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Cro Cop on UFC return: 'I'm training like I'm Benjamin Button'

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The Pride and UFC legend returns to the Octagon for the promotion's Polish debut in a rematch against old nemesis Gabriel Gonzaga. Shawn Smith spoke to the Croation kickboxing legend.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There's something uncomfortable about Mirko Cro Cop's return to the UFC.

The man has enough money and has accomplished nearly every professional goal he set in combat sports. He's fought for every major promotion and has captured titles around the world. Yet, on April 11, Cro Cop returns to the UFC Octagon after a four-year absence.

"I'm not hungry or starving, I've secured my life," Cro Cop said. "This is something I just really want to do. Before when I joined the UFC, it was because they gave me a great offer. The money was not the motive this time."

It isn't a new phenomenon for athletes to return to combat sports past their prime. Some of the best fighters of all time fought past their prime. Muhammad Ali is the most famous example, and he continues to pay the price for his stubbornness long after his career has ended.

Unlike Ali, Cro Cop has little desire remaining to be world champion. He doesn't want to be the number one fighter in the world. He wants revenge on the fighters who have defeated him, for the wrongs he feels he can right. He wants to be able to sleep knowing he did everything he could in his career.

First up on that list is Gabriel Gonzaga; the two will meet at UFC Fight Night 64 in Krakow, Poland. Cro Cop seeks vengeance on the man who unceremoniously ended the aura of invincibility that Cro Cop brought with him to the UFC from his career in Japan's PRIDE organization.

Arguably the best kicker in mixed martial arts history, Cro Cop had highlight reel knockouts of Heath Herring, Alexander Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva to his resume, just to name a few. To that point, he was the best striker to ever enter the sport of mixed martial arts. With a win over Gonzaga at UFC 72, Cro Cop was to face Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship.

Most picked Cro Cop to defeat the unheralded Gonzaga. Instead, in what was an unruly twist of fate, it was Gonzaga who landed the highlight reel head kick, knocking Cro Cop unconscious for the victory.

"I want to fight him because before I finally retire," Cro Cop said. "There are a few fights I really want to do and Gabriel Gonzaga is on the top of that list."

The way you don't forget a bully from the schoolyard, Cro Cop can't let go of the losses that haunt him.

After losing to Gonzaga in April of 2007, Cro Cop's career was derailed. He was never the same. A follow-up loss in September of 2007 to French fighter Cheick Kongo sent Cro Cop packing from the UFC.

Although he returned in June of 2009, his career would never reach the heights it had before the Gonzaga fight. He went 3-4 in his second UFC run, losing his last three bouts to Frank Mir, Brendan Schaub and Roy Nelson respectively.

It's not like Cro Cop didn't try to get out, leave behind the cruelest of sports. After his October 2011 loss to Roy Nelson, he called it a career.

"I told before this fight this was going to be my farewell fight," Cro Cop said in broken English during his post-fight interview following the UFC 137 loss to Nelson. "Unfortunately I didn't make it, I wanted to say goodbye in victory. Roy was just better tonight and all I can say is congratulations."

Like any good combat sports retirement, it didn't stick. By March of 2012, Cro Cop was back in the ring. This time he returned to his roots, competing in kickboxing matches.

Perhaps his success in the kickboxing realm spurred his regained confidence. Cro Cop went on to win the 2012 K-1 World Grand Prix, a win that, although it has significantly lost prestige in the past five years, is still an impressive accomplishment.

Since his October 2011 retirement, Cro Cop has gone 3-1 in MMA including two victories over Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii in Japan.

Ask Cro Cop why his first two UFC runs went so poorly and he'll tell you that, although he doesn't want to make excuses, injuries and surgeries slowed him dramatically.

"I don't want it to sound like some excuse, but the fact is that right before my first fight in the UFC in 2007 I had foot surgery," Cro Cop said. "I couldn't do kicking, couldn't do jogging for three months. All together I got eight surgeries in that time."

Prior to his last UFC bout against Nelson, Cro Cop says he was a torn bicep and ligament in his arm but "I still took the fight in that condition."

Cro Cop says there won't be any excuses this time.

"I'm 40 and I feel great, but I couldn't wait 10 more years to re-join the UFC," Cro Cop said. "I feel good and recovered and I'm training like I'm Benjamin Button. If I don't believe I can beat those guys, I wouldn't join the UFC again."

"Those guys" refers to Nelson and previous foe Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, the other two fighters in Cro Cop's three-fight retirement plan. In November of 2003, Cro Cop and Nogueira fought in one of the better heavyweight fights in mixed martial arts history, where Cro Cop was thoroughly dominant before getting caught in an arm bar submission late into the bout.

"I need to prove to myself that I can beat those people and that I want to justify my reputation," Cro Cop said. "That's what is pushing me forward and that is why I signed with UFC."

In a strange, perverse way, it makes sense. Cro Cop needs to face his demons, even if his life and longevity are at risk. He'd rather do that than live a long life with regrets.

And make no mistake about it; there is great risk to Cro Cop's health in returning to the Octagon. At 40, having suffered numerous knockouts and concussive blows, he is not in prime condition and never will be again.

"No, I don't think about it that much," Cro Cop said of the long-term health impacts that fighting can cause. "To tell you the truth, if you compare 100 people of my age, I think I'd be at the top of that list. Compared to other fighters, I'm not damaged at all. I feel good and I'm planning to keep living healthy and keep training, even one day when I quit my career."

For guys like Cro Cop, fighting has become the high school girlfriend he stayed with too long. Even though she's no longer kind to him, he doesn't know how to live without her.

This is his life; it's a part of who he is. He entered his first K-1 kickboxing bout at age 22 in 1996. For 19 years, he hasn't looked back. He has 45 amateur boxing matches, 44 MMA fights and 31 kickboxing matches to his name. The man has put his life on the line in a ring or cage over 100 times. This is who he is. He is not afraid to die in the ring because it is where he is comfortable

"You can be the most healthy man in the world and you can die in a car accident," Cro Cop said. "You cannot smoke or drink and one traffic mistake and you will die. Even if I couldn't get up from my bed tonight, who cares? I squeeze my fist and I survive because I'm a fighter."

This doesn't dissipate the uneasy feeling that comes with a 40-year-old Cro Cop entering a cage fight, but it does help explain it. All he knows is how to fight. Even if he can't walk or get out of bed, he'll fight on because that's what he does.