ZAGREB, Croatia: Mirko Filipovic may have a fight against Remy Bonjasky at GLORY 14 on Saturday night (March 8, 2014) at Arena Zagreb, but on Thursday afternoon, the fighting legend was a man of the people.
As soon as he made his entrance into the Doubletree Hilton, here in his hometown, he commanded the entire room's attention. There were plenty of dobra dans (Croatian for good afternoon), handshakes, smiles and pats on the back to go around for GLORY's newest heavyweight.
The local legend has a presence about him. Clad in an all-black suit with a red tie, looking very much like a politician -- which he once was -- he made his way to the upstairs Mimosa room for the GLORY 14 pre-fight press conference to promote Saturday's fight card.
It's been almost a year to the day since his last kickboxing match, when he won the K-1 2012 Grand Prix Final over Isamel Londt in Zagreb. That victory extended his kickboxing win streak to 10 straight. Now that GLORY has quickly become the world's biggest kickboxing platform, the veteran of over 70 professional fights felt there were more fights waiting for him in world's top kickboxing promotion.
"I decided to take the challenge," Filipovic told MMAmania.com after the press conference concluded. "GLORY is No. 1 kickboxing organization. Last year I won the K-1 title and it was normal for me to keep fighting in GLORY, since K-1 is so far gone. They don't have any events or tournaments. I'm a professional. I have to fight somewhere. GLORY is the only place where I can fight kickboxing."
The former PRIDE grand prix champion is in a good mood today as he sits down in one of the conference rooms accompanied by a close friend. He hasn't always had the patience for interviews. Maybe being close to home has endeared him to more conversation this time around. Arena Zagreb will be full of his fans on Saturday night, which will prove to be a great advantage, but will it be added weight on the Croatian's shoulders to perform?
"It's always a little bit bigger pressure than usual, fighting in your home town, but on the other hand I have great support," he said. "The whole arena will stand behind me screaming my name."
Filipovic has certainly experienced the support of the crowd in other countries as well, most notably in his heyday of competing in PRIDE and K-1 in Japan. A period of his career that he refers to as "something special." The "land of the rising sun" is also where he met his GLORY 14 opponent for the first time.
After defeating Bonjasky at the K-1 Grand Prix in 2002, Filipovic had a strong feeling "The Flying Gentleman" would one day be a champion. He speaks about that night 12 years ago as if it were yesterday.
"I remember everything," he said, recalling the fight in Japan. "I fought him in Fukuoka. I remember everything. I knew he was going to be tough, and right after the fight I said ‘this guy is going to be a big champion later,' and I was right. I said at the press conference ‘mark my words.' It was recorded somewhere. I told him he was going to be champion one day. He won three times in K-1."
Since that fight, the two kickboxing icons have trained many times together and have served as each other's sparring partners. So there is no animosity between the two competitors, and at yesterday's presser, Filipovic revealed that there are "no secrets" between them either. "Everybody knows his left high kick and everybody knows my jumping knee," Bonjasky stated in agreement.
What a lot of media and fans weren't aware of until yesterday, is that Bonjasky is going to call it a career after tomorrow's main event. "Cro Cop" -- who is a year older than Bonjasky -- was asked if he ever thought ahead at when his last days as a fighter may be.
"So many times during my career," he answered without hesitation. "I think every fighter thinks ‘this is my last fight. I won't fight anymore.' But when you put all the things together, you can see are you able to continue fighting. Do you still have the spirit inside yourself? Can you still survive brutal trainings? Do you have nerves enough? I still enjoy it. I don't see a reason why I would stop right now."
"But as I told many times, any fight could be the last one," he says unfazed at the thought, giving the impression he will fully accept his fate as a fighter whatever it may be. "Any preparation could be the last one. Especially my age, if I break a leg now. If some serious injury comes, I don't think I would have time and nerves to go through a long process of rehabilitation, six, eight or nine months, something like that."
Was he referring to a leg break similar to Anderson Silva's against Chris Weidman at UFC 168?
"I was just thinking about him," Filipovic said. "We are almost the same age. I think he is one year younger. It takes a lot of motivation and a lot of energy to recover, maybe not physically, but mentally, definitely. You need to start all over from the beginning."
"Cro Cop" remains relaxed throughout the interview. For a man who has long been known to not be media friendly, he sure had plenty to say. Although, as he said "any fight could be his last," that's how I felt about my questions too.
"I'll do my best as always," he said about Saturday's main event. "I think I'm going to win this fight. I'm prepared. I'm hungry for winning."
How does he keep the fire burning to compete? After countless amounts of fights and training camps and all the ins and outs of the fight game that he has experienced, what gives him the will to keep going at his age?
"I don't know," he said shrugging his shoulders. "I guess I have nothing else to do." Nothing else to do but train, apparently. He appears to be in great shape already and says, "I'm training all the time" before telling of how he trained on Christmas and New Years last year because they didn't fall on his scheduled off days.
It doesn't seem likely that the GLORY heavyweight will hang around too long, as a lot of fighters often do. Usually a big reason for that is because they need the money. That's not the case for "Cro Cop," he's still drawn to the art of competition.
"Financially I am secure," he said proudly. "I wasn't stupid. I didn't throw the money through the window like many fighters in the history of MMA, of boxing and kickboxing have. So many millionaires who left without anything," he continues shaking his head.
"Last year I saw -- it was very sad for me to see -- one of the legendary boxers, American... Let me think of his name... Riddick Bowe, I don't know if you have seen the fight. It was terrible to watch. He was in such bad shape with a huge stomach." He was, of course, referring to the Muay Thai fight Bowe was badly defeated in last summer. A fight he had no business in other than to collect a check.
"That is sad," he said. "That is something I will never allow myself. That's one thing. Other thing is people decide to retire after 32, 33, 35 and they are coming back at 45. That is also a stupid idea. You cannot wake up the body after 10 years."
If he were to retire today he said he would be fine. Being a "humble man" has allowed him to be able to give his two sons "first-class" education and, even though they are only 11 and three years old, he has purchased apartments for both of them so that they will have a good start.
Naturally with the talk of taking care of his children for the future, the subject of his childhood was brought into the conversation. His children's current lives "cannot be compared," to his own, he said. His father was "another worker," not a prize fighter.
He said he had a "very happy childhood" and marvels at how his kids have "whatever they want." He recalls the time he was excited to try something his father brought back from Austria.
"I remember when I was 10 or 12 and the first time in my life I had kiwi and it was amazing because my father had something to do in Austria and he brought it from Austria and it was spectacular," he said smiling. "I had a really happy childhood. I am so grateful to my parents."
He has been a champion and at the pinnacle of the sport he's competed in his entire career, whether kickboxing or MMA, yet he doesn't forget where he came from, and appreciates all that he has earned and accomplished in his life. From growing up in a small village, to fighting against the top fighters of the world he has a firm grasp on who he is. He's also served in his country as a Croatian parliament member, and as a Croatian police officer, hence the nickname "Cro Cop."
Don't get your hopes up for a story about his days of protecting the citizens of Croatia though. He's opening up today, but he draws the line at the nickname's origin.
"There isn't many things that I could share with you right now, maybe we should stick to Cro Cop," he suggests. "That it comes from me being a police officer, a regular one and I moved to the Special Police Force, SWAT team and I think that's enough."
Surprisingly enough, as many amazing moments as Filipovic has been a part of, he's never seen a replay of most of his fights. He said he's watched his first MMA fight against Kazuyuki Fujita one or two times, but it's not something he likes to do.
While fans have their pick of the litter from the amazing battle with Fedor in PRIDE, to the knockout of Wanderlei Silva, the K-1 battle with Andy Hug and a whole list of others, the only fighter to ever win both a PRIDE and K-1 Grand Prix doesn't have a favorite moment of his own.
"So many beautiful moments and unforgettable moments for me. I cannot pick only one," he admitted. Great memories usually come with some regret. Filipovic, like any fighter should certainly have some, right?
"No, why would I? I had a rich career," he answered confidently. "I can say that I won two belts, K-1 and PRIDE. The only thing where I failed and I'm very sorry about it is UFC"
Really? A failure?
"I came there to take the belt and so many things happened in my life," he explained. "So many injuries, so many surgeries happened during my UFC days. I just failed. I'm very sorry about it. That's just life."
It's amazing the way he can talk about something he considers a failure, the same way he does about something that was a success. He is level. He may closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he isn't going to hang around too long. He set himself up for a secure life after fighting.
Right now though, he's still enjoying it and Saturday night in Zagreb his next chapter begins at GLORY 14 against Bonjasky.
"I'm still standing," he said proudly. "I'm still fighting and I enjoy it. The only thing I don't like is too long interviews," he says as he and his friend begin to laugh. A subtle way to let it be known my time is up here at the Doubletree Hilton.
As he was getting up, Filipovic gave a ringing endorsement on visiting his hometown.
"So many nice places here. Jarun Lake is beautiful. So many cafe bars, discotechs... The main square is a beautiful thing. Zagreb is a really beautiful place to see and more beautiful place to live."
Right kick hospital, left kick interview over.