The first time I saw Mirko Filipovic fight, I thought he was going to get destroyed.
"Cro Cop" was booked against Igor Vovchanchyn, who I recognized from the Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) 2000 Grand Prix and an old International Fighting Championships box set I had. "Ice Cold" was the real deal, as tough as they come, and could hit harder than a juiced up ox.
90 seconds into the fight, the Croatian kickboxer whipped his massive left leg up and around, slamming it against the side of his opponent's skull. Vovchanchyn was knocked out in the most spectacularly brutal fashion imaginable.
I became an instant fan. How could I not?
From the shores of Japan to the stateside Octagon, "Cro Cop" has entertained mixed martial arts (MMA) fans for 10 years. After his loss last night at UFC 137 to Roy Nelson, the 37-year old called it a career.
Having been the recipient of premature eulogizing following his knockout losses to Frank Mir and Brendan Schaub, now comes the time to properly sendoff Filipovic's career, a decade's worth of epic wars and stunning knockouts.
Let's do it ... one last time.
Not to deal in hyperbole but the term "terrorized" aptly describes the feeling Filiopvic instilled within the Pride roster in when he debuted for the company in 2001.
Wanting to make the transition from K-1 kickboxing to MMA as smoothly as possible, two of his first four bouts were contested under special hybrid rules. He earned draws in those while winning -- via stoppage -- the other two.
Acclimated enough to the sport, "Cro Cop" was placed inside the ring at Shockwave 2002 against Kazushi Sakuraba. Only two years removed from his 90-minute drubbing of Royce Gracie, "Saku" was still considered one of the best fighters on the planet.
Much like he would the following year against Bob Sapp in a kickboxing bout, the Croatian's fist cracked the bone surrounded his opponent's eyeball, forcing an end to the fight.
From there, it was off to the races for "Cro Cop." Three fights inside the Pride ring -- including the aforementioned Vovchanchyn bout -- ended in just as many first-round stoppages, each more brutal than the last. A combination of punches and kicked ended Heath Herring's night early in a little over three minutes. "Ice Cold" was out in less than two. Mexican professional wrestler Alberto Rodriguez -- now known as Alberto Del Rio in the WWE -- couldn't even last a minute before Filipovic's widow maker of a left high kick removed him from his consciousness.
When then-Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko was unable to compete due to injury, the Croatian was booked opposite former top dog Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to crown an interim champ. Beating and battering him for the entirety of the 10-minute first round, "Cro Cop" looked poised to earn championship gold for the first time in his MMA career.
But in keeping with his reputation -- one that makes the Energizer Bunny look bush league by comparison -- "Big Nog" refused to relent and secured a come-from-behind armbar early in the second round.
Trying to put the setback behind him, "Cro Cop" quickly scored two more first-round stoppages before entering Pride's 2004 heavyweight grand prix. In one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history, he was knocked out cold from a perfectly placed hook delivered by Kevin Randleman.
He was achingly close to the fight he wanted -- a showdown with Emelianenko -- but was denied. From that point, Filiopvic fought like a man possessed. Seven fights in eleven months, all but one ending in the first round. Josh Barnett fell victim to "Cro Cop's" wrath; as did Mark Coleman.
Filipovic exacted a measure of revenge against Randleman, choking him out in less than a minute, while also knocking out younger brother Aleksander Emelianenko in devastating fashion.
The Croatian wasn't simply knocking at the door for a title shot. He was punching, kicking, and submitting his way through.
At FInal Conflict 2005, "The Last Emperor" and Filipovic finally clashed. Heavyweights have long been synonymous with combat sports. Bouts like Ali/Frazier or Tyson/Holyfield instantly come to mind when thinking of boxing's great heavyweight tilts. This was the first of what promised to be the same for MMA.
"Cro Cop" once again came up short in what was an epic battle. A second win over Barnett followed but was soured when he lost a split decision to fellow K-1 crossover athlete Mark Hunt three months later. Following that loss, he took his longest break between fights since early 2003 as he prepared to enter the 2006 open weight grand prix.
He dominated the tournament, joining the ranks of Mark Coleman, Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, and Mauricio Rua as men who walked through the grand prix fires and emerged victorious. In fact, he earned the honor by beating both Silva and Barnett -- for the third time in his career -- in a single night. In a little over five years, he had stepped inside the ring 27 times.
By that point, Pride's demise was almost a foregone conclusion and "Cro Cop" jumped ship to the UFC. He made his debut at UFC 67 with Eddie Sanchez being selected as the lamb to Filipovic's slaughter. The fight was lost for Sanchez before he even stepped inside the Octagon since he appeared to want no part in fighting the fearsome kickboxer.
What followed next could be considered the beginning of the end for Filipovic. A number one contender's bout with Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70 ended with another insanely brutal head kick knockout except this time, "Cro Cop" was the one unconscious on the mat, having been on the business end of "Napao's" shin.
When the Croatian was knocked out against Randleman, he came back stronger than ever. But after the knockout in Manchester, felled by the very weapon that made his name feared amongst other heavyweights, it didn't look like there was going to be a second triumphant return.
Following Cheick Kong stifling -- and low blowing -- his way to a decision win, the UFC and "Cro Cop" amicably parted ways so the kickboxer could return to Japan. His most significant bout during that time came against UFC 141 headliner Alistair Overeem, a fight Filipovic looked to be on the way to losing before a shot below the belt stopped the bout early, resulting in a no contest.
The kickboxer returned to the Octagon at UFC 99 and won three of four bouts, losing only to current number one contender Junior dos Santos. Three wins were great -- and the loss one but gone was the aggressive "Cro Cop" fans fell in love with and replacing him was a gun shy, tentative fighter no one recognized.
Back to back to back knockout losses wrote the final chapter in Filipovic's career. I can only hope that years from now he is remembered not for how his career ended but how it began. A dangerous striker who could put any heavyweight to sleep in mere seconds.
Enjoy spending time with your wife and two boys, "Cro Cop." Enjoy getting fat, finally able to eat anything and everything your heart ever desired but diet didn't permit. Enjoy life.
You've earned it.