INTERVIEW with Mirko "CRO COP" Filipovic: "Bruce Lee and Jean Claude Van Damme was my inspiration""
By Loretta Hunt - INSIDE MMA
"I'm in a very good mood today," Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic announces on the other end of the phone. Two weeks out from a kickboxing rematch with Remy Bonjasky at Glory 14 this Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Spike), Filipovic is lying in his bed in Zagreb, Croatia, freshly woken from his daily afternoon nap. VH1 is on in the background, softly playing '80s music videos. His dog, Maximus, is planted at the foot of his bed.
The 39-year-old Filipovic is a creature of habit. He's taken the same nap every day for 20 years.
"I'm not allowed to be woken up under any circumstances, except if my house starts burning. Then my wife is authorized to wake me up, but only if fire gets to the door of my room," he says wryly. "The second is only if American president is calling to take a consultation with me about taking North Korea."
Wait a minute. Is this the right phone number? This is the same kickboxer-turned-MMA fighter whose left high kick decapitated opponents with the precision of an 18th century guillotine? The same guy who struck utter terror into the hearts of an entire fight generation? And here he is, sounding... jovial?
Stone-faced. Icy. Intimidating. That's how the fans know Filipovic, a fighter who's done his best to stay out of the spotlight and miles away from reporters' tape recorders. While other fighters have bared their souls to the public, the frosty Croatian has had a knack for silence.
"Maybe you can say a part of it is shy[ness], but I don't know. I never liked it," Filipovic says. "Maybe it's not good for the business, but that's how I am. At least I'm honest. I always hated to be in the bold lights. That's my business: to go on the stage and the whole arena is staring at me. I like training; I like fighting. I'm a true sportsman and really professional. But I never liked to be a person in the center. I don't know why."
On one hand, you can't blame Filipovic for shunning the interviewing process and all its repetitiveness, with the same questions asked over and over.
"So many people are calling for interviews and I'm refusing everyone," he says. "My life story has been told many times. Everybody who's following the sport knows how I started."
The truth is that's really not the truth. Filipovic's private life has been just that. Sure, his thoughts on certain fights, on certain performances are sprinkled across a handful of short, sterile interviews. But a lot has been left to the unknown.
"Many people, especially journalists, think I'm complicated, but I'm not. I just don't like some things. Too much is too much sometimes. Sometimes I'm in a bad mood," Filipovic admits. "[But] I'm in a very good mood today. I'll answer any questions you have."
Cotton, Sand and Jean-Claude Van Damme
In Privlaka, Croatia, a remote village some 150 miles away from the nation's capital of Zagreb, a 10-year-old Filipovic began his love affair with martial arts. Bruce Lee was an early inspiration; then came a charismatic Belgian martial artist-turned-action movie star named Jean Claude Van Damme.
"I watched him doing splits," Filipovic said. "I was maybe 14 at the time, watching him do splits on chairs and I was like, 'This is it. This is it. I want to be a fighter.' I didn't know I'd be a professional fighter, that I'd secure my life that way, but I knew it was something I really wanted to do."
Filipovic started training in his parent's garage, Van Damme's growing library of adrenalized '80s action flicks his only teacher. Filipovic absorbed Van Damme's moves and repeated them over and over. There were no sporting goods stores within any reasonable distance of Privlaka, population 4,000, so Filipovic's father fashioned his son a crude, but efficient punching bag.
"We were making it ourselves, and you can imagine what it looked like," Filipovic said. "I had to fix it every few days, or I'd just crush it. We put sand inside mixed with cotton. In a few hours, the sand sunk down and the cotton rose in the bag -- I almost broke my leg a couple of times kicking."
Filipovic's father worked as an electrician for the railway company and would bring home track scraps for Mirko to use as weights. The longer the track, the heavier the weight.
"I kicked the sandbags every day," Filipovic recalled. "That's why I like high kicks, middle kicks, because that's all I was doing. There was nobody to show me boxing or combinations. I was just kicking and kicking."
Filipovic stretched every day and was eventually able to do splits on two chairs like his idol. "Even today, I can do splits on two chairs," he said. "I gave a lot of attention to my flexibility. That was my beginning."
Life in Privlaka was simple and quiet. "The village was like a big family," Filipovic said. His father was part of the working class, drove an ordinary car and kept a modest home with his wife and Mirko's older sister by three years.
"Once or twice a week we ate meat, but that was normal. It was tradition to have grilled chicken on Sundays. Everybody was like that," Filipovic said. "I smile now when I compare it to today and the way my kids live now. The younger one wants one kind of soup, the older wants another kind, and, of course, every day there has to be meat on the table."
Filipovic remembers a happy childhood, full of love and support from his parents. They strove to give him the tools that might help him acquire a better life than they'd had. Every Croatian kid learned some English in school, but one or two 45-minute classes a week didn't amount to fluent understanding and speech. So, Filipovic's father paid for his son to get private lessons.
"It was a pain in the ass for me at the time," Filipovic said. "I asked my father why he was pushing me, and he told me that one day I'd need English. He was right. I was able to negotiate for myself throughout my career. I negotiated directly with the UFC, with Pride [Fighting Championships]. We discussed exactly what I wanted and what I didn't want. I didn't need a translator and nobody was able to make an idiot of me."
Filipovic often cites his father as his hero, and his sudden passing in 1994, when Mirko was only 19, is something he only touches upon lightly. That same year, after high school graduation, Filipovic bypassed college and joined the Croatian Army. The Croatian War of Independence was entering its final year, and Filipovic was sent to train in Zagreb. He joined a boxing club while training there.
Filipovic left the Army after a year and joined the police force in 1996. That March, he made his K-1 debut in Japan, the first of nearly 30 fights he'd compete in for the world's premiere kickboxing organization. Filipovic beat Frenchman Jerome LeBanner via unanimous decision -- an auspicious start against a seasoned player.
After one more K-1 bout in 1996, a KO loss to legend Ernesto Hoost, Filipovic turned his attention back to boxing and his law enforcement career. He had success in both areas as a three-time national amateur boxing champion and later joined Luchko, an elite special police force similar to SWAT. Luchko, made up of about 150 members and situated in the capital, dealt with organized crime, radical terrorist groups and other high-tension situations.
"When something was too dangerous for the regular police, then we would go in," Filipovic said. "We were highly-trained professionals. We shot 50 bullets a day in training. Hand guns, machine guns, obstacle courses. I was very proud. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life."
Filipovic worked in Luchko for four years until he was offered an invitation to join Croatia's parliament. It was customary for parties to enlist celebrities (by then, he was a K-1 and MMA standout) for their star power. Filipovic had much less influence in the democratic process than he would have liked.
"Many people viewed sportsman in politics like a curtain on the wall," Filipovic said. "At that time, I was enthusiastic, but it doesn't work the way I was thinking. I was little bit disappointed when I saw how it works from the inside. More or less, decisions are written by only a few people, and we all just have to support by raising our hands in the air, even if you don't agree with it. Is membership in the parliament worth it, where you have to swallow some things you wouldn't swallow? But that's every democratic country in the world."
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