UFC 137 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on October 29, 2011 in Las Vegas, NV. via UFC.com
Right leg hospital, left leg cemetery. Words any fans of Japan's Pride organization know well. Words meant to inspire fear. Words that describe one man.
Owner of the best head kick in MMA history, Mirko Cro Cop has retired from the sport. Heading into UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz with a pair of knock out loses on his back, Mirko talked openly of this being his last fight. And after Roy Nelson pounded him out in the third round, he made it official.
With Cro Cop's career finished, it's time to look back over the years and ask just where he belongs in the history of our sport. What is the legacy of Mirko Cro Cop?
You have to start a look at the Croatian's career back in his pre-MMA days. Mirko first made a name for himself as a kickboxer for the esteemed K-1 organization. As a K-1 fighter, Cro Cop (known at first as "Mirko Tiger") had a solid career. He first made his way into the field of the Heavyweight Grand Prix (K-1's premiere yearly event) in 1996, losing in the quarter finals. He entered the GP again in 1999, making it to the finals. There, he was defeated by arguably the greatest K-1 fighter of all time, Ernesto Hoost - a man who would repeatedly stand between Mirko and K-1 glory, and who Mirko never managed to topple. In early 2002, Cro Cop scored the biggest win of his K-1 career, defeating reigning GP champion Mark Hunt to stake his claim as one of the best kickboxers in the world. He had one final fight in 2003, brutally knocking out Bob Sapp at a time when Sapp was perceived as nearly invincible, and then retired from kickboxing.
Overall, Cro Cop put together a very respectable K-1 career. He's not one of the top handful of K-1 fighters of all time - but had his career ended when he left kickboxing, he would have been remembered as a strong competitor who came close to greatness.
Of course, while his kickboxing career may have ended in 2003, his fighting career was just beginning. Cro Cop made his debut in Pride as a representative of K-1, fighting Pride figurehead Nobuhiko Takada in a Pride vs. K-1 fight. He would repeat this role against Wanderlei Silva not long after. At the time, Silva was considered one of the top pound for pound MMA fighters in the world. When Mirko battled him to a draw in a fantastic fight, the MMA community took note of this powerful kickboxer in their midst.
More on Mirko Cro Cop's legacy in the full article.
Over the next few years, Cro Cop quickly rose through the Pride ranks, and he did it in spectacular fashion. With those powerful kicks, Mirko began knocking out opponent after opponent. But what made Cro Cop unique was not just his striking skills, but the all around MMA game he developed. While stand-up always remained his style of choice, during his years in Pride Mirko developed one of the best sprawls in the game, which he used to keep the fight standing. He also added an overlooked ground game in order to both protect himself on the mat and get back to his feet. Adding these skills made him a more well-rounded fighter, but Cro Cop always knew to keep the fight standing. In this way, he is one of the all time greats at transitioning into MMA from another combat sport. Many fighters who make a similar transition fall into one of two traps. Either they fail to add a full MMA game, and so are easily taken out of their element (such as Pat Barry on the ground), or they let their new MMA skills get in the way of their original strengths (see Demian Maia's lack of jiu jitsu in recent fights). Cro Cop brilliantly avoided these pitfalls - he gave himself the tools to force opponents in MMA engage him in a kickboxing contest. And then he kicked their heads off.
Despite this work, just as in K-1, Mirko never quite reached the top of the mountain in Pride. He clearly established himself as a top Heavyweight, but could not get past the top two in Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Both men faced Mirko in classic fights, and both were able to establish their superiority over the Croatian.
In the dying days of Pride, Cro Cop did land his greatest achievement - a victory in the 2006 Pride Open Weight Grand Prix. But Mirko wasn't the one who eliminated Nogueira from that tournament, and Fedor did not participate due to injury. So while it was an impressive win (and make no mistake, his defeat of Josh Barnett in the finals and head kick KO of Wanderlei Silva in the semi-finals was impressive) it did not put him at the top. In the history of Pride, Mirko Cro Cop is the clear cut #3 Heavyweight.
And then... the UFC. So much excitement surrounded Cro Cop's 2007 arrival, and it was not long before fans were salivating about a possible Cro Cop vs. Randy Couture title fight. But in Cro Cop's 2nd UFC fight, Gabriel Gonzaga shocked the world and Cro Cop'd Cro Cop, landing a nasty head kick that knocked Mirko out cold. In many ways, that was the end of the line for the Croatian. He continued on in the UFC (and, briefly, returned to Japan to fight for Dream) for a number of years before last night's retirement, but his performances looked increasingly sluggish. He had a spark of that old Cro Cop in last year's win over Pat Barry, but Mirko never did make a smooth transition to the UFC, never did show American fans what he was capable of, never did fully recover from that Gonzaga kick.
So what is his final legacy? That Pride run should be enough to name him one of the top 10 Heavyweights in the sport's young history, even if UFC fans never saw it first hand. More than that, he remains the high water mark for how to make a transition from K-1 kickboxing into MMA. As fighters like Tyrone Spong, Cosmo Alexandre, and others look to make a similar move, Mirko Cro Cop stands as their guiding light - a model for how to do it right. He may have never reached the #1 spot, but the path of bodies littered at his feet speaks volumes.
Congratulations to Mirko Cro Cop on a tremendous career.