It's official: this April, three and a half years after his last UFC campaign sputtered out, Mirko Cro Cop will make his return to the Octagon. He'll face his old nemesis Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC Fight Night: Cro Cop vs. Gonzaga in the UFC's Polish debut.
Cro Cop will be 40 years old, and he'll be carrying with him three victories in MMA and seven in kickboxing since his release, as well as significant implications about the larger landscape of MMA promotion. At its best, Cro Cop's signing means great action for fans while also signaling greater opportunity for fighters; at worst, it suggests that MMA promotion has reached a desperate, regressive state. In part one of this consideration, however, we'll take a look at the small picture. Small as in television screens. As in, what we should hope to see on ours...
There are a few ways that the UFC could use Filipovic. Only one of them, however, makes proper use of his name and talent. The rest would merely serve as an extremely expensive way of putting hardcore fans into a deep depression.
The idea of a young talent announcing himself to the larger fanbase thanks to a victory over a storied opponent is a ubiquitous one. Ubiquitous and, I think, highly suspect. But whether or not it's a reliably profitable model for promotion is really a moot point. What's important to recognize is that, when it comes to Cro Cop specifically, it's a bad idea. Because for larger audiences to see a prospect's victory over Cro Cop as significant, they'd have to have an idea of what his significance is in the first place. And they probably don't. Casual fans likely didn't follow his PRIDE career, which is what made him an MMA legend in the first place. Meanwhile, those fans who do appreciate that history in full will also appreciate that Cro Cop is a competitor on the wane and that a win over him means a fraction of what it used to. What's more, the UFC already tried this with Cro Cop before, and it didn't pan out. Cheick Kongo, Roy Nelson, and Brendan Schaub all topped the PRIDE Grand Prix champion, and all of them failed to endear themselves to fans or go on to make an impact on the upper echelons of the division. In trying to use Cro Cop's name to build up other talent, the UFC saw the reputation of one of their most marketable fighters diminish and wound up gaining nothing (not even especially exciting fights) in return.
With those abysmal performances in mind, even the most dedicated Cro Cop fan has to admit that his days as a contender are over, and that matching him with heavyweights in the title hunt would be equally wasteful. This leaves one mode of promotion left, and it's the only one that makes any sense: Cro Cop must be treated as a showcase fighter.
Filipovic has an enduring charisma, but it comes across best only when he's able to exercise his strengths in the cage. It seems clear now that he can't do that when matched up against the best, or near-best, of the heavyweight division. So, don't bother with that. Or rather, bother with it only intermittently. Give Cro Cop a series of lower-level opponents upon which he can work his magic, punctuated by occasional, higher-stakes matches or "legacy fights"--that is, fights with some amount of historicity to them. The return bout with Garbriel Gonzaga--who gave us irony in motion when he knocked Cro Cop out of title contention with a fight-ending headkick--is a fine example of the second sort; bouts with the likes of Anthony Hamilton, Daniel Omielanczuk, or some yet-to-be-imported victim are good examples of the first.
Purists might call foul. Indeed, it doesn't seem especially sporting to bring in a fighter while maintaining an overwhelming preference for his opponent to decapitate him. And yet, it's just this sort of matchmaking that contributed to Cro Cop's stardom in the first place.
Throughout his time in PRIDE, where his MMA career truly got underway and where he cemented himself as one of the best heavyweights of his generation, Cro Cop faced 21 men. Of these, nearly half of them were, at best, popular journeyman fighters, and very often they were hopeless, undersized jobbers, more akin to artist's canvas than anything else. Sporting or not, though, you can't deny that they afforded audiences some spectacular scenes, drew in fans, and allowed Cro Cop to build up promotional clout for bigger-name fights. Thus, a knockout of the masked Dos Caras gave way to a championship fight with Rodrigo Nogueira; a pair of TKOs over Ron Waterman and Yoshihisa Yamamoto gave him entrance into the 2004 tournament; fights with Hiromitsu Kanehara and Shungo Oyama opened the door for much anticipated matches with Aleksander Emelianenko and Josh Barnett. There's no reason why this model shouldn't be repeated. Allow Cro Cop to wow audiences with a cherry knockout or two, and then put him in a fun match-up with someone like Nogueira. If he loses, put him back in with a modern-day Minowa. When he wins, Mark Hunt or Andrei Arlovski.
Admittedly, in the struggle between sport and spectacle that the UFC is constantly going through, this plan gives a lot of ground to the latter. Yet, in a time when CM Punk is getting invited to fight in the UFC, maybe a spectacle like Cro Cop is one that we should be embracing.