Mirko Cro Cop had been accidentally kneed to the groin, was bleeding badly from punches, and was down two rounds against an opponent who had knocked him out eight years ago this month.
But Cro Cop (31-11-2, 1 no contest) said it was all part of the plan, well, aside from the going shot and the blood, after he finished Gabriel Gonzaga at 3:30 of the third round in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night in Krakow, Poland. It was the 40-year-old Cro Cop's first fight in the UFC since late 2011.
"It will sound like I'm playing smart, but I worked to make him tired the first two rounds and finish him in the third," said Cro Cop at the post-fight press conference. "It's exactly what happened. I had a good game plan, good preparation. We have a good team."
Cro Cop's April 21, 2007 loss to Gabriel Gonzaga (16-10) was among the most memorable fights, and certainly the most memorable finishes,in UFC history. At the time, Cro Cop was expected to walk through Gonzaga and face Randy Couture for the heavyweight title in what may have been the most anticipated fight after UFC had purchased the dying Pride Fighting Championships. A few years earlier, Pride was the dominant MMA organization in the world, and Cro Cop was one of its big three heavyweight stars with Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. .
Instead, Cro Cop was knocked out in the first round of that fight by a head kick, Cro Cop's own favorite weapon. It was not just a knockout, but almost the knockout heard around the country. Not only was it a huge upset, but UFC had only had a handful of televised major events up to that point in time, so seeing a fight of that caliber on television was a new thing. Cro Cop, coming off his win in the 2005 Pride Grand Prix tournament, was being heavily promoted by UFC and the expected title match with Couture figured to be one of the biggest fights up to that point in company history.
Instead, not only was Cro Cop knocked out cold, but his leg twisted in a ghastly looking manner. And really, he was never the same fighter again.
The memory must have been strong because eight years later, even though the two men were nowhere near top ten positions and Cro Cop in his pre-UFC days was in some gigantic fights with tens of millions of viewers tuned in, he called this rematch one of the most important fights of his career.
"This was a must-win situation for me, not only in UFC, but for my whole career," said the bruised up Cro Cop at the post-fight press conference. "I knew I had to beat him.
"I was confident I was going to beat him. I was really confident. I don't want to sound like I'm playing smart, but I knew he was going to be mine in the third or fourth round."
Cro Cop felt he closed the book on that rivalry.
"I think this is enough," he said when asked about a rubber match. "I don't think there will be time for a third fight."
There was some irony in the win. In their first fight, Gonzaga softened Cro Cop up with heavy elbows on the ground, a weapon new to Cro Cop, since it was an offensive tactic banned in Pride. And like Gonzaga finished Cro Cop with his trademark move, it turned out that Cro Cop badly damaged Gonzaga with a similar weapon to what Gonzaga had used eight years ago.
But this wasn't so much the plan going in as just the move he saw an opening for.
"I had the opportunity to land an elbow, which is an extremely dangerous weapon," he said. "If I had a clean shot for a high kick, I'd have thrown a high kick. I was in a clinch and there was a chance for an elbow, I saw the opportunity and I finished him with elbows."
While Cro Cop said he felt fine, his corner gave him a sense of urgency after the second round. He was clearly down 20-18 on the scorecards, but even more ominous was the amount of blood he lost. But he wasn't aware of it.
"I couldn't see how big the cut is," he said. "I felt good. It happened in the second round as best I can remember. . . I got a warning from my corner."
They told him he had a big cut, and to go out to finish because there was a chance the referee could stop the fight.
While Cro Cop said he couldn't think much about the future, he gave no indication he was considering retirement, but did make it clear he'd prefer to fight on European shows going forward.
"I'm starting to be scared of flying in airplanes," he said. "It's better to fight in Europe."