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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic had reached a breaking point. A few minutes earlier, he'd slipped almost unnoticed into a ballroom in a downtown hotel, where several of his peers were going through a workout for the benefit of the media covering UFC 115.
The Croatian was testy, to be kind, as he fielded questions about the upcoming fight Saturday at GM Place and clearly looked like a guy who'd rather be just about anywhere other than where he was.
If Filipovic had his way, he'd do no interviews, sign no autographs. He wouldn't stay in the same hotel as his opponent. He'd fight in a ring in front of a whisper-quiet crowd instead of a cage in front of fans screaming like mad. And when the fight ended, he'd pick up his check and unobtrusively head for home.
But Filipovic (26-7-2, 1 no-contest) meets Pat Barry (5-1) on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 115 and had to fulfill the promotional responsibilities in his contract, so there he was, in the media room with a crush of media pinning him against a wall.
He wasn't happy about it, and for at least awhile, he didn't hide the fact. He gave curt, one- and two-word answers to most questions from the gaggle of reporters who thrust cameras, microphones and tape recorders in his face.
He was cooperating because, by and large, nearly every other fighter does and because it's a condition of his contract.
"I don't like it, but it's part of the job and I will swallow it," Filipovic said. "If you think I'm unhappy … I don't want to be a star, I don't want to be in the magazines. I just don't like it. I just want to be a normal family man. I'm doing this sport because I like it. I started in this sport as a kid, when I was 12, 11 years old. I enjoy fighting."
The media wasn't helping much. He was bombarded with such thought-provoking questions as, "What are your thoughts about your opponent?" And, my perennial favorite, "How did training go?"
It was ugly and seemed destined to get uglier.
"I don't see the point of all these things," Filipovic said of the string of media and public relations obligations required of him by the UFC. "It's always been the same questions throughout all my career: 'How did you train?' 'No, you know what? I didn't train.' What should I say to that question? Always the same questions. I just swallow it. I just swallow it."
He seemed on the verge of angrily stomping out when, suddenly, a switch flipped. A woman asked Filipovic, "You're not wild about this, are you?" In an instant, Filipovic began to open up. He opened a window to a side of himself that few have rarely seen.
He spoke of his fears, of his aspirations, of his motivations. For the next 15 minutes, he did more good to promote himself and make himself a likeable figure to Ultimate Fighting Championship fans who weren't around when he was in his heyday in PRIDE than anything he'd done in the more than four years since he signed his first UFC contract.
He admitted his nervousness and his desire to have peace in the days before his fights. He explained why he struggles with being in the same hotel as all the other fighters, fans and teams while he finalizes his preparations.
When he came to the UFC in 2007 after winning the PRIDE Grand Prix tournament the previous year, his motivation almost exclusively was money.
"It was a bad time for me," Filipovic said of when he joined the UFC. "I was sick of everything, of training. I'd just won the Grand Prix in PRIDE. To tell you the truth, the money attracted me here. The money attracted me because I knew PRIDE was going to be finished. But that is the worst motivation, to fight only for money.
"I trained some, but not the way I should have. Then, I underestimated the phenomenon called the cage. It's a huge difference in your career. The cage is twice bigger than the ring; there are no ropes. It's different rules. It was a shock for me. "It's also a different kind of public. That was a shock for me. In Japan when you're fighting, you feel like you're in Vienna at a concert listening to some opera. Everybody's quiet. They keep quiet. When you do some moves, they go, 'Ooooh.' Here, people are screaming and this and that. It's a different mentality. All those things are small, but put them together and it was a big thing for me."
Filipovic became one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts while in PRIDE and had legendary battles with the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva, among many others.
He earned, as he put it, "special status" from the PRIDE owners and was treated like the megastar he'd become.
Much of fighting is overcoming the numerous mental hurdles the sport presents. Filipovic was allowed to prepare in solitude in PRIDE.
But in the UFC, the fighters all stay in the same hotel and the fans almost always find out where it is. They swarm the property and it's next to impossible to walk through the lobby or go get lunch or take a leisurely walk through town without being stopped by dozens, if not hundreds, of rabid autograph seekers.
"I respect the people," Filipovic said. "I'm aware many people like me and like my way of fighting. I respect that. Sometimes, it is hard. Sometimes, it is hard to be polite all the time. … I can sign one, two, three hundred times. Three hundred times, I can not [sign that many autographs]. I'm nervous. I want to get my rest. I want to have my peace. That's why most of the time, I'm in my room. It doesn't mean I hate fans. No, no, I'm aware of everything. We are here because of fans. I'm paid because people buy tickets to see me fighting.
"But it's hard. With all respect to other sports, this is not tennis. This is not swimming. They're very hard sports, but they're not sports where punches are involved, very huge injuries. I just don't feel good every day. [But it is] the difference of the American way of doing business and the Japanese way of doing business. It's huge, the difference. I just feel like I came to Mars when I came to the UFC."
He's 3-3 in his UFC career and it's obvious he thinks that much of his struggles can be tied to the fact he didn't know how to adapt to the stark differences between Japan and the Western culture.
Something as simple as getting a good night's sleep 72 or 48 hours before his fights has suddenly become a challenge.
It's not anything most of us think about. When you're out on the town, you're there to have a good time and forget your troubles. But Filipovic is a professional athlete who takes his job very seriously. And he can't prepare by partying late into the night. Yet, he's had to learn to adapt to staying nearby to those who relish that very prospect.
"In Japan, it just wasn't like this," Filipovic said. "In Japan, I just came, the driver picked me up at the airport. I always stayed in the same hotel. I was the only fighter there. Here, we are meeting our opponents, [other] fighters. People don't really know the level of disruption. There are parties during the night that wake you up. There are maybe 3-4 fighters plus their corner men, and they're doing madness during the night. That makes you nervous. I didn't have any of that before in Japan. I had my peace. I just don't like it."
He's adapted, he says, because, "I don't want to be a black sheep among all the fighters." He's changed his team and bought a cage. He's made a commitment to being in top physical condition.
Filipovic snarled when it was suggested that, at 35, he's hit the downside of his career. He spoke of his ability to recover from a hard training session and to be ready to work hard again the next day. He's annoyed by the opinion of what he termed the "so-called experts" who no longer rank him among the top three heavyweights in the world.
"When you're considered as a top fighter in the world, always in the top three, and then some so-called expert puts you in 15th place, or No. 13 or 10th, it's kind of an insult for me," he said.
He won't consider a move to light heavyweight, he said, despite the fact that he's among the smaller heavyweight contenders and would be among the biggest and strongest at 205.
His pride won't let him even consider the notion.
"I would feel like a coward, like I'm running away," he said of a move to 205. "I've always been fighting in the heavyweight division, so why would I go there now?"
As he spoke, a UFC employee told the media Filipovic would take two more questions. Filipovic, though, beamed and shook his head no.
"I'm enjoying this, having fun," Filipovic said, grinning.
That was about as shocking as when he was knocked out by a kick to the head from Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70.
It was an interview session and not a fight. He didn't have someone trying to kick his head off, like Barry will be trying to do on Saturday.
But if Filipovic can handle his business in the cage on Saturday like he managed to handle it in front of the media hordes on Saturday, it may be time to welcome an old, familiar face be back into the championship mix.