by Mick Hammond
Fedor versus Cro Cop, those four words have been looming over the heads of the MMA faithful for almost two years now with no end in sight, until now. Finally after injuries, tournament upsets, and more injuries the fight that everyone has been waiting for is just around the bend. At last we will know who is the best heavyweight not only in Pride, but in MMA as the perennially top two ranked fighters face off at Final Conflict 2005.
It’s hard to imagine that a singular bout could overshadow what has arguably been the most stacked tournament in history in Pride’s 2005 Middleweight GP, but this bout can. Initially slated for Final Conflict 2003, an injury to Fedor Emelianenko kept the Russian tank from defending his title against number one contender Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. In his place Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would step and face Cro Cop for the interim title and hand Mirko his first ever loss.
Since that night it’s been the ongoing mission of Mirko to claim the title, one way or another, he wanted to prove that he is the best in the world, but it’s been a bumpy ride that has only lately settled enough to get him his title shot.
When Mirko entered Pride he was considered one of K-1’s top young talents. While never winning a GP tournament, Cro Cop’s knockout power had kept him close to top of their rankings and fan support. So when he made his MMA debut against Pride veteran Kazuyuki Fujita at a K-1 memorial event expectations were high and he did not disappoint defeating the Japanese “Iron Head” in just over thirty seconds.
Throughout the remainder of 2001 Cro Cop would continue to compete on behalf of K-1 in Pride and Antonio Inoki sponsored events looking uncomfortable when a fight went any distance longer than the initial feeling out stage. In 2002 while fighting under special rules, Mirko would draw Wanderlei Silva before destroying Kazushi Sakaraba’s eye and out distancing Fujita at the year ending Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event. It was then that Mirko would get the urge to compete in MMA alone and leave K-1 behind.
2003 looked to be a banner year for Mirko as his confidence and fan support grew on his way to defeating Pride veterans Heath Herring and Igor Vovchanchyn in decisive fashion before quickly routing Dos Caras Jr. in Prides inaugural Bushido event. Mirko seemed on a collision course with Fedor, but the match was not to happen as an injury and later contract disputes kept the two from meeting. Thus Mirko would face off against former champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for an interim title.
In the match it was clear that Mirko was a superior striker and that his overall game was improving with a sprawl that kept the Brazilian submission specialist off balance for the entire first round and part of the second. Mirko’s lone weakness, his submission defense would be his undoing as Nogueira caught him in an arm bar and Mirko was denied his title.
Extremely unhappy with his loss Cro Cop would blaze through his next two fights en route to Pride’s second ever Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2004. Labeled as one of the favorites to at least get to the semi-finals, an overconfident and seemingly uninspired Cro Cop got caught flat footed and was knocked out by Kevin Randleman in the tournament’s first round. Mirko would again be forced to wait it out as Fedor would return to Pride and eventually take the tournament title.
Since the loss to Randleman, Mirko has been on a tear winning all seven of his fights and avenging the loss to Kevin in the process and now he finally sits poised to face off against the only top heavyweight he has yet to fight in Pride. With the help of BJJ coach Fabricio Wurdum and an insatiable drive to be champion, Mirko is as complete as ever, but to become champion he has to face possibly the most destructive force MMA has ever seen, Fedor Emelianenko.
To say there are champions and then there are dynasties has become an ever-fleeting concept in sports. More so now than ever there is a parity that levels each sport’s playing field, but every once in a while there is something special that comes a long that lasts a long time. Thus is Fedor Emelianenko, the undisputed consensus number one heavyweight and pound-for-pound fighter in the world. A champion so formidable that he makes all other previous champions seem like ashes in his wake.
Yes, Fedor is that good. He’s revolutionized the ground ‘n pound offense, and if you don’t think so, just watch any number of fighters nowadays that emulate his style and use his missile-like lunging punches when an opponent pulls guard. Ever since he’s started fighting out of the Red Devil Sportsclub in 2000, almost no one has come close to stopping this Russian monster.
Starting off in Rings, Fedor became an immediate presence, and if not for a cut suffered in a fight with UFC vet and Pancrase champ Tsuyoshi Kosaka, Fedor would still be undefeated in MMA. Emelianenko’s opponents only managed to get out of the first round in three of his fights, and every time out Fedor showed the balance (literally and figuratively) that would become his trademark, mixing up equal numbers of submissions, KO’s and decisions.
With his success in Rings Fedor found himself quickly thrust on to the biggest stage in MMA, Pride, and he did not disappoint. After figuring out how to topple a giant in Semmy Schilt in his first Pride bout, Emelianenko dominated former Pride top ranked contender Heath Herring to earn his shot at Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s title in March of 2003.
Prior to meeting Fedor, Minotauro had dominated the opposition, using his submission skills to get past everyone from Herring, to Mark Coleman and even behemoth Bob Sapp, but against Fedor, Nogueira had no answers. Every time the fight went to the ground the Brazilian tried in vain to attempt submissions only to have the raw power of Fedor allow him to muscle out of maneuvers as if being held by a child. After three clear-cut and decisive rounds Fedor became Pride’s second Heavyweight Champion and the rest is history.
Upon winning the title Fedor has only gone to decision once, against Nogueira, and has only failed officially to stop opponents in the first round in that very fight. To say he might be the most dominant champion ever could be an understatement. Only Wanderlei Silva has currently held a title consecutively longer and only Silva has held a title and won Pride’s GP for the division, considering that Fedor has remained undefeated in his Pride campaign, unlike Silva, just goes to show how truly dominant he is.
And now the time has come and the two best heavyweights in the world must face off. The questions are simple, can Cro Cop knockout Fedor, can Fedor take Mirko down when others couldn’t, when it goes to the ground who will have the upper hand? These are all questions that can only be answered in battle, but if previous experience tells us anything, there may be some holes in each fighter’s game their opponent can exploit.
First off, while no one has put Fedor on his back, Kazuyuki Fujita did manage to rock Emelianenko in their fight. If Mirko can keep his punches tight and not telegraph the high kick, he could put Fedor down considering how much harder he hits and Fujita. On Fedor’s side of things he has to take Mirko down to negate his striking power, and while Mark Coleman couldn’t take Mirko down, a persistent Nogueira was able to and get the win against Mirko. If Fedor can weather the storm and get inside and manage to out-leverage Mirko rather than try to muscle him down, he may just get Mirko on the ground. To this point we’ve never really seen what Mirko can do from his back, and it’s in the guard and on top where Emelianenko is his most dangerous and with more years of experience in submissions, the distinct advantage on the ground is Fedor’s.
There is a lot more at stake than just a title, the winner will further cement himself in the history of MMA because this fight has legacy written all over it. What would Royce Gracie be without Ken Shamrock, or Wanderlei Silva be without Kazushi Sakuraba, in order to be great one must have a great nemesis, and Fedor and Mirko can each be that one springboard to the other’s ultimate destiny in the sport.
After years of waiting it’s finally going to happen. Whether or not it can live up to the hype is yet to be seen. But this is the fight everyone has been waiting for and considering the talent involved it shouldn’t disappoint. At the end there will be one champion standing above all, a king among kings if you will. Whether it be Cro Cop or Emelianenko, rest assured that the best fighter will win and will truly deserve the mantle of Pride Heavyweight Champion and best heavyweight MMA fighter in the world.