Normally reclusive, content 'Cro Cop' Filipovic finally opens up

Thursday March 6th, 2014

Long an enigma, Mirko Filipovic feels more comfortable sharing his story and personality now.
Jeff Vinnick/Zuffa, LLC via Getty Images

"I'm in a very good mood today," Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic announces on the other end of the phone. Two weeks out from a kickboxing rematch with Remy Bonjasky at Glory 14 this Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Spike), Filipovic is lying in his bed in Zagreb, Croatia, freshly woken from his daily afternoon nap. VH1 is on in the background, softly playing '80s music videos. His dog, Maximus, is planted at the foot of his bed.

The 39-year-old Filipovic is a creature of habit. He's taken the same nap every day for 20 years.

"I'm not allowed to be woken up under any circumstances, except if my house starts burning. Then my wife is authorized to wake me up, but only if fire gets to the door of my room," he says wryly. "The second is only if American president is calling to take a consultation with me about taking North Korea."

Wait a minute. Is this the right phone number? This is the same kickboxer-turned-MMA fighter whose left high kick decapitated opponents with the precision of an 18th century guillotine? The same guy who struck utter terror into the hearts of an entire fight generation? And here he is, sounding... jovial?

Stone-faced. Icy. Intimidating. That's how the fans know Filipovic, a fighter who's done his best to stay out of the spotlight and miles away from reporters' tape recorders. While other fighters have bared their souls to the public, the frosty Croatian has had a knack for silence.

"Maybe you can say a part of it is shy[ness], but I don't know. I never liked it," Filipovic says. "Maybe it's not good for the business, but that's how I am. At least I'm honest. I always hated to be in the bold lights. That's my business: to go on the stage and the whole arena is staring at me. I like training; I like fighting. I'm a true sportsman and really professional. But I never liked to be a person in the center. I don't know why."

On one hand, you can't blame Filipovic for shunning the interviewing process and all its repetitiveness, with the same questions asked over and over.

"So many people are calling for interviews and I'm refusing everyone," he says. "My life story has been told many times. Everybody who's following the sport knows how I started."

The truth is that's really not the truth. Filipovic's private life has been just that. Sure, his thoughts on certain fights, on certain performances are sprinkled across a handful of short, sterile interviews. But a lot has been left to the unknown.

"Many people, especially journalists, think I'm complicated, but I'm not. I just don't like some things. Too much is too much sometimes. Sometimes I'm in a bad mood," Filipovic admits. "[But] I'm in a very good mood today. I'll answer any questions you have."

Cotton, Sand and Jean-Claude Van Damme

In Privlaka, Croatia, a remote village some 150 miles away from the nation's capital of Zagreb, a 10-year-old Filipovic began his love affair with martial arts. Bruce Lee was an early inspiration; then came a charismatic Belgian martial artist-turned-action movie star named Jean Claude Van Damme.

"I watched him doing splits," Filipovic said. "I was maybe 14 at the time, watching him do splits on chairs and I was like, 'This is it. This is it. I want to be a fighter.' I didn't know I'd be a professional fighter, that I'd secure my life that way, but I knew it was something I really wanted to do."

Filipovic started training in his parent's garage, Van Damme's growing library of adrenalized '80s action flicks his only teacher. Filipovic absorbed Van Damme's moves and repeated them over and over. There were no sporting goods stores within any reasonable distance of Privlaka, population 4,000, so Filipovic's father fashioned his son a crude, but efficient punching bag.

"We were making it ourselves, and you can imagine what it looked like," Filipovic said. "I had to fix it every few days, or I'd just crush it. We put sand inside mixed with cotton. In a few hours, the sand sunk down and the cotton rose in the bag -- I almost broke my leg a couple of times kicking."

Filipovic's father worked as an electrician for the railway company and would bring home track scraps for Mirko to use as weights. The longer the track, the heavier the weight.

"I kicked the sandbags every day," Filipovic recalled. "That's why I like high kicks, middle kicks, because that's all I was doing. There was nobody to show me boxing or combinations. I was just kicking and kicking."

Filipovic stretched every day and was eventually able to do splits on two chairs like his idol. "Even today, I can do splits on two chairs," he said. "I gave a lot of attention to my flexibility. That was my beginning."

Life in Privlaka was simple and quiet. "The village was like a big family," Filipovic said. His father was part of the working class, drove an ordinary car and kept a modest home with his wife and Mirko's older sister by three years.

"Once or twice a week we ate meat, but that was normal. It was tradition to have grilled chicken on Sundays. Everybody was like that," Filipovic said. "I smile now when I compare it to today and the way my kids live now. The younger one wants one kind of soup, the older wants another kind, and, of course, every day there has to be meat on the table."

Filipovic remembers a happy childhood, full of love and support from his parents. They strove to give him the tools that might help him acquire a better life than they'd had. Every Croatian kid learned some English in school, but one or two 45-minute classes a week didn't amount to fluent understanding and speech. So, Filipovic's father paid for his son to get private lessons.

"It was a pain in the ass for me at the time," Filipovic said. "I asked my father why he was pushing me, and he told me that one day I'd need English. He was right. I was able to negotiate for myself throughout my career. I negotiated directly with the UFC, with Pride [Fighting Championships]. We discussed exactly what I wanted and what I didn't want. I didn't need a translator and nobody was able to make an idiot of me."

Filipovic often cites his father as his hero, and his sudden passing in 1994, when Mirko was only 19, is something he only touches upon lightly. That same year, after high school graduation, Filipovic bypassed college and joined the Croatian Army. The Croatian War of Independence was entering its final year, and Filipovic was sent to train in Zagreb. He joined a boxing club while training there.

Filipovic left the Army after a year and joined the police force in 1996. That March, he made his K-1 debut in Japan, the first of nearly 30 fights he'd compete in for the world's premiere kickboxing organization. Filipovic beat Frenchman Jerome LeBanner via unanimous decision -- an auspicious start against a seasoned player.

After one more K-1 bout in 1996, a KO loss to legend Ernesto Hoost, Filipovic turned his attention back to boxing and his law enforcement career. He had success in both areas as a three-time national amateur boxing champion and later joined Luchko, an elite special police force similar to SWAT. Luchko, made up of about 150 members and situated in the capital, dealt with organized crime, radical terrorist groups and other high-tension situations.

"When something was too dangerous for the regular police, then we would go in," Filipovic said. "We were highly-trained professionals. We shot 50 bullets a day in training. Hand guns, machine guns, obstacle courses. I was very proud. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life."

Filipovic worked in Luchko for four years until he was offered an invitation to join Croatia's parliament. It was customary for parties to enlist celebrities (by then, he was a K-1 and MMA standout) for their star power. Filipovic had much less influence in the democratic process than he would have liked.

"Many people viewed sportsman in politics like a curtain on the wall," Filipovic said. "At that time, I was enthusiastic, but it doesn't work the way I was thinking. I was little bit disappointed when I saw how it works from the inside. More or less, decisions are written by only a few people, and we all just have to support by raising our hands in the air, even if you don't agree with it. Is membership in the parliament worth it, where you have to swallow some things you wouldn't swallow? But that's every democratic country in the world."

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Born from an interview, "Right leg, hospital; left leg, cemetery" neatly described Cro Cop fights.
Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Right Leg, Hospital; Left Leg, Cemetery

As he worked for Luchko, Filipovic returned to K-1 in 1999 for what would become a banner year for him. He shocked the kickboxing community when he dropped South African staple Mike Bernardo multiple times for the win in the opening round of the 1999 World Grand Prix. Filipovic eventually took runner-up honors, cementing himself a place on the K-1 roster. (His "Cro Cop" moniker was born at this time, as well.) Two years into the K-1 circuit, Filipovic decided to simultaneously try his luck at MMA.

Filipovic's second MMA bout was against Nobuhiko Takada in Japan's Pride Fighting Championships in 2001, his introduction to the biggest stage the sport had to offer at the time, with crowds of 35,000 people and more. Filipovic would become one of Pride's elite stars and a driving force for the promotion in its opulent heyday through to its 2006 demise.

"It was an amazing feeling [fighting for Pride]," Filipovic said. "Forty, forty-five thousand people. Two times I remember we fought in the Tokyo Dome. I fought [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira, and there were 55,000 people, not to mention the Tokyo National Stadium when I fought [Kazushi] Sakuraba in 2002, there were 100,000 people. Unbelievable. It's a great and special feeling I'm just not able to describe with words. You've got to feel it to understand it."

Cro Cop's reputation in Pride could be summed up easily with a popular catchphrase he unknowingly hatched during a chat with Pride commentator, Bas Rutten. When Rutten asked Filipovic if his right high kick was as potent as its left brother, the commentator took the answer straight to the telecast booth.

"I said, 'Well, if I kick with the right, you go to hospital, but left you go to the cemetery,'" Filipovic said with a laugh. "It was just joking around."

"Right leg, hospital; left leg, cemetery" didn't just become an iconic slogan; it was usually a sobering prediction of how Cro Cop fights would go -- his kickboxing was that much superior to the rest of Pride's heavyweight division. If he didn't knock you out with his tree-trunk legs, he certainly caused enough damage to ruin your night.

In August 2005, with a 15-2-2 record in Pride, Filipovic got his shot against heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko at "Final Conflict 2005." It has since been called one of the greatest Pride bouts of all time. Filipovic lost the bout via unanimous decision, believing he made one of the most critical mistakes of his career the night before.

With all his previous trips to Japan, Filipovic had taken great care to come either 10 days out or just two days before a fight to overcome or avoid jetlag altogether. On this occasion against Emelianenko, Filipovic arrived eight days prior for the first time in his career.

"Believe it or not, I didn't collect fifteen hours of sleep that whole time. I just couldn't sleep and everybody was so nervous. I was so nervous," Filipovic recalled. "I was trying to sleep, and I didn't dare take any kind of pills because of how they would interact with me. I was so nervous for days without any sleep, and the doctor suggested that he would give me a glucose infusion to recover me."

Filipovic said he began to feel the effects of the injection during the bout.

"About the third minute [into the fight], I remember Fedor started bleeding very strongly from his nose, and the referee sent the doctor in to check on him," said Filipovic. "And then I remember I wasn't able to breathe anymore. I took my own mouthpiece out and the only thing that crossed my mind is I wouldn't be able to survive the fight because I was tired. That infusion affected my body very badly. Never again, I said."

For Filipovic, the highlight of his career was winning the 2006 Pride Grand Prix, a 16-man open-weight tournament promoted that next year. Filipovic faced Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett on the tournament's final night, then dedicated the prestigious title to his late father.

"It was a big night for me. I was so happy," Filipovic said. "At the end of the day, to come out as the winner, it was a great distinction for me and a great thing for my career. It was my birthday. It was one of the happiest days in my life."

If ever there were an opportune time to go out on top, this was it. Within six months, UFC owners Zuffa LLC would buy Pride right out from under the Japanese fans' noses. Filipovic avoided the contract confusion that came after the purchase by negotiating a deal with the UFC months earlier and jumping ship.

"I was smelling something and I heard some information I don't think others knew," Filipovic said of his promotional shift. "I had a very capable and intelligent guy in my corner; he was Japanese. He was my manager during my Pride days and he told me we should go to the UFC. He had the information already that the UFC was going to buy Pride."

Hardcore U.S. fans were delighted to have Cro Cop in the Octagon, though the cage would give the Croatian fits. The rough transition was so obvious that Throwdown, an American company, flew to Filipovic's home gym to build a UFC-style cage for him for free.

"Fighting in the Octagon was a big shock for me; a different fight environment, a different type of audience. It was very loud inside. Altogether it was a shock for me," Filipovic said. "But maybe the biggest shock -- and I don't want to sound like a loser because you know they say warriors will find solutions and losers will find excuses. I don't want to find excuses, but right after I left Pride, after I took the 2006 Grand Prix, I started with the surgeries."

Filipovic hit a brick wall in his second UFC bout against Gabriel Gonzaga in April 2007, when the Brazilian shockingly knocked Filipovic out with a high kick. Fresh off foot surgery, Filipovic admitted he wasn't himself that night and for other subsequent bouts during his injury-riddled, 10-fight tenure with the UFC.

Filipovic said he had a hard time turning down fights when he should have been on the sidelines recovering -- the competitor in him always won out. In the Octagon, Filipovic went a disappointing 4-6.

"I had six more surgeries [in that time]: four times for the knee and then before my last fight in the UFC [against Roy Nelson], I tore my left biceps and ligament," Filipovic said. "I was sparring with Pat Barry, and I punched him to the head and I felt a terrible pain in my arm. It was ten days before the fight in the States. The doctor said I needed immediate surgery, but I went to fight anyway. Of course, it was a stupid idea, but that is me. I'd repeat it again. I felt I might kick him to the head or punch him with my right arm. That's me. If I had a different attitude or approach, it wouldn't be me."

Sweet Worries and a Normal Life

When you've survived over 60 top-shelf kickboxing and MMA bouts in less than a decade, you can pretty much dictate where and when you want to fight. This is where Cro Cop now sits.

He returned to K-1 in 2013 and won its World Grand Prix for the first time. The tournament was conveniently held in Zagreb, the city Filipovic and his family now call home.

K-1 has since crumbled, and Glory is aiming to take its place. Wisely, it has decided to hold Saturday's event in Zagreb.

Not having to worry about travel and jetlag, Filipovic can keep his routine right up to the end. Every morning, he walks his dogs in the nearby forest before his 8:30 workout in his home gym underneath his house. He visits his mother, who lives nearby; spends time with his boys, ages 3 and 11; and plays chess online. "I'm afraid I'm spending too much time with that," he ponders.

Next, comes the uninterruptable 2:30 nap and training again at 6 p.m. Two times a week, he goes to a local gym and plays basketball, one of his favorite sports. If he has the time, he reads up on Croatian and World War II history. Every night, he winds down playing cards with his neighbor; he doesn't go to bed before midnight. For all intents and purposes, it's as normal a life as a legendary martial artist can get.

Filipovic's 11-year-old son has recently taken to martial arts, too.

"He came to me one day and he said he wanted to wrestle," Filipovic said. "I asked him how he'd found out about wrestling, and he said a kid in his class was training for a few weeks and he wanted to go with him. I was shocked in the beginning. Of course, I thought sports for him -- sport itself is very important for every young person. It gives discipline, strength, everything a young man needs. When you go to train three or four times a week, you grow up a completely different man. It doesn't matter which sport.

"He's 11 and he's doing amazing things for that age. He can walk on his hands. He's very acrobatic. And he's a very talented wrestler. I hope he stays with wrestling because it's a beautiful base for many sports later. I don't expect him, of course, to be a professional sportsman, but it's very good to grow up with discipline."

Beyond Bojansky and contrary to retirement reports, Cro Cop hasn't ruled out a few more MMA fights, if time and his body allows.

"There was a rumor that the UFC is coming to Croatia," he said. "I checked with the UFC, and they said they've talked about it but haven't made a decision yet. Of course I would like to participate if the UFC came to Zagreb. It would have to be a rematch like Gonzaga, Dos Santos. Those are the fights that would really push me to train the best that I can and help my revenge. But life is life, and who knows what will happen?"

Financially secure from some wise investments and what he describes as "humble" living, Filipovic can retire at his leisure.

"The day I stop fighting, I'll keep training 'til the end of my life," Filipovic said. "Every day I will train. Every day. Jogging, riding a bicycle, that keeps me alive. If somebody offered me hundreds of millions of dollars -- 'It's yours, but you will have to stop training.' Thank you very much, [but] I don't need it. Part of me will always stay with martial arts, but let's wait for my final goodbye from competition. But believe me, I only have sweet worries."

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Mirko Filipovic will rematch Remy Bonjasky in a kickboxing bout Saturday night.
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP

Q&A with Mirko 'Cro Cop' Filipovic

In advance of his kickboxing rematch with Remy Bonjasky on Saturday, kickboxing and MMA legend Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic answers a few questions about his storied career and private life. Some answers have been edited for length.

SI: You are one of the most intimidating fighters to ever grace MMA and kickboxing. Where did you pick up this talent?

MF: I don't think it's something you can learn. You have it in yourself, or you don't have it. It wasn't my passion to intimidate anyone. [Prior to my fights], I was acting normally and was focused and concentrated. Maybe my face was very serious when I was entering the arena or ring. I understood this was my business, what I did for a living, and it was a very dangerous living, so I needed to be fully concentrated and I didn't think it was the time for laughing and jokes. People who know me well will tell you I'm a funny guy. But during a fight, I'm trying to do my best and I'm trying to survive.

SI: Did you know that journalists have been hesitant to approach you at times because it seems like you're in a bad mood?

MF: [Sometimes] I'm not in a good mood because I've had really hard sparrings and I get so many injuries -- small injuries, but they hurt. Right now, both of my elbows are swollen and very hurt. It's just something you can't avoid during preparation. You want it or you don't want it, but that doesn't mean you won't be in a bad mood. I can't walk normal. I can't stretch my arm. It's nothing that a few days of rest won't cure, but it happens so many times. That's the name of the game. You can't avoid small injuries.

SI: Do you have any funny memories about competing in Pride Fighting Championships?

MF: I fought mostly in the Saitama Super Arena, and it was like a concert in a concert arena. It was so quiet. During the fight when Wanderlei Silva fought Rampage Jackson, can you believe I was sitting out there watching the fight. Now imagine the silence in the Saitama. There were 45,000 people inside, and during a break in the action we can all hear someone's cell phone ringing. (laughs). Unbelievable.

SI: You use the '80s song Wild Boys by Duran Duran as your entrance music. What's the story behind that?

MF: When I was going to Japan in 1999, I had a very close friend whom I'm still close to. Today, he's my manager. My last fight with K-1 was in 1996, and then I disappeared for three years. I wanted more experience with boxing and fighting. I became a three-time Croatian national champion and I had some good amateur boxing success. He collected all the videos and put a few minutes together with a beautiful brochure that he brought to Japan to negotiate a deal. There were many songs for us to choose [for the fight tape]. He asked me if I liked Wild Boys and I said I did. We thought about it, and it became my song. That is the story of "Wild Boys."

SI: You've said you prefer the ring to the cage and you've seemed to have more success in the former.

MF: With a cage, you can feel locked in. When you enter the cage, somebody locks the door behind you. Maybe just because I had my start in the ring and did so many fights in the ring and then I changed to the cage. I think it might be the same for the guys that start in the cage, then try the ring. The ring might be tougher for them.

It's most likely I was more comfortable in the ring, where I had a different tactic and strategy, and the cage is different. Somebody can push you on the cage, put your head on the wire. It can be very painful. And if you're next to the cage and someone is doing ground-and-pound and you can't escape, it can be very dangerous.

SI: Shortly into your UFC career, you had a cage built in your home gym to help you adapt. Do you still have the cage?

MF: The cage is going to stay there forever. It's a beautiful cage. Throwdown [a U.S. company] sent it as a present for me, and I thank them for it. They made it especially for me because my gym wasn't wide enough for a UFC-size cage. We still spar in the cage.

SI: Your 2005 bout against Fedor Emelianenko has been called one of the most epic fights of the Pride era. What are your memories of it?

MF: It was one of the biggest fights definitely in my career. It was the biggest challenge at the time for me. I made a few mistakes before the fight, but I'm not the guy with excuses. If I did it wrong, I did wrong, and it's better to keep it to myself. I remember I felt bad on that day. The night before the fight I took a [glucose] infusion on the recommendation of my doctor. Maybe I shouldn't have taken it. I remember Fedor was known as greatest ground-and-pound fighter, and nobody wanted to be under him on the ground, but I was forcing it because I was too tired to stand on my feet. It's funny now, but it's the truth. But we finished all three rounds and many say it was one of the greatest fights in [MMA] history.

SI: Over time, some speculated that there was a mental shift in your fighting, a little less of that killer instinct. What was going on?

MF: I think the biggest problem was the injuries. I collected seven surgeries before I'd left Pride. After every surgery, there were months where I couldn't walk, not to mention running and kicking. Four times I had foot surgery, four times I had knee surgery and so on. For three months, I'm out of training, the stretching and repeating my high kicks. Together, it's almost two years of doing nothing. I was really dedicated to the sport and martial arts. I was trying to do my best, and I'm still trying to do my best. I'm trying to get my body in the best possible shape. I've recovered from all the injuries. It's not a shame to fall down, but it's a shame not to stand up. That is my philosophy.

Maybe I shouldn't have taken every fight offered me [while I was injured], but let me tell you the truth. I'm not sorry. That's me and that's how I am. If I was different, most likely I wouldn't be in the fighting business at all.

SI: Kickboxing, MMA, law enforcement or parliament. Which are you the most proud of?

MF: I'm proud of everything. The biggest thing that makes me proud is my two sons. I don't want to sound pathetic now. Kickboxing and MMA are two kids for me. Who do you love better? I can't tell. I was mad about the police force and really enjoyed my time there and made some great friends. Same thing with parliament. It's hard to pick one.

SI: When your fighting career is over, what will you do?

MF: Believe me, I've been thinking of it for the last ten years already. I think I was smart enough not to throw the money from the window and, I dare to say, on my way of living. I really think me and my family live humbly. I've secured my life, and I won't have to open the newspaper and be looking for work. What I'm going to do? I don't know. I've made some investments during my career that I'm happy with, so my life, talking financially, is definitely OK. People ask me if I'm going to open a school. Why not? I think I should. Maybe not a typical school where anyone can come but with young fighters definitely one day. I don't have the nerves for amateurs.

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