The UFC killed dream fights. Through their course of consolidating MMA, of acquiring all of the top talent in the world in every division, the idea that Fighter X could potentially fight Fighter Y died. There are superfights that might stoke the imagination of fight fans, there are potential fights that seem very interesting, but the idea of a dream fight, two fighters, who have carved out completely independent paths, meeting to see who really is the best, doesn’t really exist anymore. Because the UFC has so much of the top talent in the world under contract and because the UFC is, mostly, a meritocracy, these sorts of fights are bound to happen. If a fighter keeps winning, they’ll fight other fighters who have been winning. The best fighters will eventually end up fighting each other at some point. In a truly sporting sense, this would be ideal. The UFC is one of the few sports where the best meet the best on the biggest stages. But, from the standpoint of a spectator, someone concerned with hype, anticipation, moments, we’re not in a good place. The hunger to be a part of a larger narrative is one of the things that is intrinsically human. We hunger to be a part of those larger stories, those conflicts that seem larger than life, that shared experience of the immovable object meeting the unstoppable force. Some of that element just isn’t there anymore. The invading outside has all but died in MMA.
Certainly there are champions in Bellator who would have intriguing matchups in the UFC, but is there a single Bellator champion you would pick in a fight with a UFC champion? Mousasi, maybe. Would any fighter in Bellator, who hasn’t already competed for a significant amount of time in the UFC, be a more compelling title challenger than Anthony Smith was recently? Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, but I’m not so sure. Regardless of whatever two fighters you match up, would you characterize any one of those fights as a dream fight in anything more that name only? I wouldn’t. That isn’t to say there aren’t great fighters in Bellator, or Rizin, or One, or anywhere else in the world. But, the very best fighters, the absolute peaks of every division, they fight in the UFC and they have for a long time.
We saw over the last few years, the WSOF champions come into the UFC and the results, in the cage, have been mixed, but none of those fighterss, no matter how exciting or skilled, got treated with the same sort of reverence that any other invading champion has. Justin Gaethje, one of the most exciting fighters in MMA history, an undefeated champion, fought Michael Johnson in his debut. On the finale of a season of the Ultimate Fighter. Dave Branch, a two division champion on a ten fight win streak, fought Krzysztof Jotko. Marlon Moraes, perhaps the most promising fighter out of the whole bunch, fought the perpetually underrated and unwatched Raphael Assuncao on the prelims. They weren’t dream fights. They weren’t market as such and they didn’t deserve to be.
In 2006, dream fights were still alive. There were enough fighters in Pride, enough talent spread throughout the UFC and Pride, that there was legitimate debate about what fighters were better. The most emblematic of these debates was concerning Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, but the same applied to every division. There were even people who thought Tim Sylvia could beat Fedor. Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson were the subject of some debate. So when the UFC announced in December 2006 that they’d signed Mirko Cro Cop, everyone’s imagination started racing. It wasn’t a real invasion, but there were few fighters more emblematic of Pride than Cro Cop. Even if his paycheck said Zuffa, LLC, he was still carrying the banner for the rival organization. We were finally going to get to see some dream fights. First, he’d fight Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. Then maybe he’d fight Anderi Arlovski. Maybe Randy Couture would come back to heavyweight. We were going to see if Pride heavyweights were really better than UFC heavyweights. Real, actual, dream fights were on the horizon.
It didn’t happen that way. The UFC didn’t give Cro Cop a title shot right away, they gave him a fight with Eddie Sanchez.
Who is Eddie Sanchez, you ask? Exactly. He was nobody. The UFC hoped that Cro Cop would detach Sanchez’ head from his neck, creating a highlight reel they could show for time in memorium and use to sell Cro Cop as their newest star. It didn’t happen. In the record books, Cro Cop won. But in every other way, it was a loss. Cro Cop didn’t look dominant, he didn’t even look particularly good. He fought a guy who had no business being in there with one of the best heavyweights in the world, and came out looking better than Cro Cop. Sanchez got beat up, but he showed some toughness. Cro Cop didn’t show much of anything. But, at least he won.
For his next fight, the UFC booked Cro Cop to fight Gabriel Gonzaga, a relatively unknown heavyweight who had some wins together, but nothing all that impressive. They were slated to headline the first numbered UFC card on Spike TV. The winner would get a show at newly minted UFC Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture, perhaps the most iconic fighter in UFC history. It was a big opportunity for Cro Cop, a headlining fight, with a title fight on the line, against a relatively unheralded heavyweight. This was Cro Cop’s chance to impress, in front of a huge TV audience, and then announce he was coming for everyone’s hero. You know how it went. It was a disaster. Cro Cop got headkicked and fell backwards on his own twisted leg, a low light for an all-time great and an all-time great highlight
The title fight with Sylvia never happened, the UFC wanted to build Co Cop. Randy Couture got that fight, and got the title. The title fight against Couture, nope Gonzaga got that. Pride’s conquering invader ended up being thoroughly conquered. Cro Cop’s first UFC run consisted of a moral loss to Eddie Sanchez, a loss to debilitating loss to Gabriel Gonzaga, and the piece de resistance, a loss to Cheick Kongo where he was repeatedly kneed in the groin.
The real tragedy of it all was that it wasn’t exactly indicative of the fighter that Cro Cop was. His first UFC tenure can only be described as a disaster, his second one wasn’t much better, but he also went on to win a K-1 Grand Prix in 2012 and compile the best late-career run of maybe any fighter in history. It wasn’t that Cro Cop was washed, or exposed. It just didn’t work out.
Cro Cop retired earlier this week after a serious health scare. He’ll go down as one of the best combat sports heavyweights of all time, an excellent kickboxer and a tremendous MMA fighter. Over the course of his 17 year MMA career he fought some of the biggest and best names in MMA and beat most of them, but in what was, for me anyway, the biggest stretch of his career, one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, he came up incredibly short. It isn’t even a case of “What could have been?” but more of a case of “What should have been.” Mirko Cro Cop should absolutely dismantle Eddie Sanchez, he should beat Gabriel Gonzaga. He should have beaten Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. The summer of 2007 should have been Cro Cop running through the UFC, it wasn’t, and I blame it all on Gabriel Gonzaga.