"In a certain way, fighting keeps me alive. And I’m aware that one day
when I stop fighting, part of me, a big part of me, will die with that
decision." - Mirko Cro Cop
When you first think of Mirko Cro Cop, the first vision may be of the merciless stare that intimidated so many opponents even before the opening bell rang, or the left kick to the head that has been immortalized as “cemetery,” as in his classic line “right leg hospital, left leg cemetery.” Nostalgic isn’t usually an adjective attached to the former PRIDE superstar, but as he conducted an interview before his UFC 137 bout with Roy Nelson, he made sure to point out a very special anniversary coming along in 2012.
“Next year in June, it will be exactly 20 years since the first fight in my career,” said Cro Cop. “It was in the Croatian national junior boxing championship.”
Just 17, the native of Vinkovci was on the verge of fulfilling a dream he had harbored since he was a child to compete in the ring, but he had no idea that nearly 20 years later he would still be competing as an icon of the sport he eventually migrated to, mixed martial arts.
“It was 1992, the first time I ever entered the ring,” he recalled. “But I started training much longer before that. I was nine or 10. I trained myself in my garage, but I trained every day, sometimes twice a day, without any club behind me. In the part of Croatia I was in, it was a very small village without any clubs, and nothing existed, not even karate. It was just me in my old garage and a crazy, crazy wish and a crazy will.”
And he was good. Very good. Cro Cop was a raw talent with power and determination and after a successful run as an amateur boxer, kickboxing beckoned, and soon he realized that fighting was not only a passion, but a way out.
“I think it was 1995, I came to Zagreb from my village, which is around 200 miles away, and without a dollar in my pocket, I was more hungry than full,” he said. “I knew the sport was the only way for me to swim out from that misery and in a way to save my family, to save my mother, and to earn some more money. If I decided to work in the police and just that, I would be sentenced to work for five to six hundred dollars per month, so I would be surviving from the first to the first every month to get my money. The sport was the only way for me to run out from the misery. And that was a true motive for me. At that point, I didn’t want to be famous, I just wanted to make some money.”
He made his money, became famous, and also built a legacy that won’t be tarnished by anything that happens on Saturday night or beyond. One of the most feared strikers in MMA history, Cro Cop never wrested the PRIDE heavyweight title from champions Fedor Emelianenko or “Minotauro” Nogueira, but he did win the 2006 Openweight Grand Prix tournament, which is likely the crowning achievement of his career. His UFC career has not gone as well, as he’s only managed a 4-5 record in nine Octagon outings, a slate which he finds unacceptable.
“To tell you the truth, in my own eyes, I feel ashamed that I’ve collected five losses in the UFC,” he said. “Reasons are not important now. Who cares for the reasons? But I’ve got to be honest to myself. I trained hard, I was always professional, but some circumstances happened and sometimes it gives alibis in my own eyes. I don’t expect alibis in the eyes of the UFC or of my fans. I had six surgeries - four knee surgeries, one foot surgery, and one nose surgery - since I came to the UFC and it was a lot, and it left a mark. So I really believe that I have a lot to show (at UFC 137).”
Yet despite falling on hard times in a sporting sense in recent years, two things haven’t wavered – the level of respect Cro Cop receives from his peers (look at any pre-fight interviews with Nelson or recent foes Brendan Schaub and Pat Barry for proof), and the loyalty of his fanbase. And it’s the fans desire to stick by his side that has really touched the former member of the Croatian Parliament and the anti-terrorist police unit ATJ LUCKO.
“It’s a nice feeling,” he said. “Sometimes I feel weird when completely unknown people approach me and talk to me just like I’m part of the family, but it makes me happy in a way. Sometimes people cross the line in communication, but 99 percent of them are very nice people and I’m very happy to share the moments with them, especially when I can see and feel that it means a lot to them. I was never the kind of person who refused a photo or refused to sign a piece of paper.”
What Cro Cop has been over the years is fairly reclusive when it comes to the media. The tendency is to say that it’s his loss for not getting out in front of the public more often, but as anyone who has spoken to him at length will attest, it’s been our loss, because when you do corner him and catch him when he’s willing to talk on the record, he’s an engaging and fascinating figure. People have seen glimpses of his personality, but despite being more open to one-on-ones in the lead-up to the Nelson fight, he admits to still not being a fan of the whole process.
“During my Japan career, I was able to avoid all kinds of press conferences because I just didn’t like it,” he explains. “I never liked to be exposed too much, and why, I don’t know. I’m aware that many people have a dream just to appear on TV and get some interest. And in a way, it’s my duty. I committed myself to the UFC and I need to promote the fight, so I understand. But if you ask me if I’m especially happy, it’s so hard for me. I think the glory brings only trouble in a man’s life. That’s my opinion. The best thing is to be rich, but anonymous, that nobody knows about it. I think all those stars in America, the movie stars and some pop stars, I think they are very unhappy people. People are spying on them and running after them, those paparazzi are following them, they can’t open their mouth or put their finger in their nose, which is something that each of us does from time to time, because they are being spied on. I never liked it and I never wished for it to happen to me. I am very happy with my life, I have a beautiful family, two sons, and who needs anything more than that?”
He’s right. Yet that also begs the question, at 37 years old, with enough money in the bank and a legacy secure, why go into the gym every day to spar with the likes of Barry (yes, his former opponent has been his main sparring partner for this fight) and make all the other sacrifices a professional fighter has to make?
“It’s hard to say,” Cro Cop admits. “I’m excited because I don’t know how to do anything else but fighting. It doesn’t mean that I’m desperate or that I didn’t make money enough to secure my life and the life of my family; it’s just that I don’t know anything else to do. In a certain way, fighting keeps me alive. And I’m aware that one day when I stop fighting, part of me, a big part of me, will die with that decision. And that’s what still motivates me.”
It’s an intriguing look into the psyche of a fighter, one who has been living this life longer than he hasn’t been. As Cro Cop points out, for over two decades, “I’ve been living like a soldier and living by the book. I don’t consume alcohol, I go to sleep on time, I wake up on time. Every fighter had good and bad days, and of course it happened for me to lose some fights which I’m sorry for very much because I’m that kind of person that I hate to lose. But you never saw me fat, saw me unprepared, never saw me with my hair too long, or that I didn’t shave. That’s something that I would never allow, and I think that I am a big, big professional, and that makes me happy and makes me proud.”
As he conducts this interview, he is getting his legs worked on by his conditioning coach to prepare for another sparring session with Barry. The years of toil and the numerous surgeries have been a reminder that his 40th birthday is closing in, but when he thinks of the alternative to fighting, there’s nowhere else he would rather be.
“I wake up every morning at 6 o’clock,” he said. “Even if I can afford to sleep ‘til 10, even if I can go to my own coffee bar to have coffee and hang around until 2. I can have lunch, take a nap after lunch, and then go back to the coffee bar and play cards with my friends. But that’s not the kind of life that I want. Even if this is much, much more harder. I sparred for the last six weeks and there were a million small injuries. I’ve been punched to the head, kicked to the body, I’ve blocked kicks, so everything hurts.”
He stops suddenly, and gathers his thoughts to make a strong a point as he can.
“You ask me if I need it,” he continues. “No, I don’t need it to survive. But that’s the only life I know and that’s the life that makes me happy. Nothing less, nothing more.”
Those are the words of a fighter, and though Cro Cop may have lost some fights, he has never lost that spirit and desire. It’s why after his last bout, a third round knockout loss to Brendan Schaub at UFC 128 in March, he returned home to Croatia and was back in the gym the very next day. If you think he’s showing up for a paycheck, you would be wrong. If there’s anything left for him to give in the Octagon, he’s going to give it on Saturday night.
“The feeling after the fight, when I kick somebody’s ass, at that moment I am the happiest man on the planet,” he said. “I don’t think about anything else. I don’t think that somebody’s watching me or not watching. I don’t think about the fight money I earned. I just enjoy the moment. And of course on the other side, if it happens that I lost the fight, that’s the worst moment for me that can happen. And that motivates me and keeps me being a soldier and training twice a day.”
Being in the last fight of his UFC contract, this could very well be the final Octagon march for this soldier. And if he does lose, he doesn’t expect to stick around in the UFC, saying “I don’t expect the UFC to call me or extend the contract. I don’t want to live on an old glory that I made five, six, or ten years ago. It’s not an option for me. I need to be honest.”
And he has been – with himself, his opponents, and his fans. And having done so, he feels that all that’s left is a bout of 15 minutes or less with Roy Nelson.
“Any fight can be the last one, and not just for me, but for anyone,” he said. “But a loss is not an option that I can see in this fight. It doesn’t mean that I underestimate Roy, no way, he can be a dangerous fighter, and he can be a true danger to anyone in the world. I’m sure that I’m going to win this fight, but this is MMA. When two fighters enter the cage, one of them has to lose, so I don’t want to underestimate or insult my opponent. I really believe that I’m going to win, just like he believes that he’s going to win. The only thing I can see right now and that I’m thinking about is how to beat Roy Nelson. That’s all I’m thinking right now. For any further conversation, I need to kick Roy Nelson’s ass, that’s all.”
Then, finally, a chuckle from Mirko Cro Cop.
“That’s how it is. I told you everything, just like I’m standing in front of the preacher.”