Mirko Filipovic fights Gabriel Gonzaga at heavyweight in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Gonzaga vs. Cro Cop 2 on April 11, 2015 at the Tauron Arena Kraków in Kraków, Poland.
Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic
Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga
History lesson / Introduction to the fighters
David: My introduction to Cro Cop was on the internet. I just heard whispers at first. Then a glimmer. Then his opponent would be dead. If you forgive me for sort of quoting Glimmer Man, I just remember his draw with Wanderlei Silva in that weird mixed rules bout at Pride 20, which was when I first saw him; well, him and the unique foot print he left on Wand's rib cage. Speaking of, can we please hand Wanderlei some respect for that fight? Yea it's one of Pride's eccentric stews, but Wand really took it to a very prime Filipovic.
Anyway, Mirko has been a fixture in MMA for years; so much so that I can recall stupid fine details, like the strange noise the octagon would make whenever he tried to kick Eddie Sanchez when he made his UFC debut. But we associate the man with Pride FC. Unfortunately his career is winding down, and now we're talking about him in the context of a rematch that heated up those good 'ole UFC vs. Pride wars.
Phil: I actually started watching MMA relatively seriously just after the loss to Gonzaga, but I had been catching brief Mirko and Big Nog highlights from friends for years, so I quickly went back and hoovered up Pride videos, and happily ensconced myself into the "left leg, cemetary" crowd. Hence the following years were a bit of a shock to me, although perhaps not as much as they would be to someone who had been watching from the beginning. The testicle-crushing loss to Cheick Kongo, the testicle-crushing NC against Alistair Overeem, the subsequent return to the UFC and the grim run therein.
We often see faded fighters lose, leave the UFC, get some wins and then make their way back for another depressing go-around, but we should remember that this is the second time Mirko has done it, and that he looked plain awful the first time. It also made a sizable impact on me how bleak almost all those fights were. From the ball-busting, to broken hands, to eyepokes, to size disparities, to contests which were just brutally dull, they were a primer in some of the ways in which MMA can suck. Pat Barry fight was cool though, broken hand and broken foot notwithstanding.
David: Gonzaga is an interesting man. Between his heartbreaking story surrounding the Kevin Jordan fight, and his strange postfight victory poses, there's a lot to say about him. His career began as a jiu jitsu ace, which then turned into some sort of striking thing the night he took Mirko's head off. I distinctly remember that fight too. I was in a single dorm at the University of the Incarnate Word when I sat there watching the horror of Mirko's leg bent awkwardly like a Stan Winston prop. Since then he's had some big fights, lost some small ones, and now he just sort of whistles in the background.
Phil: Napao is an absolute character. If you talk to anyone who has ever spoken to him or trained with him, he's apparently one of the nicest guys in the sport. He's always struck me as someone who loves jiu-jitsu, and loves competition, and who subsequently took to MMA because it was somewhere where he could indulge in both those passions while still making money. But he doesn't really love the sport itself. I think that's come through in a lot of his performances, and in his career as a whole.
What are the stakes?
David: Pretty much nothing. If anything a win is kind of a loss for both men. Mirko isn't going to make another run for the title. Hell, he probably doesn't even have enough to pull off another Pat Barry win. And Gonzaga is kind of a mess these days. As much as I like this fight in its own weird historic way, pretending there are any stakes whatsoever is just laughable. Hell, Gonzaga losing probably means retirement. What am I talking about? Both men could win and it probably still means retirement. So yea; this fight is merely a time capsule affair. A nice pugilistic slice of anachronistic life.
Phil: I think Cro Cop really wants this one, it's just a matter of whether he's physically capable of pulling it off in any way. The fight itself is conceptually bleak, but once the two fighters actually step out there, I think it'll be an extraordinarily jaded fight-fan who wont feel at least some frisson if Cro Cop lands a solid kick or a punch. The crowd will get pretty hyped up as well. That said, it's a one-off. The most it can possibly lead to is a Cro-Cop revenge tour, where he goes around and hopes that the Large Countries and Nogs of the world are more past it than he is.
Where do they want it?
David: Gonzaga won't mind it on the ground. Much is made of the fact that Mirko wasn't "used to elbows" and the furious ground and pound in their first bout is what led to the KO. Which is just jive to me. But Gonzaga also won't mind it on the feet. While Gabe is kind of limited, he's also kind of diverse. I don't know how else to explain it. He can kick well. And he can punch well. But using the two to link up like is impossible task for the lumbering Brazilian. Despite this, he's got incredible quickness for a man of his size. The straight right that he sort of leans into and doesn't telegraph is his money punch.
As for Mirko, his striking has obviously deteriorated. While he was never some strong combination puncher, and could never be mistaken as one, it's clear that his stiff movement hinders what he used to be good at. Mirko's MMA success was always a little shocking when you think about it. His style was never suited for MMA. He owns more of a counter striker repertoire, but his ability to sprawl earned him so much credibility. I think his left kick to the body should be his bread and butter right now, as it had been in the past. It was always the strike fighters would be willing to take to avoid the head kick, but regretted doing so in the process.
Phil: Cro Cop welted up Gonzaga pretty bad with a single body kick back when they fought, but Gonzaga has always been that underrated athlete in the heavyweight division. Underneath the flab and the body hair is a body with an innate understanding of how to strike, wrestle and submit. But, like I said, I just don't think he ever had the necessary long-term drive. He's had individual fights that he's trained hard for, but it's been closer to New Years Resolution gym-work than any kind of overarching ambition. He just hasn't focused on the building of a consistent striking approach or on real strength and conditioning work over the years. He hasn't actually deteriorated that much physically in the interim, but neither has he really improved at all.
Cro Cop has followed the path that a lot of fighters do if they stick at it long enough. They deteriorate and bottom out athletically and then... slowly get a bit better again. They essentially fight for long enough to get used to the new norm of what their body is capable of. Old MMA fighters tend to just get plunked, unable to deal with the proliferating possibilities in the cage, and put up against people who are going to mercilessly obliterate them, so Cro Cop's particular gentle curve back up is more akin to that shown by ageing boxers.
This evolution has led him into the clinch. It's where most fighters start off, and where old fighters go when they've got nowhere else: Hopkins, Ali, even Mayweather to an extent. When the legs aren't working any more, they can lock up and work the little tricks of manipulation they've learned for years, safe from the arena of speed which they just can't compete in any more. The Cro Cop of 2015 is a much grindier combatant than he was in 2007. In some ways, he's a better, or perhaps "safer" fighter, though.
Insight from past fights?
David: I like Filipovic's bout with Pat Barry. It showed what Mirko can do when he's dealing with a somewhat clumsy opponent, and also how tough he can be, which is a trait I don't think anyone has ever really used to describe him. For some reason people forget how many punches it took Kevin Randleman to throw AFTER he landed that incredible left hook.
Phil: I'll take Napao's most recent fight, against Matt Mitrione. It re-iterated a bright spot for Mirko's chances, which is that Gonzaga's fight IQ is sometimes absolutely terrible. Mitrione is a good kickboxer and an awful submission grappler, yet Gonzaga was content to strike with him until he was blown away.
David: Motivation? Age? Injury? It's pretty much all there. Mirko is pretty much the oldest 40 year old man walking the earth, so if both men simultaneously break their hip in the middle of the octagon like some EA Sports glitch, I wouldn't be the least bit shocked.
Phil: Given Cro Cop's aforementioned awful luck in UFC fights, I'm half-expecting something gruesome to happen. I'm struggling to think of something we haven't seen from a Cro Cop fight, apart from serious Nogueira / Silva-style bone breaks. Please no.
David: It would be nice to see Mirko bring his career around, and knock Gonzaga out cold with his right leg. But this is reality. Which means the MMA gods don't care. Mirko Filipovic by KO (leg kick), round 5.
Phil: Grindy Leathery Old Cro Cop might actually have some success in the UFC, but unfortunately his predilection for the clinch is somewhere where Gonzaga will have a lot of time to hit a single trip or takedown and probably end the fight. If that doesn't happen, I think GLOCC probably wears him out, but Gabriel Gonzaga by submission, round 1.