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Cro Cop Faces Many Challenges in UFC Return

By on May 26, 2009

Amidst all of the news, announcements and coverage that always accompanies a UFC event, there was a news story last week that slid under the radar a bit.  Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, who at one time was the consensus #2 heavyweight in the world after Fedor Emelianenko (and who gave Fedor perhaps his biggest challenge yet), is coming back to the UFC, to apparently face Mustapha Al Turk at UFC 99.

Cro Cop comes back to considerably less fanfare than when he first arrived to fight in the UFC two years ago.  At that time, many predicted that he would win the UFC’s heavyweight title within the year, which of course is not what happened.  Now, he faces a considerably more difficult road to the same goal.  What’s changed since his first UFC stint?  Two things, really…Cro Cop’s himself and the competition that he’ll be facing.

In 2007, it seemed as if there would be little resistance to a striker of Cro Cop’s caliber in the UFC’s rather thin heavyweight division.  The division’s top fighters, including Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia, would not appear to have been good enough to give Cro Cop any worries standing up, and neither one had the wrestling that it would have taken to put Cro Cop where he is less dangerous- on his back.  Even Randy Couture, who shocked the world by beating Sylvia a month after Cro Cop arrived, didn’t seem like an extremely difficult matchup for the Pride superstar.

Now, the division has really filled out nicely, and several fighters will present a big challenge to the Croatian striker.  There are very good standup fighters in the division now, from Cheick Kongo (who already beat Cro Cop in the UFC) to Antoni Hardonk.  Also, there are grapplers such as Brock Lesnar who are more than capable of putting Cro Cop on his back, and Frank Mir seems to have made a full comeback from his motorcycle accident finally, as well.  Even Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who once subbed Cro Cop via arm bar after taking a terrific beating during the whole fight to that point, could be trouble for Mirko.  There are also younger heavyweights, such as Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin, who appear to have vast potential.  Without a doubt, Cro Cop returns to a much deeper, much more dangerous heavyweight division.

Then, there’s Cro Cop himself.  Although it’s hard to fault him for not finishing Eddie Sanchez, who appeared very fearful and was content to run away from him for much of the fight, the losses to Gabriel Gonzaga via Devastating Head Kick of Irony and Cheick Kongo dropped Cro Cop out of the top ten, where he remains to this day.  Cro Cop’s stint in Japan, which was essentially supposed to allow him to “get his groove back”, was no more impressive, really.  Although Filipovic did not taste defeat, his wins were less than impressive (against .500 fighter Tatsuya Mizuno and frequent freak show participant- and Jose Canseco opponent- Hong Man Choi).  During Cro Cop’s other fight in 2008, against Alistair Overeem, Overeem was giving him all that he could handle before a knee to the groin brought the fight to a no contest finish.

It’s hard to say whether Cro Cop can return to his old level of greatness, since we haven’t seen much since he left the UFC to indicate that he can or can’t do so.  You can easily find excuses for his loss to Gonzaga, as there was no reason for Cro Cop to expect Gonzaga to throw such a kick, and perhaps Mirko was a little arrogant during the standup exchanges, but what of the fifteen-minute decision loss against Cheick Kongo, who stifled his offense at every turn?

A lot of whether you expect Cro Cop to bounce back or not depends on what your diagnosis of his UFC troubles was.  If you think he was outskilled or outmatched, as some other Pride imports have been, there is little reason to think that he has revamped his game or improved his all-around skill set in the last year.  If you think that the problem was in his head, as many did at the time, then it all depends on whether a couple of wins over dubious competition was enough to help him regain his confidence.  Will he be able to step into the octagon and see it as a place where he belongs, as he did with the Pride ring years ago, or will he let the experience get into his head, as he appeared to when he was pressing for the big knockout and underperforming in his first UFC stint?

Dana White has promised that the Cro Cop-Al Turk fight will make the main card at UFC 99 (which is no surprise really, given the other fights on the card and Cro Cop’s history in the sport), so we will all be able to see whether or not Cro Cop is ready to ascend back towards the top of his division.  For a heavyweight division that is probably deeper than it has ever been, having a deadly knockout artist will only make things more exciting for the fans, so let’s hope that Cro Cop can return to form.

 by Jon Hartley for Fightmania.com

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