And older Mirko Cro Cop displays his legendary head kick (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Zuffa, LLC via Getty Images)
While Mirko Cro Cop is often portrayed by some Mixed Martial Arts neophytes as a K-1 kickboxing god, the truth is a little more complicated. After jumping out of the gates quickly in 1999, something that happened all too often as the notoriously shady K-1 looked to build new stars, Cro Cop floundered in 2000. There were highlights a plenty, including the left high kick that made him famous and a show of warrior spirit against Mike Bernardo that made Japanese fans sit up and pay attention. But there wasn't a sustained record of accomplishment. By the time he lost to unheralded Michael McDonald in Australia in June of 2001, the Croatian star's record stood at a mere 12-7.
It was becoming clear that Cro Cop wasn't going to be the kickboxing star, a new generation icon to replace the departed Andy Hug, a beloved Swiss star whose death left a gaping hole in the promotion in 2000. It was at Hug's memorial show in 2001 that Cro Cop would make his MMA debut. For the first time ever, a debuting fighter would challenge for the lineal title, as Cro Cop squared off against Fujita as part of a special "Team Inoki vs. Team K-1" showdown.
Many expected the fight to go like so many grappler versus striker contests before it, but the kickboxer had an element no one anticipated - luck. Although the Japanese wrestler's skull might have been unbreakable, he could be cut. He could bleed. And that proved his undoing. Shooting for a takedown in the fight''s first 30 seconds, Fujita was cracked in the eye with a Cro Cop left knee. Fujita was unmoved by the blow, completing his takedown and actually passing into side control. Unfortunately, he was also covered in blood, his own. The knee had opened a gaping cut and the referee stopped the fight. Cro Cop, a kickboxer with only the most rudimentary ground skills, was suddenly the lineal champion of the MMA world.
Cro Cop's reign after the jump
Cro Cop's first lineal title defense, which doubled as his Pride Debut after several years under the rival K-1 banner, was not a fight fitting the titular best MMA combatant in the world. Still greener than grass, Cro Cop was actually taken down in the first of five three minute rounds by professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada. Takada's name and drawing power built the PRIDE promotion from the ground up, but no one ever mistook him for much of a fighter. This was his chance to regain lost stature, a winnable fight against a kickboxer who didn't know the submission game yet.
Unfortunately, the Japanese tumbler wasn't willing to embrace the opportunity with both arms. After his brief flirtation with bravery, Takada followed a predictable pattern for the next 12 minutes. He would shoot, fail, and then fall into the much despised Brazilian "butt scoot" position. Cro Cop would stalk him down into the corner where Takada would, you guessed it, drop to the ground on his back. It was a disgraceful draw, by far the worst fight ever held with the lineal title at stake,a fight so bad it wasn't even included on the US DVD release.
While Cro Cop struggled with the likes of Takada, another man was staking his claim to heavyweight immortality on the very same card. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had already submitted former UFC champion and Pride Grand Prix winner Mark Coleman. He furthered solidified his status as the top heavyweight in the sport by beating Heath Herring in a thrilling decision that featured a faster pace and more varied technique than any heavyweight fight in MMA history.
Nogueira was crowned Pride champion, but in the fictional world of the lineal title, Cro Cop remained unbeaten. now dubbed "the pro wrestler hunter" a takeoff on Kazushi Sakuraba's famous "Gracie Hunter" nickname, Cro Cop was matched with New Japan Pro Wrestling star Yuji Nagata. Nagata had a real amateur background and his brother was actually a Japanese Olympian. He trained with Bill Goldberg and Tim Catalfo in Atlanta for the fight, but none of this mattered.
Cro Cop was in his physical prime here and could have put a bull elephant to sleep with one of his lightning fast kicks. Nagata got clobbered by one almost immediately. The loss had huge ramifications in Japan, changing the combat sports landscape dramatically. Inoki had miscalculated, not understanding how good Cro Cop was or how much an embarrassing loss would hurt New Japan's business. The wrestling industry in Japan, so dependent on a tough guy reputation, was never the same.
After a draw with the fearsome Wanderlei Silva, Cro Cop continued to run roughshod over the steaming rubble of the Japanese wrestling industry. He beat undersized former pro wrestler Sakuraba and won a rematch with Fujita by decision. Cro Cop had improved leaps and bounds as a fighter, no longer the clueless kickboxer who was taken down so easily by Fujita in their first fight.
As his MMA reputation grew, he continued fighting occasionally in K-1. He became the first to dispatch the mammoth Bob Sapp in the kickboxing ring, breaking his orbital bone and changing the direction of the big man's career. After his time in the ring with Cro Cop, Sapp was never the same. By the time he finally met with Nogueira, Cro Cop was prepared for the challenge.
The Brazilian too had been busy, submitting Enson Inoue, Bob Sapp, Semmy Schilt, and Dan Henderson and knocking out Sanae Kikuta. But while the grappling wizard was the favorite against Cro Cop in their bout for the lineal title, he was no longer Pride champion. The incomparable Fedor Emelianenko had taken that honor in a dominating decision win in March, 2003, a month before Cro Cop became more famous than ever against Sapp.
The Cro Cop-Nogueira fight was for more than the lineal title, however. Emelianenko had been unable to defend the Pride title against Cro Cop in November, victim of a broken thumb suffered against Gary Goodridge in August. Then in December he left the promotion briefly on bad terms, fighting for Inoki on New Year's Eve 2003 instead of for Pride. It was a decision that would haunt MMA in Japan for years, as it was this show and this fight in particular, that led to the Yakuza scandal which eventually brought Pride crashing down. At the time it just meant Pride officials were looking to hedge their bets, crowning an interim heavyweight champion while waiting for Emelianenko's return.
If it was Cro Cop-Emelianenko that had fans salivating, Cro Cop-Nogueira was certainly a great fallback fight. The Croatian almost ended things in the first round, defending each and every takedown attempt and hammering Nogueira with hard kicks to the body and a succession of punches, finally dropping the Brazilian to the mat. Only the bell saved him from becoming just another Cro Cop victim.
Unfortunately for Cro Cop and his fans, you can't give a fighter as good as Nogueira a second chance. As badly as he was beaten in round one, the former Pride champion came out with a surprising fury in round two. Cro Cop was ready to meet him in the middle - the kickboxer hadn't even taken his entire one minute rest period, stepping out into the ring early to continue his onslaught. Instead, Nogueira secured a takedown for the first time in the fight, passed to a full mount and ended the bout with an armbar.
Nogueira had done the impossible. Despite a horrific beating in the first round, he had come back to beat Cro Cop for the first time in MMA competition. Amazingly all ten of the kickboxers fights had been for the lineal title, a feat that will surely never be accomplished again. Now a year removed from his reign as Pride champion, Nogueira was finally the lineal title holder. His nemesis Emelianenko was lurking around the corner with his Pride championship belt and legitimate claim as the best fighter in all of MMA. When the two did clash again it would be in a tournament for all the marbles: Pride's 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix.
Bloody Elbow Presents the history of the lineal MMA title: