For Cro Cop, the end is near
Mirko Filipovic says he's fighting to show us all that he's not done yet, that somewhere deep down inside, he's still the stoic, head-hunting kickboxer we came to know and love in the Pride years.
As he told me when I interviewed him last week: "I want to retire as the old 'Cro Cop.' I don't know if I will be able to do it, but I will die trying."
If you're playing "Aging MMA Fighter Bingo" at home, you can go ahead and cross that one off your card. All you need now is for Filipovic to declare that he wants to go into acting or get just one more rematch with an old rival, and you'll have the whole row.
It's nothing against Cro Cop, who is not only one of this sport's true good guys, but also such an icon that he could quit right now and open an Applebee's and we'd still remember him as a legend of the fight game. But at the same time, I can't shake the feeling that I've seen this movie before and I already know how it ends.
Filipovic isn't the first fighter to spend the final hours of his career looking for a finish that might let him leave on triumphant note. Look at Wanderlei Silva. Look at Matt Hughes. Go ask Jens Pulver why he's still duking it out in small-time shows all over the country, and you'll hear an almost identical explanation.
Every fighter wants one last win because he wants to believe that he isn't being drummed out of the sport so much as walking away on his own terms. The problem is, once he gets that win he becomes convinced that he's got a few more left in him, and so it goes on and on and on.
Cro Cop is only the latest to espouse the belief that the best possible future for him would be one that closely resembles his past. As if you could become the person you used to be simply by doing the things you used to do, and this would somehow make it easier to stop being that person and put him to rest. Unfortunately for Filipovic, it doesn't work that way. It never has.
That's not to say he's got no chance against Roy Nelson at UFC 137 on Saturday night. Even if he's lost a step with age, Filipovic's combination of stiff takedown defense and powerful striking presents serious problems for Big Country. Nelson's never been known as a tremendous offensive wrestler, and if he has to spend the night trading blows with Filipovic he might find out that avoiding those kicks isn't as easy as it looks on TV.
But even if Cro Cop knocks Nelson out and ends his current UFC contract with another finish fit for the highlight reel, what then? Would he ride off into the sunset, confident that his work here is done? Or would he become only more convinced that there's time left on the clock after all, and he should seek further glory inside the cage?
History tells us that the latter is far more likely, but that's only in the somewhat unlikely event of a Filipovic victory in Las Vegas. Most oddsmakers have Nelson as an almost 3-1 favorite going into the fight. If Filipovic loses, he can pretty much forget about a new contract with the UFC, but that doesn't mean he has to forget about a continued existence in the sport.
As the depressing saga of Ken Shamrock reminds us, even an egregiously over-the-hill fighter can always find some promoter willing to cash in on whatever's left of his name and reputation. Filipovic doesn't have to quit just because the UFC suggests it. He could almost certainly find a fight closer to home, and maybe even a handpicked local boy whose head has been carefully selected for its obvious kickability.
But what would Filipovic get out of that, aside from a meager paycheck that he doesn't particularly need at this point? He may have taken up fighting as way to, as he put it, "drag me and my mother out of misery" after his father died and left them penniless, but those days are gone. Now he's after the glory. He's after a fleeting, dimly remembered feeling, and he wants it so badly that perhaps he hasn't stopped to ask himself why.
No one gets to go back in time, even if they can manage to mimic the person they used to be for just a little while. A win over Nelson wouldn't resurrect the "old 'Cro Cop,'" just like a loss to him wouldn't have any bearing on what Filipovic accomplished in Pride half a decade ago.
If Filipovic is looking for a painless way to leave the sport, he's only setting himself up for disappointment. Of course it's going to sting when you have to give up the one thing that has defined your entire adult life. It's supposed to. That's how you know it's really over, even if you're the last one to hear the news.