Welcome back to Fact Check, Bloody Elbow's series dedicated to breaking down the kickboxing credentials of major fighters. As always, here we will take a look at a fighter known for his kickboxing resume and break down just what that resume means.
Today's subject is a man well known to any hardcore MMA fan and feared by anyone who watched him in Pride - the one and only, Mirko Cro Cop Filipovic. This Saturday, Cro Cop takes to the kickboxing ring to face Remy Bonjasky in the main event of Glory 14, giving us the perfect opportunity to examine the reality behind this legend's accomplishments in kickboxing.
For many MMA fans, Mirko Cro Cop IS K-1. He is, by leaps and bounds, the most successful high level kickboxer to have an equal amount of crossover success in MMA - really there's not even a close second. Because of this, he is often presented to MMA fans as one of the most dangerous men to ever set foot in a K-1 ring. While there is some truth to that idea, it also requires a bit more to tell the full story.
Cro Cop made his K-1 debut in 1996 (originally fighting under the name "Mirko Tiger") and fought for the company up until his retirement from kickboxing in 2003 to pursue an MMA career full time. In 2012, after parting ways with the UFC, he made his return to the sport. During that initial 7 year run, Cro Cop found himself facing many of the sport's all-time greats; men like Andy Hug, Ernesto Hoost, and Peter Aerts. Even stepping in to the ring against those men is a serious accomplishment.
The thing is, for much of Cro Cop's K-1 run, he didn't ever defeat those fighters. He has losses to Hoost, Hug, and Mike Bernardo among others. There are impressive wins during this time, no doubt. Jerome Le Banner, Sam Greco, and Mike Bernardo are name that any kickboxer would be proud to have in his win column, and Mirko beat them all. But he struggled to quite get over that hump into the very top level.
No where is this more clear than the one glaring omission from his K-1 career - a K-1 Grand Prix win. This is the crowning achievement of any kickboxer's career, and, while Mirko made it all the way to the finals in 1999, he never did get the win. [An aside here - this is not technically true. Cro Cop did in fact win the K-1 Grand Prix crown in 2013. But in 2013, a K-1 GP win is not even remotely as meaningful as it was in Cro Cop's old run. So while it was a great moment for hardcore kickboxing fans, it absolutely does not equate with a GP win a decade prior.]
So, Cro Cop in K-1 is a man who came close but never quite made it, right? Well, for a time, yes. But all that changed in 2001. That's the year Cro Cop finally broke through to that next level by defeating one of K-1's true top level fighters (in this case, it was Peter Aerts). What followed was the best run of Cro Cop's kickboxing career.
In March 2002, Cro Cop defeated Mark Hunt. What's particularly notable about that win is that Hunt was, at the time, the reigning K-1 Grand Prix champion. K-1 doesn't really do belts, so Cro Cop didn't actually win any title here, but he beat the GP champ, which makes a strong case for him being the world's #1 at that time. He followed that up with a win over the man he rematches this weekend - Remy Bonjasky. A little over a year later, Bonjasky would win his first of two back to back GPs.
Finally, in 2003, Cro Cop defeated Bob Sapp. For many fans, it will be hard to accept this, but the truth is beating Sapp in 2003 was a very big deal. At the time, Sapp's only kickboxing loss was via DQ and he was coming in off of two consecutive wins over Ernesto Hoost - arguably the greatest of all time and a man who was himself 2-0 against Cro Cop. Sapp was unpolished and wild, but he was also seen as virtually unstoppable. Cro Cop didn't simply beat him, he destroyed him, shattering Sapp's orbital bone with a nasty punch. It's no exaggeration to say Sapp was never the same fighter again - Cro Cop took his fighting spirit away forever with one punch. The future in kickboxing was bright for Cro Cop and then... he was gone. After that run that brought him to arguably the #1 spot in the rankings, Cro Cop walked away from kickboxing to invest himself in MMA full time.
Right now, we're seeing a sort of coda to the story of Cro Cop the kickboxer. In 2012 he returned to the sport. He's 6-0 in this run, and has defeated some solid opponents in Ray Sefo, Pavel Zhuravlev, and Ismael Londt. He's not the Cro Cop of old, but he's also not hurting his legacy with this return, and a win over Bonjasky this weekend would add even more to his resume.
FINAL FACT CHECK:
If you were to write up an all-time top 20 of kickboxing Heavyweights, Cro Cop would go on the list, no questions asked. A top 10? That becomes more debatable. To some, his fearsome wins and impressive run in 2002 bump him into that territory. To others, the random losses and relatively low number of super high level wins keeps him out. So while he may not be the GOAT that sometimes MMA presents him as, he's certainly a kickboxing great who deserves recognition.
Mirko Cro Cop highlights:
vs. Bob Sapp
vs. Mike Bernardo (seriously, how tough is Bernardo to survive this kick?)
vs. Ricky Nickolson (the birth of the Cro Cop head kick)