Kickboxing veteran, Mirko Filipovic, is set to do battle with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight title challenger, Gabriel Gonzaga, for the second time this Saturday (April 11, 2015) inside the Krakow Arena in Krakow, Poland.
Since his short-term retirement from mixed martial arts (MMA), Filipovic has looked fairly revitalized both in kickboxing and MMA. While it's clear that he's no longer one of the elite, Filipovic is fighting to prove that he's still capable of competing with high-level heavyweights.
With that in mind, I hope to present a fair analysis of how Filipovic's skills stack up today, rather than look back at the "Cro Cop" of old.
Let's take a closer look.
Filipovic spent much of his career as one of the most feared strikers in the sport, known for his infamous left high kick. While he's not quite as deadly anymore, Filipovic did manage to win the K-1 World Grand Prix in 2012, so there's still something left in the tank.
At its core, Filipovic's striking attack relies on the double threat of his left cross and left high kick. As Filipovic pursues his opponent, it's pretty common for him to fire off a straight left. Since Filipovic is generally the faster man and is throwing a straight punch, it usually lands pretty often for him and with some force.
If his opponent begins to slip or parry the strike, that's when Filipovic attempts to take his head off with a high kick. His head kick doesn't come with as much speed as it once did, but the strike was still enough to send Satoshi Ishii to the canvas in his last bout.
Alternatively, Filipovic's opponent can keep a tight defensive guard in the hopes of blocking the high kick. In that case, Filipovic's left hand down the center is much easier to land, which generally leaves his opponent in a difficult situation. In addition, keeping a high guard can leave Filipovic's opponent open to body kicks, which "Cro Cop" has used to great effect across his entire career.
The double threat of the left cross and kick are still the main part of Filipovic's attack, but he has added some new wrinkles to his attack. At least, he relies on them more in his current state.
Against Ishii, "Cro Cop" had great success pulling strikes. In short, Filipovic would step in with a punch or two -- usually a lead hook and his left cross -- before quickly hopping back out of range. If Ishii threw counter punches, "Cro Cop" was just out of range. From there, Filipovic could bounce back in with more punches or simply be happy with the strikes he already landed.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Filipovic uses his right uppercut very well when his opponent starts to duck down and cover up. Hardly a complex strategy, but it's a good way for "Cro Cop" to mix up how power punches a bit. Plus, it could end up being very effective against Gonzaga, who frequently ducks down while punching.
Filipovic has never been a masterful defensive striker, as he mostly relied on lateral movement and simply reacting as punches came. Since Filipovic is not really mobile on his feet anymore, and age causes reactions to deteriorate, that leaves him fairly vulnerable to his opponent's strikes.
On the bright side, his new habit of pulling strikes is a solid defensive technique as well.
In all honesty, the only time I've seen "Cro Cop" shoot for a takedown was after being hurt by punches, and that didn't work out well for him. Since transitioning to MMA, Filipovic has worked on remaining on his feet, not dragging his opponent down to the mat.
On that note, "Cro Cop" has always had a very powerful sprawl. He's no longer incredibly athletic and thus is a bit more vulnerable, but the average heavyweight wrestler still needs more than a straight double leg to get Filipovic down. Even while punching, Filipovic has always been good at sprawling hard immediately as his opponent shoots.
Furthermore, Filipovic is quite good at fighting for underhooks while sprawling or in the clinch. It seems that his upper body has gotten noticeably stronger in the last couple years, which definitely helps in close-quarter situations. For example, he managed to repel Alexey Oleinik in the clinch a few times, and a large part of the burly Russian's game is to grind his foe down from the clinch.
Still, Filipovic is not a veteran wrestler. When his opponent chain wrestlers or catches a strong angle on their shot, Filipovic is much more vulnerable.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Unlike the rest of his game, it appears that Filipovic's jiu-jitsu game has actually improved with age. He's clearly not an elite grappler like his opponent, but Filipovic is getting more active with his submission attempts.
To get it out of the way, Filipovic's armbar win over Shinichi Suzukawa is classic Japanese MMA nonsense. Suzukawa was a professional wrestler making his MMA debut and fell to his back after stumbling around from the effect of Filipovic's kickboxing. "Cro Cop" moved into mount and snatched his arm; the whole thing took about a minute.
Not exactly the stuff of legend.
But in Filipovic's bout with Oleinik, his jiu-jitsu actually looked pretty good before succumbing the grapplers crushing top game. Early on, Filipovic made Oleinik abandon a takedown attempt due to the threat of a guillotine choke, and "Cro Cop" actually pulled guard on a guillotine later in the fight.
Additionally, Filipovic is using his guard fairly well. Mostly, Filipovic uses his powerful legs to return to his feet, but he did threaten Oleinik with a triangle choke. The most common way that Filipovic returns to standing is simple, as he simply blasts his opponent off him after getting his feet on their hips. This stand up takes full advantage of Filipovic's powerful legs, which is why he's been so successful with it.
Outside of that, Filipovic uses his guard to contain his opponent and prevent serious damage or submissions. Across his 40-fight career, "Cro Cop" has only been submitted twice, and it was against two very talented grapplers. That's not bad for a fighter coming from a kickboxing record.
Best chance for success
In order to defeat Gonzaga, "Cro Cop" should look to keep a long distance for the first round or so. Gonzaga is extremely dangerous inside the first five minutes, but his aggressiveness really drops off as he gets tired.
To take advantage of his conditioning edge, Filipovic should attempt to keep Gonzaga on the edge of his kicking range. At worst, that keeps him away from Gonzaga's power punches and takedowns until his opponent gets tired, effectively stalling until "Cro Cop" is in the advantageous position.
At best, a head kick slips through his opponent's guard, or Filipovic quickens the process by jamming his shin into Gonzaga's liver.
Once Gonzaga slows down a bit, Filipovic should look to engage with his punches. "Napao" is still a knockout threat, so I'd like to see Filipovic be quick with landing strikes before pulling his opponent's punches. Gonzaga may explode on the initial counter, but he likely will be too tired to do anything effectively immediately after, leaving him open for punches.
Will Mirko "Cro Cop" make a successful return to the UFC, or will Gonzaga improve to 2-0 over the kickboxer?