This Saturday’s UFC Fight Pass event in Krakow is filled with fighters I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t doubt that some of them could turn out to be contenders in the UFC, but I’m not going to pretend that I know those fighters well enough to break them down. Instead, I’m going to focus my attention on a fight that is improbably a main event in 2015: Mirko Cro Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga.
Cro Cop is one of the fighters who made me a fan of this sport. It’s been a while since he wasn’t a washed up shadow of his former self, but he used to be one of the most feared fighters in all of combat sports. Cro Cop’s series of head kick knockouts in PRIDE, against tough opponents like Igor Vovchanchyn, Aleksander Emelianenko, and Wanderlei Silva, made him a terrifying figure in the ring.
Cro Cop’s game worked for a number of reasons. One is that he developed very good takedown defense and a very effective sprawl. Another was his simple but effective striking arsenal, featuring a crisp straight left, a devastating left kick that Cro Cop threw to the head, body, and legs, and an excellent sense of distance control. The final factor was excellent speed, which gave Cro Cop the ability to land his strikes before his opponents could react properly.
When Cro Cop moved to the UFC in 2007, it was widely expected that he would run through the UFC heavyweight division. This was equal parts due to Cro Cop’s status as a terror from PRIDE and the UFC’s relative lack of heavyweight talent. For a lot of fans, the idea of Cro Cop taking on goofy Tim Sylvia was just comical.
So when Cro Cop was matched against Gabriel Gonzaga in his second UFC fight, not many people thought Gonzaga stood a chance. Not only did Gonzaga stand a chance, he made Cro Cop look awful. Gonzaga took Cro Cop down, landed a series of hard strikes on the ground, and finished him with perhaps the most devastating head kick in UFC history. I’ll never forget where I was at that moment, and the utter shock everybody had while watching that outcome.
After that fight, every Cro Cop match was an exercise in delusion, of fans like myself being sure that the “old Cro Cop” would come back and make his UFC run to the title as anticipated. But it never happened. With every fight, Cro Cop looked a little slower, a little more unsure of himself, and sometimes he just looked intimidated.
Knockout losses to Frank Mir, Brendan Schaub and Roy Nelson should have ended Cro Cop’s career. At some point, a fighter’s ability to endure punishment leaves him; that’s the point at which he should hang up the gloves. Instead, Cro Cop has fought outside the UFC, getting choked out by Alexey Oleinik while defeating Satoshi Ishii and the unheralded Shinichi Suzukawa. Apparently, two wins over Ishii were enough to convince the UFC to bring Cro Cop back again, to rematch Gonzaga.
The three factors that allowed Cro Cop to succeed in PRIDE are now gone. Cro Cop is now 40 years old and is much slower with his strikes than he used to be. He no longer sets up his kicks with his punches, instead just throwing single head kicks and hoping opponents fail to block them. His ability to defend takedowns has diminished as well.
Cro Cop’s statistics in UFC competition are dismal. He’s landed 215 significant strikes and absorbed 295. He’s landed three knockdowns but has absorbed five. He’s mixed in two takedowns but has been taken down nine times. And these statistics are despite getting very favorable matchups, including Pat Barry, Anthony Perosh, and Mustapha Al-Turk.
With all of that having been said, Cro Cop has to be considered a live underdog against Gonzaga, since Gonzaga doesn’t defend strikes well and doesn’t have a good chin. Even so, Gonzaga enters with the statistical advantage in every significant category. I’ll be rooting for Cro Cop to win for nostalgia’s sake, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
Pick: Gabriel Gonzaga by TKO
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