Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipović is a legend: 26-7 as a professional kickboxer with wins over the likes of Jerome Le Banner, Peter Aerts, Mark Hunt and Bob Sapp (back when he was a real fighter); 41-10 as a mixed martial arts fighter, with wins over Josh Barnett (x2), Mark Coleman and Wanderlei Silva, as well winner of the 2006 PRIDE open weight Grand Prix champion.
While Cro Cop rarely opens up the media, an interview by Brian J. D’Souza (author of new MMA book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts) with his former manager, Miro Mijatovic, reveals interesting details that fans likely never heard before. In part one of two parts, we hear about the ground rules for conducting business in Japan, Mirko’s blacklisting from K-1 and the sycophants who lobbied for control of K-1
BD: You were an international lawyer working in Japan, how did you get into the fight game?
MM: I had always been into sports, although a basketball and soccer player myself; and when I set up my company in Japan, one of the businesses I got into was sports management and athlete representation; initially through representing iconic Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe in Japan. Ian was a major star in Japan leading up to the Sydney Olympics, with contracts with TV Asahi and sponsors like Coca Cola, Adidas and Konami.
Sports management and athlete representation was an embryonic industry in Japan back in around 2000/2001 as Japan has a more “corporate” approach to sports compared to more developed sports markets in the US and Europe. By that I mean that professional athletes in Japan were often “employees” of big corporations who own sports teams as opposed to independent contractors with independent expert advisors which is more of the case overseas.
I then expanded into managing professional soccer, rugby and basketball players. It was through one of the soccer players I took care of, a Croatian national team soccer player who was friendly with Mirko Cro Cop, who then introduced me to him in the early part of 2002.
BD: Cro Cop had some problems when his team came to you for help with sponsorship and marketing?
MM: Yes, Mirko Crocop had a whole number of problems. His manager at the time, Zvonimir Lucic, asked me to look after their “commercial opportunities.” They were dissatisfied, like all fighters, with the lack of income outside their fight money. Specifically, Mirko was not happy that he didn’t receive any money for T-shirt sales (there were major stalls at all K-1 events selling fighter T-shirts) and also that he hadn’t received any money for his appearance on the K-1 game produced by Konami which had then recently been released. Fighters always notice the obvious places they are being ripped off.
Originally I wasn't involved in the fight money negotiations or the matchmaking; but later events would change that.
BD: How was K-1 run during this time in 2002?
MM: For what on the outside looked like a real company, it was an absolute basket case. Kazuyoshi Ishii was the founder and emperor of K-1. Around Ishii were a loosely organized structure of sycophants and fixers who all sought Ishii’s favors. Ishii’s English was limited, and so each fighter and their managers had different people to work with. When Ishii later was convicted for tax fraud, before he went to jail, all these sycophants engaged in a power and favor war with Ishii to be appointed as the head of K-1. The major guys were Sadaharu Tanikawa, who as an ex pro wrestling magazine editor who was mainly in charge of fight media liaison for K-1; Ken Imai who handled foreign promoters and some foreign fighters and Seiya Kawamata who handled K-1’s relations with the yakuza [Editor’s Note: Mijatovic only found this information about Kawamata out in 2003 when it was too late].
All of these guys had one aspect of the business that they looked after. For example, Ken Imai, who had reasonable English skills, styled himself as the expert and point of contact for K-1’s foreign promoters. Despite being described as “K-1 Managing Director,” Ken Imai didn’t get paid by K-1, so he found other ways to make money, like owning half of the foreign promotions like in the US (with Scott Coker) and also in other markets where K-1 would hold events (although not in Europe where he was not liked). Ken Imai also set up the Konami game deal for K-1.
In regards to the fighter T-shirts and other merchandise—this business was actually “run” by Ishii’s younger brother.
Ishii saw all these sort of ancillary activities as crumbs from his table and didn’t care about any of this “minor” stuff. Ishii only cared about his Japanese TV deals, which accounted for more than 95 percent of K-1’s income. Even the foreign K-1 events were underwritten by Japanese broadcast deals. Ironically, it was the “crumbs” from the table which didn’t come down to the fighters which irritated them the most; but funnily enough, it was in the main business of being underpaid for fights or being ripped off by middle men where the fighters were losing the most money.
When Mirko appointed me in May 2002 as his commercial manager, I made various investigations into what was going on and also the opportunities available for fighters. Over the middle of 2002, I contacted all of the major advertising agencies, such as Dentsu and Hakuhodo and other potential sponsors, and found, while K-1 was a household name, whose fighters were instantly recognizable by Japanese people, the foreign fighters did not seem to be of any interest to any sponsors.
As this was happening, relations between Mirko and K-1 fell apart.
BD: How did this occur?
Mirko was always difficult to negotiate with. Not only were negotiations always fraught, Mirko never signed anything and you could never be sure what Mirko was going to do. He refused to do media and basically just didn’t care about anything except his fight; you could never be sure Mirko would turn up to a fight until he was actually in the ring.
At Shockwave, the K-1/PRIDE co-promotion held on August 28, 2002, Mirko took it one step too far.
Obviously, the fight against Kazushi Sakuraba was only Mirko’s second real MMA bout after his surprising and somewhat fortunate victory over Fujita at Inoki Bom Ba Ye 2001. Mirko was a rising star in K-1 and was demanding bigger fight money and Ishii wanted to cut him down to size. So, Ken Imai, who was in charge of contact with PRIDE on the K-1 side for Shockwave, lined up a fight for Mirko on the Shockwave card against Sakuraba.
In Mirko’s first fight against Kazuyuki Fujita (held on August 19, 2001), everybody, including Mirko and Fujita knew how the fight was going to unfold. Mirko’s trainer at the time believed that Mirko had one chance, which was to hit Fujita with a knee as he came shooting in. Once it was on the ground, it was accepted that Mirko would lose the fight. So, that’s all they practiced for the first Fujita fight. Whether you call it luck or good strategy, it worked like a charm, and Mirko opened Fujita’s head like a watermelon with a perfect knee as Fujita came shooting in. Of course, Mirko saw his win as his chance to increase his fight money, and with his other wins in 2002, Mirko became a problem for K-1 with his contact demands. It was understood in these days that Mirko’s K-1 fights would earn him $10,000 to $30,000 US, while his early mixed martial arts bouts would earn him two to three times what his K-1 bouts were paying. You have to remember, K-1 wanted Mirko to lose so they could go back to screwing him over financially.
At Shockwave, lightening struck twice and Mirko opened up Sakuraba with his upkick [fracturing Sakuraba’s orbital bone in the second round] and won that fight as well. Although it wasn’t the fight that was the problem, it was what Mirko did before the fight
Mirko had agreed his best ever purse of $150,000 US for the Sakuraba fight. This was a huge amount in those days. But when Mirko stepped into Yoyogi Stadium and saw 80,000 people, Mirko’s entourage started to get into his ear. At the stadium, as the event was unfolding, Mirko told K-1 that unless they doubled his money, he wouldn’t be walking out into the ring. You can imagine the shitfight this caused; and finally, Mirko was paid his $300,000; but with it, came Ishii’s banishment back into the wilderness. After the event, Ishii publicly pronounced that Mirko, due to his conduct at Shockwave, would be out of the K-1 Grand Prix that year and it was unclear that he would ever be coming back to K-1.
Mirko was shocked, as he was coming off what was maybe his biggest victory to date, and had the momentum going into the K-1 GP. It looked like his Japanese fight career was over.
BD: This wasn’t the first time K-1 had frozen him out, either, was it?
MM: Mirko was originally brought into K-1 by Branko Cikatic, “The Croatian Tiger,” best remembered by Pride fans for his “unique” MMA fight style. However, Mirko and Branko fell out over money and Branko asked Ishii to blackball Mirko, which he did and Mirko was out of K-1 for a couple of years [Mirko’s K-1 record reflects this inactivity from 1996 to 1999]. So Mirko knew what being blackballed from K-1 meant and he knew it was a reality.
BD: So how did Mirko get back into the Japanese fight game?
MM: Mirko asked me to intervene in September 2002 and see what I could do with K-1. I had a simple strategy: I found out that K-1 had no written contracts with Mirko, which meant that Mirko had not licensed his image onto the K-1 official T-shirts. Even more interesting, Mirko and other prominent K-1 fighters had not licensed their image rights to Konami for the K-1 video game.
I informed K-1 that unless we could open negotiations for Mirko’s return to the fight game, I was going to launch two lawsuits against them (1) for recovery of amounts due from illegal sale of T-shirts, and (2) suing K-1 and Konami for using Mirko’s image on the Konami game. I also sent an independent Japanese sports reporter to Croatia to get Mirko back into the Japanese media; mainly to show that we had the ability to get our story out into the Japanese media if necessary.
K-1, and more importantly, their TV partners, Fuji TV, TBS and NTV, and their sponsors, were very adverse to any negative publicity. At this time, K-1 founder Ishii was also under investigation for tax fraud resulting from a fake contract to bring Mike Tyson to K-1. Not that Tyson knew anything about this fake contract…
The strategy worked, and K-1 Managing Director Ken Imai was in my office the next day. During some difficult negotiations, while Ishii would not budge on Mirko’s exclusion from the K-1 GP in 2002, as a “compromise,” Ishii did accept to rematch Mirko with Fujita for K-1 promoted event Inoki-Bom-Ba-Ye 2002. Of course, K-1 thought that this time heavyweight Fujita would be able to nail Mirko, or at least avoid his knee and with that expected beating, blow Mirko back into the Croatian wilderness to be forgotten.
Mirko had another strategy – he had been working hard on what became his famous sprawl. IBBY 2002 Fujita II went according to his team’s game plan with Mirko grabbing Fujita’s head when Fujita shot in and delivering knees from North-South. It was painful to watch, but also amazing to see how Fujita could not adjust his game plan. Fujita’s head was brutalized again, and much to K-1’s shock, a star was born.
That night, we were invited to party with Ishii in his room at the Shinjuku Park Hyatt (Tokyo’s swankiest hotel at the time) and Ishii and his top guys and I spoke at length about the opportunities in 2003 while Ken Imai and Tanikawa circled like hungry puppy dogs.
It was the last time I would speak to Ishii before he went to jail for tax fraud.
(TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2)