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'Cro Cop' bows out; Penn likely to follow

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LAS VEGAS – After a knee injury forced Georges St. Pierre off the card, Saturday night’s UFC 137 looked to be just another night in the almost weekly run of UFC bouts. But instead, it was a night of historical significance as two all-time greats announced their retirements.

The retirement of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the Croatian star was the most popular foreign fighter during the heyday of Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships, was not a surprise.

After Filipovic had lost to Brendan Schaub last year, UFC president Dana White said it would be his last fight in the UFC. But as has been the case in the past when White has asked legends to step down, they invariably ask for one chance to leave with their head held high. Unfortunately, it also almost never happens that way, and Filipovic was stopped at 1:30 of the third round by Roy Nelson, his sixth loss in 10 UFC bouts.

The announced retirement of B.J. Penn, one of only two men in UFC history to have held titles in two different weight classes (lightweight and welterweight), came after he took one of the worst beatings of his career against Nick Diaz. This one was largely unexpected.

While most accept that Filipovic' career really is over, Penn could be the typical fighter who announces his retirement after a disappointing encounter, only to reconsider later.

“Hats off to Nick Diaz, he’s the man,” said Penn (16-8-2) in the Octagon, moments after losing a 29-28, 29-27 and 29-28 decision to Diaz, a loss that would seem to put an end to Penn’s quest for a third match with longtime rival St. Pierre. “It’s probably the last time you’ll ever see me in here. I want to perform at the top level. This is the end. You know what, I’ve got another daughter on the way, I don’t want to go home looking like this.”

Penn’s face was busted up, particularly his left eye, and he had to be hospitalized after the fight.

Penn, 32, has been considered right at the top of the list of the most complete and most talented fighters in the sport since even before his first fight in 2001. Some would say, judging by his record, that he underachieved considering his insider rep from day one, even with two world titles.

[Related: Two legends retire after disappointing losses]

Saturday’s fight was unfortunately typical of many of Penn’s fights. Once called the best one-round fighter in the world, both meant as a credit to his all-around skill and a knock on his conditioning, Penn once again tired in the second round after a solid first round and was taken apart.

But if this really is his last fight, Penn went out in style. Exhausted, fighting an opponent who was connecting with pinpoint accuracy, he fought back and landed several hard shots in the third round, but he simply couldn’t match the volume of his opponent nor move fast enough to get out of the way of the blows. In the end, while he clearly lost the fight, he also was half of one of the year’s best bouts.

“In the 10 years that we’ve all seen B.J. Penn perform, we’ve never seen B.J. busted up like this,” White said after the fight. “Even when he was getting smashed by Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre, he doesn’t bleed and he doesn’t get busted up. Nick Diaz is the real deal. But what a warrior B.J. was to stand in front of him. I honestly didn’t think B.J. was going to answer the bell for the third round as exhausted as he was. And there were moments in the third round he was firing back.”

Filipovic (27-10-2, 1 no contest) looked like the “Cro Cop” of old only twice before the nearly packed house of 10,313 fans, who paid a gate of $3.9 million. The first was during his trademark ring entrance, to the sounds of Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys,” where at 235 pounds, he looked as strong as in his PRIDE days. But once the fight started, it also was clear that while he could carry the size of his youth, he was much slower at 37.

[ Related: Why Penn-Diaz fight was a classic ]

The other time was his highlight on the night, an early second-round barrage of rapid punches. The sequence actually started after Roy Nelson had landed a right that put the former member of the Croatian parliament down. Filipovic got up and threw everything he had at Nelson, and while many of the blows were blocked, the ferocious assault likely would have finished most heavyweights. Nelson covered up and was left with a bloody nose, but he regained his bearings and nearly finished Filipovic at the end of the round, when Nelson was punching Filipovic's defenseless head on the ground while holding him in a crucifix position.

“When I hit Mirko [and knocked him down early in the second round], I was thinking, ‘This is my time,’ said Nelson (17-6), who after the win half-jokingly challenged the winner of the Nov. 12 Cain Velasquez-Junior Dos Santos heavyweight title match. “I was trying to capitalize on him in the second round and I wanted to make him pay, and I walked into a left hand. It put me on the defensive, and he kept on coming until I got my head straight. Then I got the takedown and got the crucifix and whatnot.”

Nelson, who looked less rotund than usual having dropped about 20 pounds, knocked Filipovic down early in the third round and landed punch after punch from behind him on the ground until the fight was stopped.

“Cro Cop has been a good guy since the day we signed him,” said White. “The guy’s a guy a warrior, a legend, has done tons of good things in the sport. I know he’s disappointed with his run in the UFC. I’m 42; at 38 [actually 37] to still be fighter, fighting younger, faster, more explosive guys … He came out and said, ‘I’m going to give you guys a fight; it won’t be a boring fight like with Frank Mir.’ He said he wants to retire. We’ll see how that plays out."

Filipovic’s two careers, the one hugely successful in Japan, and the disappointing one in the U.S., epitomized two different eras and styles of the sport. Like Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2), Japan’s top featherweight found out when he struggled earlier in the show against mid-level featherweight George Roop (12-9-1), winning a decision that easily could have gone the other way, they are two different worlds. It’s not only a matter of tougher competition but different rules and mentalities, between sport and spectacle.

Filipovic came to the UFC in 2007, after winning the PRIDE World Grand Prix tournament in 2006 with four straight one-round finishes from his arsenal of hard punches and kicks.

But when he was signed to a lucrative contract to leave Japan, it was after surgery on his left ankle, which he shattered delivering a knockout kick to Wanderlei Silva. His left high kick was his go-to blow, and he never was the same as a fighter without it. As Filipovic aged, his ability to withstand hard punches from the bigger heavyweights on the U.S. scene failed him.

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