UFC 128 at the Prudential Center on March 19, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey (Photos by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) via UFC.com
Let's get this out of the way right now - the man known simply as Cro Cop, Mirko Filipovic, is one of the all time greatest strikers in MMA history. His highlight reel is the stuff of legend, his left leg, the stuff of nightmares. He's one of my all time favorite fighters. He's also really, really past his prime. His fight against Roy Nelson at UFC 137 will be the 40th fight of his MMA career, and he shows it. But fans still hold out hope that the "old" Cro Cop will be back, and that he will leave Nelson cold Saturday night. Is it possible? I'll try to find out by breaking down the striking of Cro Cop.
But here's the thing. I could talk all day about his K-1 days, his Pride KO's... but none of that matters any more. Because the current Cro Cop is a very different fighter in some ways. So for this breakdown, I threw all that aside and looked only at his nine UFC fights, trying to do so with fresh eyes. And so how does the current version of Mirko Cro Cop stack up as a striker? Let's see...
Any discussion of Mirko's striking strengths almost always begins with the infamous left high kick. But today, it shouldn't. That kick has long ceased to be a vital part of his game, replaced by some other strengths.
- The straight left hand. This is the #1 weapon of UFC-era Mirko Cro Cop. It's a punch he has used throughout his career (perhaps most famously against Bob Sapp), but it has become the key strike for him as of late. Mirko is a south paw, so the left is his power hand. And even at 37 years old, that punch does still pack a lot of power. He used it very effectively against Mostapha al Turk, and had some success with it against Junior dos Santos. He lands the left right up the middle, finding his opening and hitting it. He's also very sparing with the punch, only throwing it when he is likely to cause real damage. Which leads us to...
- Single shot accuracy. Mirko can string together combos, but he's much more likely to find the opening and land one power shot. For some fighters, this hesitancy to throw can be a real problem, and it has at times for Mirko, but he makes every shot he lands really count. He's far removed from the Pride era KO machine, but by waiting for the chin to be exposed, then putting all his effort into that one punch, he still can cause significant damage every time he connects. This kind of accuracy comes from years of experience - he has been in there so much that he knows where to see the opening, and he finds it.
- Variety of kicks. While the left kick doesn't land these days, it still gets thrown, along with a selection of other kicks. Cro Cop still possesses a nice left kick to the body, a right inside leg kick, and an axe kick he used against Pat Barry. All of these kicks leave an opponent guessing where the next strike will come, and forced to defend multiple points of attack. They may not do the same damage they once did, but they still have to be defended, and that defense can leave an opening for more Cro Cop offense.
Overall, Mirko's greatest strength is that he knows how to put all of this together. He's a veteran of striking wars, and can use that craftiness to create openings, and then land inside them. And if what he lands is that powerful left, you're in trouble.
More analysis, with gifs, in the full entry.
Cro Cop is coming in the victim of back to back KO's, and he's lost 5 of his 9 UFC fights, so obviously there are some serious weaknesses in his game at this point.
- Positioning and cage control. No fighter has a greater "tell" than Cro Cop. When he is moving forward, he's feeling good and is in control. But when he is hurt, or being pushed, he will yield control of the cage to his opponent and begin walking backwards. He is quick to drop into this retreat mode, and he doesn't typically follow it up with good counter striking. Even when not retreating, Mirko can be too passive in his positioning - against Gonzaga he allowed Napao to gain the dominant position with his footwork, and was outstruck as a result. He needs to keep the pressure on his opponents and take charge of where the fight moves.
- Decreasing output. This ties into the accuracy and single shots mentioned above. While Cro Cop uses those individual strikes well, his overall output has diminished in recent fights. He looks for that opening, but has become more hesitant to throw until he has it. The result is simply less punches and kicks being thrown, which gives his opponent far too much time to settle in and implement his own game.
- Defensive movement - specifically, he has developed an absolutely terrible habit of ducking at the waist when under pressure. Catch Cro Cop in a shoot out, and he is very likely to bend at the waist, lower his head, and leave his hands out in order to escape. This is a disastrous position to get into, and more than anything, this shows just how far he has fallen. No K-1 veteran should ever expose himself in a fight so completely. Dos Santos used this movement very well in the 3rd round to unload with knees and end Mirko's night.
- Prone to being hit over the top. Whether it's kicks, or big overhand shots, Cro Cop has shown that he can be hit by a fighter coming up and over the top. This is because when he blocks, he keeps his hand and elbow lower, protecting his jawline, but leaving his temple exposed. This is a particularly big problem against Roy Nelson, who possesses a powerful overhand right KO that Cro Cop simply can't afford to be hit by.
All of these are serious troubles, but the biggest overall trouble is how poorly Cro Cop tends to respond when he is pressured. In fights where he is hurt, or where he is being chased down, all of the above habits are intensified, and Cro Cop opens himself up. The result is the kinds of KO's we have seen from Frank Mir and Brendan Schaub.
A few examples here of what we have discussed.
Here are two examples of Cro Cop bending and bringing the head down, both from the dos Santos fight. In both of these clips, Cro Cop is rocked, and dos Santos uses the clinch to further push him down, but he is also leaning down on his own:
Here's that accuracy on display against Pat Barry. Cro Cop does use a combination here, but notice the way he carefully selects every shot. In particular, I like how he pauses before the uppercuts - waiting to find the right opening and get the most out of each punch.
Like I said, it's hard to remove memories of the old Cro Cop and just evaluate the UFC version of the legend. But when you do, you see a fighter who still has a powerful left hand, and a good ability to connect with that left. But you also see a fighter with serious holes in his game that get further exposed as the fight progresses and he takes more damage. To beat Nelson, he'll need to seal those openings up, and try to use that left hand to put Big Country down. It won't be an easy feat to accomplish.