Image Credit: Joe Camporeale | USA TODAY Sports
Last edition of Who Takes It? featured two men at the top of the world at their craft — the #1 and #3 ranked lightweight kickboxers, competing at GLORY, their sport’s greatest stage. I was amped! I was reminded why I enjoy this stuff.
This week’s edition… doesn’t. And, I’m not. Mostly, I’m feeling reminded that I’m getting old.
Why? You have to look back a few years.
In fact, when heavyweights Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipović and Gabriel “Napao” Gonzaga enter the cage tomorrow in Krakow, Poland for UFC Fight Night, it will be almost eight years to the day from their last meeting.
That night, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist Gonzaga, who had also shown good power in his hands during an eight-fight MMA career, shocked the world by scoring his first and only knockout by head kick against Cro Cop — the man who had ‘head-kicked’ his way to international superstardom, in what was then the epicenter of both kickboxing and MMA: Japan.
Gonzaga, whose nickname is a Portuguese expression for “Big Nose,” went on to lose to perhaps the era’s most dominant champion, Randy Couture, in his only shot at a title. But he sniffed out some more victories as the years went on; in fact, he has won the most fights by finish in UFC heavyweight history, with eleven (tied with Frank Mir). Still, his most famous moment was undoubtedly against Cro Cop, who got his nickname from his days in a Croatian law enforcement. (Seriously. Japanese MMA enjoyed making odd nicknames up for their stars, but Mirko’s stuck — serving as another reminder of the charm of the era.)
But Gonzaga has also earned other noteworthy wins, like his 2013 guillotine choke over Ben Rothwell. That night he was relentless in his takedown attempts, and eventually forced the grappling exchange to earn the win.
Can he do the same tomorrow, against Cro Cop, who is making his first UFC appearance since 2011?
Before we ponder that, let’s go back a little farther.
The southpaw Cro Cop once stalked his opponents, landing hard straight lefts and finishing with his left high kick. In the early to mid-2000’s, I never wanted to miss a Cro Cop fight: from his MMA debut at the K-1 “Andy Hug Memorial” event in 2001, which I found on VHS at a Japanese video store, to his later glory days in PRIDE, which were eventually made available on US PPV. Everyone should track down his PRIDE GP victories, beating the likes of Josh Barnett and Wanderlei Silva. But hey, I even watched his goofy action movie. (Admittedly, not everyone should track that down.)
Now, he seems to struggle to move around at all in there, plodding through recent bouts in both kickboxing and MMA.
I still love the guy — can’t help it. But when was the last time he won a bout against a heavyweight among MMA’s elite? Two wins against Satsoshi Ishii in recent competition in the now-limited scene in Japan? A come-from-behind knockout of Pat Barry about five years ago?
Still, it’s a tough fight to call, as Gonzaga has seen better days, too. The Brazilian is on a two fight losing streak — including a one round knockout at the hands of Matt Mitrione in his last Octagon appearance.
That night, Gonzaga’s lack of quickness came into play right away. After landing a heavy leg kick, Gonzaga seemed glanced by a quick right-left combination and crumbled to the mat.
But I don’t think that tells us much about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Sure Mitrione is also a southpaw, but he moves much quicker than Cro Cop, at the prime of his athletic career.
Gonzaga looked better against Stipe Miocic last January. There he also landed his leg kicks early, which have become a big part of his game — but stayed cautious as Miocic advanced. He also threatened with an overhand right; even landing it a few times. A late takedown probably secured round one. But he tired, and Miocic’s superior boxing and athleticism would carry the day — earn the Croatian-American a decision victory.
I would think the UFC would want to “build” Cro Cop up with an easier fight than this. Sadly, with the old legend at 40, maybe they just don’t think there’s any time — and using his name to draw fans to a European show, while they still can, is their only option. Or maybe, they just wanted to keep another promotion from signing him.
Or maybe, I’m underestimating Cro Cop.
I hope it’s the latter. But, I doubt it. I don’t think he’s who he once was either, but I see Gonzaga having enough left to hit some early strikes, get a takedown, and pound Cro Cop out — leading to a round two submission victory.
I’ll be watching, and likely pouring a glass out for an old hero. The event begins 8:45 am Pacific, so it’s likely a coffee, and I’ll probably need two if I try and have a beer tonight, but whatever.
As always, enjoy the fights.