Mirko Filipovic joined the UFC two years ago amid more hype and expectation than perhaps any fighter in mixed martial arts history -- and Cro Cop flopped.
After three desultory fights forced Filipovic into a yearlong retreat for mental adjustments and knee surgery, he returns to the octagon at UFC 99 on Saturday night in Cologne, Germany, against Mostapha Al Turk. The former anti-terrorist policeman in his native Croatia should have plenty of countrymen cheering the start of his second run toward the UFC heavyweight title.
And the 34-year-old Cro Cop insists he's better prepared to put on the show many expected when he first joined the UFC. After tinkering with his training and clearing his mind, he's ready to show off a new approach still built on the superb kickboxing and standup fighting that made him a star in Japan and an international attention-grabber.
"I've spent much time thinking about it," Filipovic said. "Maybe I was empty after [Japan]. Maybe I wasn't adapted for the cage. Maybe I wasn't hungry enough, I don't know. I don't mean blood for real, but I just couldn't smell the blood as I could in my previous fights. I just wasn't the old one."
Filipovic was an incredible striker in his prime in Japan, best known for high kicks resulting in knockouts that amplified his Internet fame. His celebrity back home allowed him to win a seat in the Croatian parliament from 2003-07, and he also starred in a movie before taking on the UFC.
Those innumerable distractions clouded his mind, Filipovic believes. He went 1-2 with the UFC in 2007, struggling through fights that showcased almost none of his previous flair. Fans were left wondering what happened to the dynamic, fearsome Cro Cop they had seen on television.
"I think I was just empty in the head," Filipovic said. "It was a head problem, not body. I'm not looking for an alibi, but it was just a problem with my head."
There were also technical aspects to his struggles, some centered on the differences in moving from a kickboxing ring to an octagon.
"I spent my whole career fighting in the ring, and I must say I underestimated the cage," Filipovic said. "It's much easier to go from the cage to the ring than the ring to the cage. Many experienced fighters from the UFC like to use the cage, like to use the wire. It's not so easy when somebody puts you on the wire. You can't move. If you're on the wire, you have to know how to get away."
UFC president Dana White was among those who were infatuated with Filipovic at his best. When Filipovic got the itch to return, White slipped him onto the UFC 99 card with just a few weeks' notice, doing the deal entirely on faith.
Although it's just a one-fight arrangement, Filipovic says it's "definitely not my last fight with UFC."
"I always said I respect Mirko, and whenever he wanted to come back, it was a phone call away," White said. "In the history of the company, I've never done a deal over the phone with anybody, ever. I respect Mirko."
Filipovic fought three times in front of his loyal fans in Japan last year, regaining his confidence but also injuring his knee, requiring apparently minor surgery in January.
With a new hunger for UFC success, Filipovic is determined not to repeat his errors. He built an octagon in his home training gym in Croatia, and he has lived an ascetic lifestyle in recent months -- no acting, no lawmaking and not much else, either.
"Nothing but training, and every morning I have to take my dogs out in the forest," Filipovic said. "That's all I'm doing. I'm not even going out of the house. That makes me happy, and I just want to stay that way."