In our first instalment of Ultimate Upsets we looked back at the night Holly Holm destroyed Ronda Rousey down under, and for our follow up we are focusing on another fight featuring a head-kick heard around the world – Mirko Crop Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70 in April 2007.
While his record was hardly flawless, there was no disputing that Mirko Filipovic was one of the baddest men on the planet when he finally put pen-to-paper on a deal with the UFC in December 2006. His work as a commando in the Croatian anti-terrorist unit had earned him the nickname ‘Cro-Cop’, and he his reputation for knocking out fighters in Japan had become the stuff of legend. A superstar mixed martial artist and professional kickboxer, Cro Cop’s most trademark strike was the head-kick – as he once boasted “right leg is hospital, left is cemetery”. Wanderlei Silva, Josh Barnett, Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman were among the legendary fighters to have fallen to the Croatian during his time in PRIDE Fighting Championship, but one question always remained, ‘how would Cro Cop fare if he crossed over the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)?’
Fight fans learned that they would finally get an answer when it was announced at UFC 66 that Cro Cop had agreed to a deal with the UFC, and when the news broke they immediately began to salivate over the prospect of several bouts that had merely been considered ‘dream fights’ prior to his arrival. Dreams could become a reality in 2007 and Cro Cop made a flying start to life inside the Octagon as he marked his debut with a first-round knockout of Eddie Sanchez at UFC 67 on Super Bowl weekend. Many thought that victory would set up a meeting with UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture for his next outing in the Octagon, but it appeared as though his notoriety from Japan had not yet truly crossed over to the US audience so the UFC decided to give them one more look at the PRIDE legend before finally pairing him with Couture.
Cro Cop’s second outing would not take place in America however, it would serve as the main event of the UFC 70 in Manchester, England – the UFC’s first event on English soil since the UFC 38 event at Royal Albert Hall back in July 2002. Eager to make a splash in the UK and Europe, the UFC booked several former and future champions for the card, but he big question was who would stand opposite Cro Cop in the final fight of the night? The answer was Gabriel Gonzaga.
The Brazilian heavyweight, nicknamed ‘Napao’, signed with the UFC in late 2005 and got off to a strong start by reeling off three straight stoppage wins. However, none of those men he beat were of Cro Cop’s stature and, as a result, Gonzaga did not get a great deal of respect heading into UFC 70. Fight fans figured this would be another quick KO success for Cro Cop (Gonzaga had lost by TKO previously) and the UFC appeared so confident that they flew over heavyweight champion Randy Couture and stuck him on commentary for the main event. That put Couture in prime position to enter the Octagon for a post-fight face-to-face with Crop Cop that fans had been dreaming of for quite some time. To put it bluntly, Gonzaga destroyed all of those plans.
Gonzaga came out aggressive and was able to turn a blocked kick into a takedown during the early stages of the first round. The fight stayed on the canvas for the next couple of minutes as Gonzaga dished out some ground and pound, but referee Herb Dean made the controversial call to stand the two fighters back up for the final 30 seconds of the round and many felt like the call had favoured Cro Cop, who had a substantial edge in the stand-up game. Ultimately it did not. As the two men circled Gonzaga gave Cro Cop a taste of his own medicine, unleashing a right head kick that left the Croatian a crumpled heap on the canvas, with his ankle twisted underneath him at a horrifying angle.
It was a stunning upset and one that ultimately robbed fans the chance to see Cro Cop and Couture share the Octagon. The Croatian would have one more fight in the UFC – a dismal decision loss to Cheick Kongo – before heading back to Japan, and although he did return for second and third spells with MMA’s premier company, he never got near the top of the heavyweight division, suffering a string of stoppage defeats. Cro Cop did avenge that UFC 70 loss when he stopped Gonzaga in a rematch in April 2015, but that victory did little to erase the memory of that incredible night where ‘Napao’ produced one of the greatest upsets in MMA history and ruined the UFC’s grand plans.