September 11, 2006

by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
“The only yardstick for success our society has is being a champion. No one remembers anything else.” – John Madden

Truer words have never been spoken especially when it comes to mixed martial arts. Some fighters go an entire career without ever putting a title around their waist and just like in any competitive sport, no matter what the athlete says, it sticks with them long after retirement. But in what has to be considered one of the most inspired performances over the many Grand Prix events that Pride has held, Mirko CroCop finally achieved championship status, something he has long sought.

Few fighters have a story that stretches over time like that of Mirko CroCop. From being a part of an elite Croatian police squad to training and fighting in the highest level of kickboxing in the world in K-1. Unfortunately for CroCop, as successful as he was in many parts of K-1, he was never able to win their Grand Prix championship. Holding wins over some of the best kickboxers in the world was not enough for Mirko, he wanted championship gold. A move to the growing sport of mixed martial arts seemed like just the key.

Debuting in 2001, Mirko CroCop was a classic kickboxer who was trying to make the move to MMA, not knowing all the facets that went along with being a true fighter. He first depended solely on his stand-up skills, never understanding that eventually he’d be forced to learn the ground game as every MMA fighter has to do. Despite running through much of the competition in Pride, Mirko had never truly been tested by a master of the ground game until he ran into former heavyweight champion, Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira.

CroCop had started to master a good takedown defense and for most of the first round he pummeled Nogueira from stem to sternum in what looked like a very one sided battle. But in the second round, a single mistake allowed CroCop to end up on the ground with Nogueira and it was only a matter of time before the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt sunk in an armbar forcing CroCop to tap out and push his title hopes back even further.

It was in 2004 when Pride announced they would put on a heavyweight Grand Prix and just about everyone assumed that CroCop would be alongside champion Fedor Emelianenko and the afore mentioned Nogueira somewhere in the neighborhood of the finals. It was Hammer House product Kevin Randleman that would shock the world when he landed a huge overhand punch that floored CroCop in the first round of their bout, putting a quick end to CroCop’s Grand Prix aspirations.

Like any great fighter will do, CroCop rebounded, this time inviting more and more top level competitors to train with him, including submission wizard Fabricio Werdum, who in time has dramatically improved the Croatian’s ground work. CroCop went on a big win streak that included a victory in a rematch against Randleman, not to mention a huge knockout over champion Fedor’s brother, Aleksander Emelianenko. A fight with champion Fedor Emelianenko was finally scheduled in what had to be one of the most highly anticipated title fights in MMA history.

Again CroCop was looking for his championship but Fedor, who is arguably the greatest fighter of all time, took the fight to CroCop instead and the reigning heavyweight champion won a unanimous decision putting his top contender back to the drawing board looking for answers.

It was the announcement of Pride’s Open Weight Grand Prix that gave CroCop another chance to get the championship he was seeking for so long. He blasted through his first two opponents, Ikuhisa Minowa and Hidehiko Yoshida, preparing him for a run in the semifinals and finale. The current Croatian parliament member was promptly matched up with current Pride middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva in a rematch from a fight they had in 2002. The first fight was under special rules as CroCop was still adjusting to the rules of MMA, moving over from the world of kickboxing and the fight was declared a draw after 5 rounds.

Very few fighters, short of Vitor Belfort many years ago, have made champion Wanderlei Silva look vulnerable on his feet, but CroCop did just that. Silva had no answer to CroCop’s pinpoint accuracy with his punches, and unlike previous bouts when the fight hit the ground and CroCop would do just about anything to get back to his feet, he started to reign down punishment with some very effective ground and pound.

After a huge mouse opened up under Silva’s eye and the fight was finally stood back up, CroCop avoided a flurry from the middleweight champ and then uncorked one of his world famous left high kicks that rocketed off of Silva’s head sending him to the canvas and handing the knockout win to CroCop putting him in the finals against a man he was all too familiar with.

Josh Barnett was stepping into the ring with CroCop for the third time, but this one was for the Grand Prix championship. The first bout was pretty much a wash as Barnett had his shoulder separated in the opening minutes and the fight was stopped. The second bout was much more decisive as CroCop dominated the former UFC champion getting a unanimous decision win. But with the Grand Prix championship on the line, all previous fights were disregarded and the two warriors went to battle.

CroCop looked simply inspired with his performance in which he stuffed any takedown attempt and continued to unleash hard body shots that put Barnett on the canvas multiple times. Again instead of just asking for the fight to be stood back up, CroCop settled into Barnett’s guard and threw punch after punch, landing multiple shots to his opponent’s bloodied face.

A few more shots opened up Barnett’s guard and CroCop started to hammer fist down with a flurry. Barnett shouted out when one last shot seemed to really hurt him and he was forced to tap out due to strikes. With the submission to strikes, Mirko CroCop had finally reached the Grand Prix championship. CroCop, seemingly one of the most cold and calculating fighters out there, was seen with tears streaming from his face when the title was handed to him declaring him the 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix champion.

Facing all of the demons from his previous losses. Facing adversity from those who said he just couldn’t win the big fight. Mirko CroCop proved that he is a champion and his performance will go down as one of the greatest in mixed martial arts history.