Note: Any time you see (G) it is a gif, and any time you see (V) it is a video. These are videos and gifs from elsewhere on the internet that I feel will improve the experience of this article, and they in no way affect Bloody Elbow's traffic.
The case of Mirko Filipovic is an interesting one, to many he is one of the top three heavyweight MMA fighters to date, and to many he is a fighter who was severely over-rated and exposed when he stepped onto U.S. soil. Now the second view is idiocy, but legitimate questions have been raised about Cro Cop's rapid decline. As the legitimacy of the UFC heavyweight division's main stars seems to be based around feeding a decrepit Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez, it seems odd to think that a man who gave Nogueira one of his worst beatings during his prime would be considered over-rated or a fake fighter.
Are there cans on Mirko Cro Cop's record? Of course. It was Japan, and that was the rage. Their fans are quiet and respectful during Mixed Martial Arts bouts, but they love a freak show match every bit as much as U.S. fans do. Furthermore, it was simply the way at that time in MMA. Many detractors are happy to trot out a list of "cans" that Cro Cop fought, but forget to mention in the same breath the even weaker competition that Andre Arlovski, Tim Sylvia and Frank Mir had been fighting over that period.
Besides that, you will be hard pressed to find a fighter who received a tougher test in his early career. In his first ten bouts, over the course of two years, Cro Cop met some huge names, and not hand picked ones at that. Kazayuki Fujita, Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Fujita again, Heath Herring, Igor Vovchanchyn and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. These weren't men who could only fight Mirko at his own game, as Brock Lesnar met in a series of pure grapplers during his first fights with the UFC, but men who could and would exploit the lack of roundedness in Mirko's game at any opportunity.
Throughout this article we'll look at some of the technical aspects of Cro Cop's game which declined so drastically from his incredible performances against Josh Barnett, Mark Coleman and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Focusing on the technical aspects of his career, rather than the mental or emotional ones, we will consider:
- The Left Straight / Left High Kick Double Threat
- Mirko's Side Step Counter
- The Loss of Mirko's Set Ups
- The Significance of the Ring
The first thing to note is that Mirko Cro Cop was not a technical wizard; he didn't have an enormous bag of tricks into which he could reach for the appropriate weapon, but his game was rounded enough and his speed and power carried him through. The term 'K-1 level striking' is thrown around a lot in MMA to describe fighters who simply wouldn't be able to compete there. A great many below par fighters have fought in K-1 and even picked up wins (such is the Japanese love of a freak show fight), but none of them has ever done well in a Grand Prix. The K-1 Grand Prix was, excepting the PRIDE Grand Prix, the toughest tournament in martial arts, as the final 8 fighters had to complete the tournament in one night. That means 3 fights for those lucky enough to make the final. You can't win the K-1 Grand Prix on a lucky punch, but you can get knocked out of it with one. It is truly the ultimate test of consistency over one night.
Mirko Cro Cop, unlike any other MMA fighter except Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt, made the final of the K-1 Grand Prix. Where Overeem met a battered down, 40 year old Peter Aerts in the final, Mirko Cro Cop met Ernesto Hoost. Cro Cop succumbed to the great Hoost from a kick to his injured ribs in the third round but Ernesto Hoost in 1999 would destroy any heavyweight MMA fighter of today in the same time in a kickboxing match. In fact the number of MMA fighters that I would consider to have even half a chance to do well in any K-1 Grand Prix could be counted on one hand, and Junior Dos Santos and Anderson Silva are not among them. If you have the time, take a look at this video of Cro Cop meeting Hoost. It's far from his best striking performance but he looks a completely different man to the one which we saw in the UFC - throwing combinations, low kicks, push kicks.
So what caused the severe decline in Mirko's technical game? No-one can be sure, there's a lot to it. It could have been mental, it could have been the growing bully mentality that he developed as opponents had refused to stand up to him for so long, or simply disinterest in fighting once he had won a major tournament, having been an underachiever for his entire career. What we can see, however, are the symptoms of this technical decline.
The Left Straight / Left High Kick Double Threat
The first question that should be raised whenever considering Mirko Cro Cop is "How on earth did he kick so many people in the head when they knew he was going to try to do it?". The key was to establish a double threat between the left straight and the left high kick. The double attack is a common idea in BJJ but is not talked about in striking martial arts despite it's effectiveness and almost every effective striker using one or more variations on this principle. The idea of a double attack is to use one attack to open the path for the other and vice versa. Throughout his fights Cro Cop would switch between the left high kick and left straight and eventually would catch his opponent. Another excellent example of a fighter who uses one double threat to the exclusion of all else is Sergei Kharitanov, who throws the right hook to the body and head alternately, attempting to catch his opponent off guard.
The traditional, basic defense for the high kick is to take the kick on the solid bone of the forearm - away from the head. Starting in this position so as to be ready for the kick, however, opened a large hole for Mirko's southpaw left straight. Many opponents would then begin to try to cover or rear hand parry Mirko's rear straight, whereupon their hand would come inside of their shoulder and would be unable to block his legendary high kick. What added to the effectiveness of this double attack is that the preliminary motions to both Mirko's high kick and left straight were very similar. Notice here a fantastic example of Cro Cop using this double attack against Igor Vovchanchyn - one of the best heavyweight strikers in MMA. (G) (V)
In the top two frames you can see Mirko fluster Vovchanchyn with the left straight, which Vovchanchyn ducks out of the way of and parries with his rear hand - not great form. In the bottom two stills you can see that Vovchanchyn's hand is no longer in a position to block the high kick, as it was for the first part of the fight, and as Cro Cop moves towards him he attempts to parry the left straight. Notice how Vovchanchyn's hand is moving in the opposite direction to the high kick just before it connects. This double attack was the key to much of Cro Cop's success. Another excellent example of Cro Cop using this double attack was against Mark Hunt in K-1. When Hunt attempted to slip outside of Cro Cop's faked straight, he ducked directly into Mirko's left shin.
What happened to this double attack then? For a start Cro Cop's left straight relied largely on his speed, as he would rarely get into good position to throw it (with his lead foot outside his opponent's), but rather throw it when he felt he could. This reliance on speed meant that he became timid to throw it once he began colliding with his opponent on the way in. In his meeting with Gonzaga, Cro Cop circled left and attempted to throw a left straight at the start of the bout but got clipped himself because he has not assumed a good position from which to punch. For the rest of this match and his others there was a marked timidness about throwing the left straight, which in turn allowed his opponents to step in and swing at him, and focus wholly on defending the high kick.
The Cro Cop Side Step
Mirko Cro Cop was almost entirely an offensive fighter, but the one counter that he used routinely was sublime to watch. In open guard position (southpaw vs orthodox or vice versa) it is advisable to circle towards your opponent's lead side rather than to his loaded power side. Cro Cop broke this rule by using a side step to his left for much of his career. Of course to do this takes a great deal of sensitivity - the opponent must be committed to attacking, and the angle must be taken out of range of a rear hook, or one can be caught circling - as Mirko was against Roy Nelson.
Cro Cop most notably used this counter to floor Wanderlei Silva and to destroy Bob Sapp's orbital bone in K-1. (V)(G) Here, against Wanderlei Silva, Mirko counters Wanderlei's forward movement by sidestepping to the left with his jab in Wanderlei's face. Then as Wanderlei turns to face Cro Cop, the left straight is delivered, flooring Wanderlei.
This counter is a thing of beauty and circling to the left works excellently if the sensitivity is there. You will notice that in this example Mirko darts out to the left, where against Gabriel Gonzaga and others he simply plodded around in a circle that way. Also Mirko's left hand is in position to block, where against Gonzaga he neglected his hand position. Furthermore, Cro Cop stood in front of Wanderlei to draw the attack, against Gonzaga he continued to plod to his left for the entire fight, there was no uncertainty in what he was trying to do.
Here is Manny Pacquiao using the same movement combined with a left hook to finish Ricky Hatton.
The Loss of Mirko's Set Ups
Attempting to explain Mirko's downfall is a hard thing to do. It certainly wasn't a step up in competition, but the decline in his actual ability was noticeable. Like many great knockout artists (most notably, Mike Tyson), Mirko Filipovic seems to have simply forgotten that there was a lot more causing him to win than the power or speed of his kicks. From his first fight in the UFC against Eddie Sanchez, Cro Cop was throwing one strike at a time, attempting to chase down Sanchez and looking for the left high kick almost exclusively. His footwork, where in the PRIDE Grand Prix and before it had been fast and darting where appropriate, had turned into simply plodding around to his left - allowing Sanchez to escape him all fight.
The saddest thing is that Cro Cop had some of the finest high kick techniques in the business and he abandoned them to simply swing his kick at random. For instance, Cro Cop would often circle the wrong way or entice the opponent to circle away from his high kick so that he could throw it at an angle around their guard, and his combination against Mike Bernardo is legendary. Go to 0:50 in the video below and try to remind yourself that this is the same man who we saw in the UFC.
Whether or not you believe Cro Cop is over-rated, there is no denying the decline in speed, fight IQ and striking ability that has been obvious since the fall of PRIDE.
The Significance of the Ring
I have touched on this topic before, and I think that it is one we should consider carefully. The lack of severe corners in the octagon (ones that people can be trapped in) has led to a different type of striker taking dominance. In the ring the case was always that the striker walked his opponent into the corner, fired a couple of punches or kicks hoping to knock them down or out, and tried to get underhooks and sprawl as the opponent shot in. This worked for enormously strong, stocky fighters like Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva, but Anderson Silva had a famously hit and miss career in the ring, and was taken down in almost every fight he fought in a ring.
The advantage in a cage seems to be with the backpeddling striker - the Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva types who will force the opponent to come after them. Mirko Cro Cop looked out of sorts, pacing around and around the octagon as Eddie Sanchez ran from him. There was very little difference between what Eddie Sanchez did, and what Dos Caros Jr. did to counter Cro Cop's kicks - run away repeatedly in the opposite direction. The main difference is that Dos Caros Jr. hit a corner and got head kicked, Eddie Sanchez continued to run.
Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva are fighters whose style is somewhat archaic today - the days of backing people into corners, flurrying, and trying to sprawl are pretty much done. The octagon, with no corners, provides much more to the counter striker than to the sprawl and brawler.
The reasons for Cro Cop's decline are probably manifold, and I doubt we'll ever really know what made him so much noticeably worse against similar or worse competition than he had faced before. The disappearance of many of his trademark set ups and his side step counter, however, can certainly be pointed to as a marked technical decline.