocking out the most feared striker in the sport seemed the most improbable of conclusions, and the call of the finish cemented it as one of the most memorable upsets of the period. Filipovic avenged the loss later in the year with a guillotine choke submission, but it was the first Randleman-Cro Cop fight that stood out in the minds of fans.
Pride “Final Conflict 2005”
Aug. 28, 2005 -- Saitama, Japan
With a seven-fight winning streak following his loss to Randleman, Cro Cop established himself as the number one contender for Emelianenko’s Pride heavyweight title. His fight against Fedor at Final Conflict 2005 was hyped as the most anticipated heavyweight fight in MMA history.
The scuttlebutt in the MMA community leading into Fedor-Cro Cop was that the Russian was not keen on taking the bout. It had been delayed by injuries, which furthered that speculation. Many picked Cro Cop to defeat Fedor when Pride officially announced the bout at Critical Countdown 2005. Then, with a small gesture, Fedor set the tone for the upcoming contest, as he was invited into the ring following Cro Cop’s win over Ibragim Magomedov. As the Fedor-Cro Cop fight was finally confirmed, the usually stoic Fedor grinned widely. Fedor’s nervousness was perhaps greatly exaggerated.
Two months later, Fedor and Cro Cop finally met. The opportunity was there for Cro Cop to secure a career-defining win, but instead Fedor owned the evening.
Pressuring Cro Cop with strikes and mixing in some of his sambo, he notched a hard-earned unanimous decision victory. Fedor may not have been invincible, but he was certainly unflappable.
Pride “Final Conflict Absolute”
Sept. 10, 2006 -- Saitama, Japan
While Cro Cop never captured Pride’s heavyweight crown, he secured a career highlight by winning the promotion’s open weight grand prix in 2006. Cro Cop was the last man standing in a field that included Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett, Wanderlei Silva and Aleksander Emelianenko, stopping each of his opponents along the way.
At Final Conflict Absolute, Cro Cop defeated both Barnett and Silva to seal the grand prix. While Barnett was his opponent in the finals, the Silva bout that was the most impressive. Silva and Cro Cop had fought previously -- early in the Croatian’s MMA career -- and “The Axe Murderer” surprised many by fighting to a competitive draw with the larger striker.
In the rematch, Silva had no answers for Cro Cop. The Croatian dominated the fight from beginning to end and won with a scary head kick knockout. Silva’s chin was never the same, and he was knocked cold in three of his following seven fights. Cro Cop used the grand prix victory to secure a generous contract from the UFC, jumping ship before Pride was officially sold.
UFC 70 “Nations Collide”
April 21, 2007 -- Manchester, England
Much like his bout with Randleman in 2004, UFC 70 was supposed to set up more significant opportunities for Cro Cop. Gabriel Gonzaga was just a formality for the 5-to-1 favorite, the final opponent before a big-money showdown with UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture.
Gonzaga proved in fact to be a substantial obstacle, and Cro Cop never received his title shot. Gonzaga took down Cro Cop and dominated him on the ground with brutal elbows. When Cro Cop finally returned to his feet, his situation only worsened. Gonzaga knocked out Cro Cop with the Croatian’s signature move -- the head kick.
UFC 70 was a harbinger of what was to come for Cro Cop. Soundly beaten by Cheick Kongo and Junior dos Santos and knocked out by Frank Mir and Brendan Schaub, the UFC generally proved to be an inhospitable environment for the former K-1 and Pride star.
UFC 115 “Liddell vs. Franklin”
June 12, 2010 -- Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Cro Cop’s UFC career will not be defined solely by disappointment. In the semi-main event of UFC 115, he showed a fighter’s heart in a come-from-behind win over a young and hungry Pat Barry.
Barry got the better of the standup in the first round of their contest, and it looked like Cro Cop was going to have another tough night. However, over the course of the second round, Cro Cop changed the momentum of the bout and started landing more blows on the American powerhouse. In the third round, the fight went to the ground and Cro Cop secured a rear-naked choke submission with just 30 seconds left on the clock.
No longer the dynamic athlete he was in his prime, Cro Cop showed he still could persevere and triumph. It was a reminder to his faithful fans of what made him such a successful competitor. Against Nelson, Cro Cop will have another chance to demonstrate that quality. However, it could also wind up being his last.