With his almost permanently dour expression, Mirko Cro Cop will never go down as one of the most vibrant personalities in mixed martial arts history, and when you enter the Octagon to the strains of Duran Duran, it isn’t exactly the type of music that gets an arena amped up for the battle to follow.
Yet when the Croatian striking legend decides to walk off into the sunset to enjoy his family and retirement, there is no question that he will be missed, and it all has to do with the magic he brings into competition.
And that’s hard to describe, but you felt it when Mike Tyson was in his prime, pacing around the ring before the opening bell, waiting to attack. And you feel it when Cro Cop stands, expressionless, waiting to be waved in to do his work for the night, work that may include a laser-like straight left to the jaw or a crushing kick to the head. It’s the anticipation of menace, an aura that few fighters possess in any combat sports, and when you have it, you don’t need to talk about it, so Cro Cop doesn’t.
He takes his media obligations like a child takes medicine, grudgingly, but even then he can toss in a deadpan line that can break up a room full of tension, like he did during Thursday’s pre-UFC 119 press conference, as he said that Don Corleone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to step in on short notice to face Frank Mir this Saturday in Indianapolis. Or even better were his lines during the event’s media teleconference last week, as he talked of getting ill from being on a cell phone for too long; and when asked about his approach to a ground fight with Mir, he deadpanned, “as soon as he attacks the ground, I will tap.”
Those were jolts of a kinder, gentler Mirko, and while he’s never been an overtly emotional sort, you have to wonder if he’s starting to see the end of the road at 36 and choosing to enjoy each and every moment of his final run.
“I always tell to the people who ask me that any fight could be the last one,” he said. “This is hardcore, this is a brutal sport. I will keep fighting as long as I feel good. But I will repeat one more time, any fight could be the last one; maybe this fight with Frank could be the last one, maybe I will do three more fights. I don't know.”
And after getting poked in the eye in the last round of his last sparring session for the fight last week, you have to think that Cro Cop may be wondering, ‘do I really need this?’ But fighters are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us, and after nearly a decade in mixed martial arts, and years more in kickboxing and boxing, it would be hard, if not impossible, for Cro Cop to walk away if he’s still performing, and with a 4-1 slate in his last five fights that includes four finishes, at the very least, the Zagreb veteran is still performing.
This was evident in June, when he battled Pat Barry at UFC 115 in Vancouver. That bout made headlines for the two fighters’ hug in the Octagon during the fight and Barry’s immense respect for his hero, along with Cro Cop’s rare submission finish. But what didn’t get as much ink, cyber or otherwise, is that Cro Cop took two trips to the canvas, one immediately swelling his eye up, but he didn’t take his foot off the gas, didn’t go into a defensive mode and hope for the best. Instead, he dusted himself off, bit down on his mouthpiece and went back to work until he finished Barry off. It may have been Cro Cop’s most impressive UFC win. In fact, I’ll just say it – it was his most impressive UFC win.
So is it a harbinger of things to come? Well, taking on former two-time heavyweight champion Frank Mir with a complete camp under your belt is a daunting task. On short notice makes it even more so. But the fact the Cro Cop accepted the fight with apparently no hesitation speaks volumes – not just about his confidence in his conditioning and of victory, but of the man himself.
“I didn't want to disappoint the UFC fans and I didn't want to disappoint UFC as well,” he said. “Those are the biggest reasons. And it had nothing to do with Frank or somebody else. It could be anyone else, you know? I would take the fight and I take the risk on my back.”
It’s what fighters do. So when Cro Cop steps into the Octagon at Conseco Fieldhouse on Saturday night, there will be nowhere else you would rather be. Why? Because there will be that menace, that anticipation of a knockout, and everything else that you can just call a little Mirko Magic.
And after all these years, you kinda get the impression that Cro Cop feels it himself, and just can’t walk away from it.