Mirko Cro Cop reflects on Pride, the UFC, and why 'everybody was terrified of fighting Bob Sapp'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There was a time, not even particularly long ago, when the mixed martial arts world couldn't help but stand in awe under the vast shadow cast by Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and the other titans of Pride Fighting Championships. For those that lived through it, the pageantry and spectacle was a sight to behold, one fostered by a rabid Japanese fanbase and dominated by near-mythological warrior figures, leaving behind it a moment in time that'll neither soon be matched nor forgotten.

Sadly, of those legendary figures, virtually all that remain have either hung up their gloves or are nearing that waystation by the end of the road. At 39 years old, "Cro Cop" is no exception.

Ahead of his upcoming GLORY debut, Filipovic appeared as a guest on Monday's recent edition of The MMA Hour alongside host Ariel Helwani. The notoriously media-averse Croatian opened up on his 18 years of fighting life, sharing stories about everyone from Bob Sapp to Kazuyuki Fujita, from his greatest glories in Pride FC to his lowest defeats in the UFC. Excerpts from the conversation can be seen below, though tread lightly, the nostalgia pangs are strong in this one.

Star-divide

Favorite memory in Japan:

"There are so many beautiful memories. I can't pick one. One of the memories I will never forget is when I was received by the Japanese prime minster in his official residence. I was an amazing thing. It was the second time in Japanese history that someone [outside] of politics was received in an official residence and everything was official. Only Tom Cruise was received once, and after that it was me.

"It was really something special. Mr. Koizumi was a really nice guy. We talked, I spent maybe one hour there. His son came there and we took a lot of photos, and there was hundreds of journalists taking photos, TV cameras, TV crews. It was nice.

"I miss Japan. I miss those days. So many things have changed since then."

Memories of his fight with Bob Sapp:

"I had no doubts, but right before me, Bob Sapp knocked out -- badly and very brutally, and two times in a row -- Ernesto Hoost. And I remember that just like it was yesterday. I was called by my manager and he said, ‘K-1 wants you to fight him.' I said I'm in Pride now. He said, ‘Yeah, we know, but nobody else wants to take the challenge fighting him.' Believe it or not, everybody was terrified of fighting Bob Sapp, especially after he knocked out Ernesto Hoost twice in a row. I said okay, no problem. But I was happy. I remember the fight, and I remember the expression on my face. He was a huge guy.

"I had to be very careful, and I beat him very technically, very good. I kicked him first in the liver, and then I connected my left jab straight, right above the eye, and I broke his bone. I put his bone inside, and he had to go to surgery the same night to take it out, so it was very, very painful, but I was happy, of course. He was a beast. He was a beast and he still is a beast, but I think if he changes something in his training or his mind he would still be very, very dangerous, especially in MMA. He's just a beast. He's a big strong guy with devastating punches, enormously strong. I remember his fight with Nogueira. Jesus Christ, ‘Minotauro' survived hell. ... It was the craziest fight I've ever seen. I couldn't believe that ‘Minotauro' was able to survive all the things that happened to him. He almost broke his spine. Unbelievable."

On the unceremonious decline of Bab Sapp:

"I met him one year ago in Japan, when I fought a Japanese pro wrestler in MMA. I asked him, ‘Bob, why are you doing this?' He is too dangerous, he is such a huge guy. I saw some of his fights, he was fighting in Europe. 99-percent of the fights he lost here in Europe, he could've kicked their asses easily. Why he didn't do that? To me, it looked like he was doing that with some intention. He just wanted to lose the fight. Unbelievable.

"Actually, I didn't understand his answer (when I asked him the question). He was trying to explain to me why, but I didn't understand. Not because I don't understand English, but because I didn't understand what he was trying to tell me. I said, ‘uh-huh, okay,' but I didn't. He's a huge guy, and enormously strong, especially in MMA. He's loses fights with guys who are 50-60 kilograms lighter than he is and he could beat them easily. Easily. Why he is doing that, I don't know."

On the origin of his famous catchphrase:

"I think I was talking once with Bas Rutten. I always had a good time with him, we always played some jokes.

"I was talking to him, and he asked me which leg I'm going to kick [my opponent with]. I said, ‘Ah, I don't know. I think if he's lucky, it will be my right one.' He [asked] why. I think I said, ‘If I kick him with the right one, it's hospital. Left one is the cemetery.' I was talking to him and then some TV crew recorded it and that's how it went out. I was just joking. (Laughs.) I really liked to play jokes and I was just joking, but that follows me all the time now."

On the abrupt demise of Japanese MMA:

"I am surprised. I don't know (why MMA died in Japan). ... I talked to my Japanese manager, who is a very capable and very diligent guy. I said, ‘what happened with Japan?' He said, ‘after Pride died, people just lost interest.' Of course I don't want to underestimate anyone, but there was four fighters that created the biggest attractions. It was Nogueira, Fedor, Wanderlei Silva and myself. And at the end of the day, we all left. I was the first one. I left for the UFC, and after me, Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva, and then the UFC bought Pride. The martial arts scene just disappeared.

"My manager claims that the audience that were coming to Saitama all the time, they just found new heroes, new interests in the meantime. They lost interest because there wasn't attractive fighters like Nogueira, like Fedor, like Wanderlei, like me, like many others, like Rampage Jackson. The market just died. The market just died. Unbelievable, and it makes me sad."

On his infamous prank against Mauro Ranallo:

"I remember it like it was yesterday. I was fighting an American guy, Ron Waterman. Before the Ron Waterman fight, I think Bas came to me and he asked me, ‘could you please do it?' (Laughs.) And Bas told me to do it, please, please. [I said,] ‘Come on, I don't want to hurt the guy, to hurt his feelings. Maybe he will be mad.' [Bas insisted,] ‘No, no, please, he'll be okay.' (Laughs.)"

On the origin of his classic walkout music:

"It was before I went to Japan. I had to decide. I knew, of course, if you're a bad fighter, an image cannot help you. But if you connect good image and good fighting abilities, you can make a lot. You can earn more money in everything and people will recognize you, etc. So I had to pick out a song. A friend of mine, the guy who is my present manager who offered me a fight with Ray Sefo after I left the UFC, we talked about a song and he suggested, ‘what do you think about Duran Duran and The Wild Boys?' ... We listened to that song again together and said, okay, that's it."

On his up-and-down run in the UFC:

"It's a black spot in my career. The UFC treated me like a king, UFC fans treated me like a king. I just failed. Why? It's hard to say. New fighters are coming. But I will always believe -- maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right, who knows -- but I'll always believe that my bad period in the UFC started with my injuries. And I told this story so many times, sometimes I just feel stupid telling it again and sometimes some people won't understand the way I think. There is an old wise saying, a winner will always find a solution, and a loser will always find an excuse, so I don't want to sound like a loser who is finding some excuse. But the fact is, after my last fight in Pride and before my first fight in the UFC, I had my first surgery.

"Definitely, definitely, it left kind of a scar. I had my first fight (in the UFC) then, and I won it, but I felt really bad. I knew it wasn't me. It wasn't me. I fought -- I can't remember my opponent's name -- but then after that I fought (Gabriel) Gonzaga. I lost, terrible high kick. I was surprised and shocked by the cage. And at the end of the day, it was the first time (I fought with grounded elbows allowed) -- actually second, but my first opponent didn't have the time -- and Gonzaga destroyed me with elbows from the ground. So after we stood up, I didn't have double vision. I had [triple] vision. I saw three guys. He really beat me up badly, and he threw a high kick which I didn't even notice. The bad period was just in front of me. And then after that I broke my leg, I [tore] my knee, so I had four knee injuries, and then so many. I would say it's bad luck. Maybe it's not. Maybe I was happy, but because in my previous career I didn't have any kind of injuries, so maybe I can consider myself lucky at the end of the day. But the UFC days, (it was) injury after injury. And then before my last fight in the UFC with Roy Nelson, I broke my arm. Not bone, but ligament and biceps broke in half completely.

"I just saw a hole in my bicep. The same night I went to the hospital because I knew something terrible happened, and the doctor said that ‘in two days you have to do surgery,' but that was out of the question. In that case I was supposed to cancel the fight, but I had prepared six months for that fight. I was crazy and I took my chances, I risked (my health). Now I know, maybe I shouldn't do that and I should do something different, but at the end of the day, it's me. I couldn't wait another six months, maybe more.

"But I don't feel sorry. That's the name of the game. It's not shame to go down. It's shame not to stand up. That's what I was always saying. I'm a fighter, I'm a warrior, that's my job, that's my love, and I enjoy it."

Favorite memory of his MMA career:

"It's hard to say. Every fight was the most important fight for me, but maybe, maybe, just maybe, because I was a complete underdog in that fight and everybody expected me to lose the fight, (my favorite was) when I had my first MMA fight against (Kazuyuki) Fujita. I caught him with a knee, and I made huge damage to him. I practically made a hole in his head. He had to head to the hospital right away. Maybe it was the moment when I was the happiest.

"It was my first MMA fight. I came there completely unprepared for MMA rules of fighting. I knew nothing about wrestling, about ground fighting, about jiu-jitsu. Nothing. And I managed to beat a guy who was a huge favorite in the fight. I was just the underdog and I beat him, in the first round, after, what, less than one minute? I caught him with the knee. I was training that knee! It wasn't a lucky punch or a lucky kick or whatever. I was training that knee. I knew that I wouldn't have too much (of a) chance, but I studied his previous fights and I knew he would go for a double leg. He would shoot a double leg and my only chance was to kick him straight through the face with my knee, and it happened just like I was preparing.

"I was so happy and proud, but I had so many good moments. The K-1 belt, the Pride grand prix championship. An amazing fight with Nogueira, an amazing fight with Fedor. So many great fights. I felt great during my UFC days because of UFC fans, they supported me like nobody ever before. Losing or winning, they were treating me like a king there and I felt very proud. Even when I fought against an American opponent, most of the arena was on my side and screaming my name. So I had really good moments in my career, some really unforgettable moments, and I'm really proud of it."

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