Old 'Cop' and the art of graceful exits
It's a bit of a stretch to say Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic looked good against Patrick Barry on Saturday at UFC 115. Filipovic was dropped twice in the first round, which would normally be cause for an opponent to take advantage, but Barry just blinked at him. Filipovic turned it on later in the third round, though choking out someone with limited ground ability doesn't provide a USA/Russia-hockey level of excitement.
None of this is intended to discount his victory, which is impressive by any measure considering his recent performances, but it was not the display that would cement his status as a contender among his fans.
In a move that is spectacularly out of character for a fighter, Filipovic seems to recognize this.
Back in Croatia, he told a local newspaper (translated by Fighters Only) that "I am now too old for this … I have no motivation for the fight, no mental strength for all the Spartan training. I am no longer so hungry for victory."
Fighting is such a grind that it takes either an obsession or a fear of poverty to push yourself through the months leading up to bouts. Filipovic seems to have neither.
If he commits to an exit, it would mark one of the few times a high-profile MMA athlete has chosen a decent performance as his last. The current trait isn't walking away but getting wheeled away.
What makes Cro Cop so self-aware? He seems to be heavily invested in Croatian politics, which means he's able to define himself in ways other than fighting. He's financially secure after years as a star when Japan could afford to be generous. He doesn't appear to have the same insistence over wringing every last bit of effectiveness from his body that other fighters do. And he seems to realize that if you're not angling toward a belt in the UFC, you're spinning wheels.
Filipovic's attitude is in stark contrast to that of Chuck Liddell, who has suffered a steady succession of TKO losses in the past three years but insists on ignoring what his body is trying to tell him. Odd, too, that Cro Cop would have the maturity to reflect on retirement after a win while some expect Liddell could angle for a third fight with Tito Ortiz.
Filipovic may not have to consider it, but there's something to be said for remaining a little enigmatic at the late stages of your career. If you're still perceived as a dominant participant, endorsements and seminar revenue are going to swell more than if you get tied into knots. It's also a pretty revealing piece of character -- you've got other things going on besides fighting. It's what you do and not who you are.
Once an athlete displays a decline in skills, becoming a trophy head for younger fighters is inevitable. Why exhaust every last ounce of skill and effort allowing it to play out? What fighter has ever plodded into a ring, reflexes eroding, and managed to squeeze out another five or six victories? When the body is kind enough to warn you of pending trouble, you should take it as a clue not to sign a contract extension.
Naturally, much of what a fighter has to say about his career in the hours and days following a fight should be ignored. It's usually contradicted once he has time to settle his head. Filipovic might change his mind again.
But he's made this noise before, and this time seems pragmatic about his fatigue. If he's looking for an exit, it means he's an anomaly among his peers. He knows when the show is over.