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 championship.
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) and his former manager, Miro Mijatovic, reveals interesting details that fans likely never heard before. In part two of two, we hear about Mirko’s personality, the reasons for Cro Cop’s transition to MMA and how the power-plays to control Mirko led to the fall of PRIDE.
BD: What was Mirko’s personality like? Any special things with his diet?
MM: Mirko is a very serious guy when it comes to training and fighting. His dedication and focus and love of training is unique amongst all of the fighters I’ve worked with.
He doesn’t drink or smoke or party. Food wise, his diet is basically meat and potatoes or pasta. He does not eat vegetables or salad at all. His favorite place to eat in Tokyo was the chain restaurant, “TGIF” where he could get American style fast food. He took “off the shelf” multi-vitamin supplements, buts that about it. His nutritional regime can be best described as primitive.
On a more personal level, he is the most stressful person to be around that I’ve ever experienced (and as a lawyer, I’ve dealt with some pretty stressed out people in my time!). Before fights, he was unbearable—one minute happy and clowning around, the next minute taking offense at the smallest thing and abusing his entourage and everybody else misfortunate enough to be around him at the time. He certainly didn’t like anyone around him who wasn’t an absolute yes-man. In regard to his “sense of humor” and “practical jokes,” while he could dish it out, he certainly couldn’t take it. This was a feature of his fighting style as well.
BD: How much did being in a K-1 World Grand Prix mean to Mirko? Was he upset when K-1 refused him entry in 2002?
MM: This was his major goal in life. Mirko had never been a champion of anything, so his whole purpose in life was to become K-1 GP champion. When Mirko eventually won his first belt—the PRIDE 2006 heavyweight Grand Prix title—his emotional reaction was a reflection of this goal.
On the other hand, Mirko’s a professional fighter, and got over his disappointment really quickly when we arranged the second Fujita fight. I think it was a blessing in disguise, because he was able to train for three months for Fujita. This allowed him to perfect his sprawl and his strategy against Fujita rather than training for K-1.
BD: Why did Mirko transition to MMA in 2003?
MM: The main reason was money. MMA fights were paid much more than K-1 fights. K-1 had developed a system of keeping their fighters paid peanuts despite the fact that K-1 shows were on prime time Japanese national TV. Mirko had become a K-1 star which made known amongst the general viewing public. PRIDE was the poor hick cousin to K-1, with no TV exposure and not known outside its fan base. Mirko was very attractive to PRIDE because they knew that signing Mirko would help PRIDE land a national broadcasting deal with Fuji TV (which it did). Hence, we could negotiate an outstanding deal for Mirko for his transition.
What is less known is also that Mirko believed that MMA would extend his career. During his training for Fujita, he found it easier on his body compared to the constant striking involved in kickboxing. That made it an easy decision. It’s weird that after his time in MMA, he now has returned to kickboxing in last part of his career.
By the time Mirko transitioned to PRIDE, it wasn’t clear that K-1 would survive Ishii’s incarceration or that K-1 could put any events on in 2003. But Kunio Kiyohara, fight producer at Fuji TV, was able to stage the K-1 GP in 2003, although his and Fuji TV’s concentration had already shifter to PRIDE as their main fighting promotion. As an aside, despite K-1 staying on TV, Tanikawa’s pro wrestling-inspired matchmaking had already started the fatal business decline of K-1 from a serious fight promotion to a freak show.
BD: What kind of paydays did he earn in PRIDE versus his K-1 salaries?
MM: I negotiated a purse of $150,000 for Mirko to take on commercial phenomenon Bob Sapp, but prior to working with me, Mirko was generally fighting in K-1 for $10,000 to $30,000. When he went to PRIDE, I basically put a zero on his K-1 money
BD: Wasn’t K-1 angry Mirko left their organization? What repercussions resulted?
MM: Yes, they were shocked. This just wasn’t done in Japan. The promoter was seen to be an emperor and the fighters were “his samurai” there to the promoter’s bidding, bow their heads and behave with “bushido”—hence all the bullshit in Japan where foreign fighters are always bowing to some boss in the crowd to demonstrate their loyalty and allegiance.
But Ishii was in jail and Tanikawa was a lightweight. K-1 was angry and put out a lot of press questioning Mirko’s morals, but it was nothing but noise from a failing promotion.
Things were, of course, very different little than a year later when I moved Fedor from PRIDE to my own promotion [IBBY 2003].
BD: Mirko was favored by PRIDE in many ways, yes?
MM: Yes, indeed! Mirko saw himself as a star and demanded star treatment. While the other PRIDE fighters stayed at the normal rooms in the dilapidated three-star Shinagawa Prince Hotel, Mirko stayed at the five-star Sakura Tower, which was part of the same complex. Mirko didn’t want to mix with the other fighters, so he didn’t catch the bus with them. I arranged for private transport for him.
PRIDE favored Mirko in matchmaking. We could handpick opponents, and PRIDE assisted us to ensure the opponents didn’t know that they were fighting Mirko until the last minute. Heath Herring and Igor Vovchanchyn were handpicked by us to set up victories on the road to a title fight with Fedor Emelianenko (who in the meantime had battered Nogueira to take the PRIDE heavyweight title). We all thought Mirko matched up better against Fedor than he would against Nogueira.
Most importantly, because PRIDE needed to protect their investment in their most marketable star, Mirko had the favor of the PRIDE referees—particularly Shimada. Shimada worked for PRIDE parent company Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE), including in its pro wrestling promotion and was close to top DSE management. Shimada knew what Sakakibara wanted and how to referee Mirko’s fights: quick stand-ups, repositions when things weren’t too good…watch the fights. These are little things, but they are helpful in a fight.
BD: What did Mirko get in exchange for not fighting on your IBBY 2003 NYE show (set to compete head-to-head with PRIDE)?
MM: Well, since Mirko had separated from me, I can’t say for certain. I do know PRIDE president Sakakibara sent Ken Imai (who had joined Sakakibara as his sycophant after Ishii had chosen Tanikawa over Ken Imai to run K-1 when he went into prison), to Zagreb, Croatia with a suitcase full of cash, which Mirko hurt his back picking up [and subsequently pulled out of his scheduled appearance at IBBY 2003]. His injury magically recovered quickly and he had two fights in February 2004.
The Japanese press alerted me to this first. They came to me saying that Ken Imai was flying to Zagreb with money from Sakakibara for Mirko to not fight on IBBY 2003. I confirmed this with people in Zagreb; apparently, Ken Imai stayed at Mirko’s house.
I know the other things he got included Ken Imai convincing Mirkos’s then-manager Zvonimir Lucic to produce an action movie (Ultimate Force) to satisfy Mirko’s desire to be an actor, like his idol Jean Claude Van Damme. I also know Ken Imai was very supportive of Mirko’s political efforts, which I had strongly opposed, as well as Mirko’s other activities like trying to play soccer, etc. Those activities were a distraction from fighting.
BD: Was this the first sign of trouble between you and Mirko?
MM: Not really. In the lead up to the Nogueira fight for the interim PRIDE heavyweight title, Mirko had been approached to become a politician. When I asked why he wanted to do this and why at this time, he told me that a politician gets a pension. I thought this was a weird thing for a guy like him to be worried about considering the money he was then earning and would continue to earn in the future.
Also, although Mirko didn't see it that way, DSE unbalanced Mirko before the Nogueira fight. Before his fights, Mirko usually just sits in his room and plays cards with whichever new members of his entourage had come from Croatia—it was always a different set of guys, as Mirko’s personal relationships usually had short time spans. But the day before the Nogueira fight, Mirko disappeared from the Sakura Tower, much to the consternation of everybody in his team. He was gone all day, returning looking pretty distressed late that evening.
We found out that he was in meetings with Sakaibara and Ken Imai. Because the Nogueira fight was the last fight of his contract, PRIDE was keen to (1) have Mirko lose to Nogueira; and (2) start contract negotiations and to ensure Mirko wouldn’t fight outside PRIDE.
At this time, I was actually discussing with K-1 president Tanikawa and Mirko about bringing him into the K-1 GP 2003 so he could fight for a title two times in 2003. Obviously, Sakakibara and Ken Imai weren’t persuasive enough at that time, so Ken needed to “show Mirko the money.” In November of 2003, Mirko pulled out of his IBBY 2003 fight. On January 4, 2004, while I was been held hostage and extorted by PRIDE’s yakuza owners, Sankei Sports, the sports newspaper which is part of the Fuji TV group, published an open letter from Mirko to me terminating his contract with me for the reason that I had signed Fedor Emelianenko. Ken Imai, who had been fired by K-1 and now worked for Sakakibara, became his manager.
BD: How did this result in the fall of PRIDE?
MM: After Sakakibara decided to take Mirko out of my hands and out of the IBBY 2003 NYE show, I decided to strike back and take Fedor Emelianenko out of his hands.
The rest is history.
BD: Any thoughts or insight on Mirko’s UFC career, or what he’s doing these days?
MM: I always wondered about Mirko going to UFC. I always thought that once he lost the little protections and privileges he was given in PRIDE, that it would all come tumbling down. That, combined with the usual loss of speed athletes experience as they get into their early 30s—this was always going to be Mirko’s issue since his strong point was the ability to avoid getting hit due to his speed and then countering. The combination of all these factors make it was no great surprise that his UFC career was a washout.
In a lot of ways, Mirko was happiest (at least it seemed to me) early in his career when he was living life in the barracks and his life was simple. He fought with bravery and courage. As he got older and more wealthy, he became more calculating and mercenary and lost of that early “bravery” in his fight style.