The sport of mixed martial arts is like a drug. This applies to all of us, no matter if we’re competitors, promoters, agents or journalists covering the events and the athletes. This makes it incredibly hard to walk away at the right time and on your own terms, especially if you are a legendary heavyweight warrior. Unless you are part of a very small circle, you are always chasing one last big paycheck, your promoter will tell you that they just need you this one final time, because of [insert random reason here] and of course you are also addicted to the cheers of the fans, the goosebumps you get when your music starts playing and the overwhelming feeling of joy and accomplishment when the ref steps between you and your opponent, waves the fight off and declares you the winner.
Mirko Cro Cop retired from professional fighting yesterday for a third time and it looks like this time it will be final. Following his fight with Roy Nelson at Bellator 216, the 44-year-old suffered a stroke and according to the reports online, he cheated death just very barely. Even for a hardened, grizzled old veteran who had built his once lean and athletic body into a muscular tank, the signals were too strong and the doctor’s opinion too definite to ignore: Fight again and you’ll die.
Cro Cop did not have an easy road in his career. When he started kickboxing in the mid-90s, he had the major misfortune of being born into a generation that spawned some of the greatest combat sports athletes of all time, legendary warriors like Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, Semmy Schilt and Remy Bonjasky. As a result, he had some great runs in K-1, especially his 1999 campaign where he laid waste to Mike Bernardo, Musashi and Sam Greco before coming up short against an irresistible, prime Mr. Perfect in the Final. He started dabbling in MMA and eventually left K-1 for good in spring of 2003, having gained the reputation of an ultra-popular all-action fighter, but ultimately someone incomplete who had not managed to win the major price just yet.
All of this should change during his stint in PRIDE: With 18 wins from 27 fights and 13 of them coming by way of knockout, he became the second most winningest fighter in the promotion’s history. His mantra “right leg, hospital; left leg, cemetery” – as corny and tacky as it might have sounded – was one of the ultimate truths of the first six years of the new millennium and genuinely struck fear into the hearts of men. Ask Igor Vovchanchyn, Alexander Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva!
In PRIDE, Mirko had legendary wars with some of the greatest names the sport had ever produced like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Coleman and Fedor Emelianenko. He challenged for the PRIDE Heavyweight Championship twice in 2003 and 2005, coming up short against Nogueira and the “Last Emperor” in what both were Fights of the Year, however. It seemed the flaw of being incomplete would remain when he entered the 2006 PRIDE Open-Weight Grand Prix, to this day the most highly decorated tournament in combat sports history. Cro Cop finally reversed his fortunes by knocking out Ikuhisa Minowa, Olympic gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida, longtime middleweight kingpin Wanderlei Silva and forcing former UFC title-holder Josh Barnett to submit to punches on his 32nd birthday to finally engrave his name into the history books.
With the legendary PRIDE Fighting Championships coming to an end in 2007, Mirko continued his career in the UFC. Although never the same fighter inside the Octagon that he was inside the PRIDE ring, he had eleven fights over three stints with the UFC, winning four of them by knockout and one by submission (hat tip: Dean Lister).
After turning 40 years old, in the late fall and early winter of his career and just when everybody thought he was done fighting at a top-level, Cro Cop rose for a final time and finished his remarkable tenure on a ten-fight win streak that span five years and four different promotions. He humiliated and crushed Olympic gold medalist Satoshi Ishii twice in IGF, avenged his loss against Gabriel Gonzaga in the UFC and managed one more major coup that few people thought he was capable of: On NYE of 2016, he knocked out sumo wrestler Baruto with a knee to the body before knocking out highly-touted pre-tournament favorite and Greco-Roman wrestling world champion Amir Aliakbari to win the RIZIN Open-Weight Grand Prix as well.
Mirko Cro Cop is European and Worldwide combat sports royalty. He has given us countless unforgettable moments and memories over the last 20+ years. Although he will be sorely missed as a competitor, here’s a man who has more than earned the right to retire. I am sure we will see him again soon in some other role but for now: Goodbye, Mirko! All the best!