Oh, what might have been.
Mirko Filipovic was the biggest free agent in modern mixed martial arts (MMA) history back in late 2006. "Cro Cop" was fresh off winning the Pride 2006 Open-Weight Grand Prix tournament. He was widely considered the number two-ranked heavyweight fighter in the world behind Fedor Emelianenko.
This came at a time when Pride FC had virtually all the top heavyweight talent.
Meanwhile, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) struggled to cobble together even an adequate roster of big men in what is traditionally the marquee division in all of combat sports. For perspective, right around the time the Croatian was being courted to compete stateside, Tim Sylvia was defending his belt for a second time inside the Octagon against Jeff Monson at UFC 68.
So when speculation swirled Cro Cop was switching sweaters, which was fueled in large part to a now legendary forum rumor about his lucrative, seven-figure contract offer being spotted (or spied) from the backseat of an airplane, it was huge news. And when the high-profile acquisition -- a competitive coup at the time -- was made official, it was time to pop bottles.
It was only a matter of time before the head-kick killer stalked his way up the UFC contender ladder and showed "The Maine-iac" how real men fight. Then, when Randy Couture returned from retirement and defeated Sylvia on that magical night in Ohio in March 2007, the script could not have been written any better:
A dream fight between Couture and Cro Cop was inevitable. It was all fans could talk about. Finally, UFC had a big money, exciting fight between two legends of the sport. Unfortunately, Gabriel Gonzaga -- who scored an improbable head kick knockout win over Cro Cop before that scenario could unfold -- didn't get the memo.
And, more or less, that set the tone for Cro Cop's tenure with the promotion, which was an utter disappointment as he has compiled a 4-5 record to date. One for which he recently admitted at the UFC 137 press conference, he would never forgive himself.
"Next year will be 20 years from my first fight," he said. "I had a long and rich career and I can say it was successful. Not in the UFC, which I'll never be able to forgive myself. When I came to the UFC I was treated like a king. Even today, I was treated like a king. The reasons are not important. I was good in Japan, but then unfortunately, injuries started to happen -- six or seven surgeries. In the meantime, it takes a toll on your head. You think different."
Filipovic's knees ultimately betrayed him, requiring several surgeries to repair and robbing him of his biggest weapons, which were his two tree trunk-like limbs that were responsible for several of the greatest highlight-real knockouts the sport has ever witnessed. Wanderlei Silva, Alexander Emelianenko, Igor Vovchanchyn and a host of others on Cro Cop's impressive career hit list all fell victim to his vicious kicking power.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Cro Cop started getting bad the moment UFC heavyweight division started to get good again. Promising battles with Couture, Brock Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, among other notables, were replaced with fights against Eddie Sanchez, Mostapha Al-Turk and Anthony Perosh.
And even when the match ups appeared to be decent -- Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir and Brendan Schaub -- the once-feared lethal striker was convincingly overmatched. In fact, in his last two fights against Mir and Schaub, Cro Cop was knocked out on both occasions.
It was a sad and steep decline. And one he likely won't be able to steer out of anytime soon primarily because Father Time is kicking his butt.
"I wish you could see the new Cro Cop, 15 years younger," he said. "And I wish it were possible, too. Unfortunately, I'm 37 and this could easily be my last fight in the UFC. It has nothing to do with the result of the fight, whether I win or lose. Especially, if I lose. But, even if I win, this could easily be my last fight in the UFC. I'm going to give it my best and I hope that this will be a very attractive fight. I cannot afford, anymore, that my fight is declared as the most boring fight of the year, like it was with Frank Mir."
Cro Cop is scheduled to fight Roy Nelson this weekend at UFC 137, which is scheduled to take place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's the last fight on his contract, one he was determined to fulfill despite his recent setbacks and gradual deterioration over the years. He's a proud man who is seemingly determined to go out on his own terms, as well as on a winning note.
"There's 37, 38 reasons to [to retire even if I win]," he said, referring to his age. "It doesn't mean that I can't fight anymore. My stamina, conditioning is probably the best I've ever had. I'm 240 pounds -- I'm not fat. I trained hard for this fight, six months. I could keep fighting, of course, but every man comes to the point where he asks himself, 'do I need it anymore?' I have two sons at home and so many things that I would like to discover. I'm completely relaxed now. This could be my last fight, there is no pressure on me.
"I think me and Roy will perform a good fight and the fans will be satisfied and excited," he continued. "I will do my best to beat Roy, who I respect a lot and do not want to underestimate. This will be the most important fight of my career and that's why I prepared and trained so hard for Saturday. I'm looking forward to it."
UFC President Dana White, who likely felt the burn the most when Cro Cop failed to live up to the lofty expectations, was taken back by Cro Cop's recent remarks. White had suggested that he retire after the most recent devastating loss to the "Hybrid," but apparently granted the Croatian's wish to fight another day, which sounds more and more like it will likely be his last.
"He's a warrior," UFC President Dana White said. "Mirko Cro Cop is a guy who I respect and I admire. I would love to see him have a great showing on Saturday night."
White likely speaks for most mixed martial arts fans.
Here's to what might have been had Cro Cop excelled these last five years. Here's to the incredible memories he left prior to his UFC arrival. And here's is to hoping Cro Cop, checkered shorts and all, can give us one last highlight to remember this weekend before triumphantly riding off into a Baltic sunset to the tune of "Wild Boys."