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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Make no mistake about it: Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic heard all the criticism. Every column that claimed the former PRIDE superstar was overhyped, every blog post that questioned his commitment to the sport, every insider whisper that he was past his prime – Filipovic took it all to heart.
"I was aware the people were talking about [how] I'm too old," said the former member of Croatia's parliament. "I wanted to prove to everyone I am not old, my preparation was my hardest of my whole life."
Filipovic's determination to prove his relevance paid off Saturday night in the finest night of his three and a half years in the UFC. The heavyweight outlasted feisty Pat Barry (5-2) and finished him with a rear-naked choke with 30 seconds remaining in the third and final round of their UFC 115 co-feature at General Motors Place.
"He is a young guy who is hungry," said Filipovic (27-7-2 with one no-contest). "Those are the most dangerous types of fighters."
Filipovic's UFC trials have been well-documented. He arrived in the company in early 2007 at his career peak, after winning the 2006 PRIDE Grand Prix Open Weight tournament, and was expected to roll through what was then a weak UFC heavyweight division.
Instead, he was famously knocked out by Gabriel Gonzaga, lost to Cheick Kongo and bounced back and forth between Japan and the UFC without ever really finding his groove.
Along the way, he earned a reputation as a fighter who was surly and uncooperative, blowing off the promotional end of the business and being short-tempered with fans and media alike.
But it was a new "Cro Cop" on display during fight week. In the run-up to the event, Filipovic opened up about his frustrations with his UFC tenure, speaking at length about the adjustment from his days of PRIDE stardom.
"I was frustrated when I came to the UFC," admitted Filipovic. "Some of my fights in PRIDE, I felt tired. I would train on the punching bag and feel great but then get tired in my fights. This time I trained harder than I ever have in my life. Never in my career have I felt so comfortable and so full of energy as tonight. That was all in my training."
Filipovic often seemed bemused by the gregarious Barry, who was openly awestruck by the fact he was fighting one of his heroes. As the week progressed, the two fighters talked, mugged for the camera together, laughed and smiled during staged fight photos. Barry even walked off with his opponent's name tag after the pre-fight press conference.
The laughter and jokes seemed at odds with the assassin's personality that is often attached to Filipovic, but he explained that the public persona is not who he really is as a person.
"Patrick is a nice guy," said Filipovic. "We talked a lot before the fight. I'm not the kind of fighter who just hates each other before the fight. I can talk to you until one minute before the fight and then I will take your head off if I can. … I don't need to hate someone. I'm a professional, he's a professional."
Whether it was a true catharsis or whether he was simply showing the public a side only his inner circle previously knew, the swagger and fighting spirit that often seemed missing since Filipovic's heyday returned when he stepped into the Octagon on Saturday night. Filipovic lost a measured first round in which he was dropped twice by Barry right hands, one of which was a punch hard enough that Barry broke his hand. Late in the round, the two fist-bumped and even hugged in the ring.
"Patrick caught me twice," said Filipovic. "I just felt pain in my eye; I wasn't dizzy, [I] had double vision in my eye. I had a game plan and was just doing my thing."
From that point on, Filipovic dominated the fight. He won the second round and then unleashed a vicious striking attack on a visibly tiring Barry in the third. Cro Cop softened up Barry on the ground with a series of punches before sinking in the rear naked choke to secure his fourth career submission win and an $85,000 submission of the night bonus.
"People consider me a striker, but I have trained jiu-jitsu for 10 years," Filipovic said. "Of course I can choke or submit anyone."
UFC 115 marked the final fight of Filipovic's contract. He previously stated he wished to finish his career in the UFC, and after the card, both Filipovic and White indicated they wish to move forward on contract negotiations.
"We're going to talk to Mirko and see what Mirko wants to do," said White. "He has said to me and Lorenzo [Fertitta] that he wants to finish his career here in the UFC."
Will we see more of the "new" Filipovic if he sticks around?
"I was always like this," he said. "I just didn't like to show it. My friends know it, there's always some crazy jokes with me."