Mirko Filipovic in his prime was as destructive and frightening a force as the mixed martial arts world has ever seen, and his signature sound bite said it all: “Right leg, hospital. Left leg, cemetery.”
The 2006 Pride Fighting Championships open weight grand prix winner will go down as one of the 10 best heavyweights in MMA history, alongside such contemporaries as Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. His extensive resume includes victories over Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba, Olympic gold medalists Hidehiko Yoshida and Satoshi Ishii (twice), Brazilian juggernaut Wanderlei Silva and three former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders: Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman and Josh Barnett (three times). Filipovic boasts 28 finishes among his 31 career wins, many of them immortalized on highlight reels across the globe. He was a member of the Lucko Anti-Terrorist Unit, a Special Forces branch of the Croatian police: Hence the nickname “Cro Cop.”
In a career littered with defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Grand Champion
If a signature piece to the “Cro Cop” puzzle exists, it is his run through the 2006 Pride open weight grand prix. The star-studded 15-man tournament included among others Barnett, Nogueira, Silva, Aleksander Emelianenko, Mark Hunt, Fabricio Werdum and Alistair Overeem. Filipovic’s began his scorched-earth march with a first-round technical knockout against Ikuhisa Minowa on May 5, 2006 and advanced to the grand prix semifinals with a leg kick-induced finish of Yoshida a little less than two months later. “Cro Cop” was paired with Silva at Pride Final Conflict Absolute on Sept. 10, 2006, with Barnett slated to face Nogueira in the other semifinal. Filipovic disposed of a bloodied “Axe Murderer” with one of his patented high kicks 5:22 into the first round and watched Barnett escape with a split decision over Nogueira. In the final, “Cro Cop” bludgeoned Barnett and ultimately struck him into submission to emerge from the tournament as the last man standing. It remains the crown jewel of his MMA career.
2. Facing an Emperor
All eyes turned to the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on Aug. 28, 2005, as the two all-time heavyweights at long last locked horns. A 28-year-old Fedor Emelianenko risked his Pride heavyweight championship against a 30-year-old Filipovic. It was the three-round, 20-minute clash for which fans, media and everyone in between had long yearned, and while it largely managed to meet the impossible expectations surrounding it, their bout at Pride Final Conflict 2005 also helped two living legends cement their places in combat sports history. Once the final seconds ticked off the clock, Emelianenko assisted “Cro Cop” to his feet in an obvious show of respect, embraced him for a moment and returned to his corner to await the verdict. The ringside judges awarded the Russian a unanimous decision, to the surprise of no one. The defeat snapped Filipovic’s career-best seven-fight winning streak, the last six of which had been finishes, none lasting more than 3:53.
3. An Ice-Cold KO
Igor Vovchanchyn became the first of Filipovic’s many head-kick victims on Aug. 10, 2003. “Cro Cop” cut down the Ukrainian in 89 seconds, as his left shin bounced off Vovchanchyn’s skull and resulted in a sickening echo throughout the arena. “Ice Cold” was instantly frozen by the concussive blow and hit the canvas in a defenseless state. Filipovic pounced and connected with a powerful right hand to the side of his head, forcing the referee to intervene to prevent further damage. The high kick became a “Cro Cop” hallmark and certainly made an impression on Vovchanchyn. It was the only knockout loss of his distinguished 66-fight career.
4. Avenging ‘The Monster’
Filipovic waltzed into his Pride Shockwave 2004 rematch on New Year’s Eve against Randleman with plenty to prove. A two-time NCAA wrestling champion, “The Monster” had upset the Croatian eight months earlier, flooring him with a lightning-strike of a right hand before brutalizing him and knocking him unconscious with punches on the ground. It did not take long for Filipovic to taste sweet revenge. He ensnared the former UFC heavyweight champion in a guillotine choke inside the first minute, forcing the tapout just 41 seconds into the match. It was the first traditional submission of Filipovic’s career. He would not deliver another one until he took care of Pat Barry with a rear-naked choke at UFC 115 more than five years later.
5. Taste of His Own Medicine
When “Cro Cop” was booked for his second Octagon appearance at UFC 70 on April 21, 2007, many envisioned it concluding with a kick to the head. Few imagined Filipovic being the victim. A little less than three months earlier, the Croatian striker had broken into the UFC with a first-round finish on the woefully overmatched Eddie Sanchez. However, it lacked Filipovic’s usual pizzazz and bloodthirsty fight fans showed up to see his left leg separate Gabriel Gonzaga from his senses at the Manchester Evening News Arena in England. Gonzaga put Filipovic on his back and inflicted significant damage with his elbow-laced ground-and-pound, only to have referee Herb Dean called for a restart with roughly 30 seconds left in the opening round. After the two heavyweights circled each other, “Cro Cop” feinted the left kick a few times, dropping his left hand in the process. Gonzaga zeroed in on the mistake and sent a crushing right kick crashing into the 2006 Pride open weight grand prix winner’s neck. Filipovic fell so quickly that his right leg folded underneath him. The fans got the head kick they desired but not from the expected source. Gonzaga went on to face Randy Couture for the heavyweight championship. “Cro Cop” never fought for UFC gold.