Can 'Cro Cop' return to the top?

NEIL SPRINGER -- SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Over the course of his mixed martial arts career, Mirko (Cro Cop) Filipovic has been known for many things.

The Croatian kickboxer's left head kick was once considered the most devastating strike in the entire sport. His left-straight, which he throws with laser-like precision, was thought to be almost as dangerous. At one point he was even ranked as the second best heavyweight in the world, behind Fedor Emelianenko.

And despite being responsible for such verbal gems as, "Right leg hospital, left leg cemetery," Filipovic has never been known to be particularly talkative -- that is, until Tuesday's UFC 99 conference call.

The 2006 PRIDE fighting championships open-weight grand prix champion didn't hold back in discussing his previous struggles in the UFC -- where he went 1-2 -- which included a highlight reel knockout loss at the hands of Gabriel Gonzaga.

"I just think I wasn't the old Mirko Cro Cop," Filipovic began. "I don't know the reason why; I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Maybe I was just empty right after I won the PRIDE grand prix. I don't know. Maybe I wasn't adapted to the fight in the cage. Maybe I wasn't hungry enough.

"I just didn't smell the blood...like I did in my previous fights."

After his first three UFC matches, Filipovic left the organization and began fighting in Japan under the K-1/DREAM banner, where he went 2-0 with one no contest. However, UFC president Dana White had told him the door was always open if he wanted to return to the company.

Mere weeks before UFC 99, Filipovic picked up the phone and asked to be added to the UFC's debut in Germany. White agreed, and on short notice, a match with British submissions wrestler Mostapha Al Turk was added to the UFC 99 main card.

"I've always said I respect Mirko and that if he ever wanted to come back, it was a phone call away," White said. "When Mirko and I talked on the phone...let me tell you what, he was all fired up. He basically said, 'Listen. I've had my surgery and I've been training. I want to come back; I want to win that title.'"

Filipovic said that a big motivating factor for him now is to erase the memory of his first stint with the UFC.

"UFC was the black spot in my career and in my life," he said. "I just want to justify the trust that Dana White gave me two years ago, calling me to the UFC after I went from PRIDE. It just bothers me a lot.

"But today those things are behind me. I have the strongest and best motivation to return to the top. I just want to prove to everyone that they were wrong. I've never been motivated like this before in my career."

It would benefit the UFC heavyweight division greatly to have Filipovic return to his former glory. But there are still a number of questions that need to be answered before he's again considered among the best in the weight class.

Though returning to Japan may have helped him regain his confidence, Filipovic's time there was not without problems.

At DREAM 6, he took a beating from Dutch kickboxer Alistair Overeem. Many felt the fight was close to being stopped, but it was eventually ruled a 'no contest' when Overeem connected with an accidental knee to the groin and Filipovic couldn't continue.

Following the bout, Filipovic came under fire for not sucking it up and continuing the fight.

Though the 'Cro Cop' of old has yet to be seen since his spectacular grand prix win, he has the opportunity to make an example of Al Turk.

"I respect Al Turk, just like any of my previous opponents, but I will not lose this fight," Filipovic said. "That doesn't mean I underestimate him. He's a grappler, but in today's mixed martial arts, we are all grapplers, we are all submission fighters and we are all stand-up fighters...you need to be a complete fighter.

"I don't want to underestimate anyone, but I'm not afraid of any fighter -- even on the ground."


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