One wants their heavyweight fight to be a throwback, to prove he’s still capable of the vicious striking and highlight reel finishes that made him a star back in the glory days of Pride. The other hopes it will be a sign of things to come, to show he can once again be a contender in the 265-pound division and that his own best days are still ahead of him.
If they can agree on one thing, it’s that this bout is the most important of both their careers.
The 37-year-old Cro-Cop seemed more wistful than anything else during Thursday’s prefight media conference. His answers started with their trademark brevity, but grew longer and more introspective as he went on. He acknowledged that this could be his last bout and said it was important for him to have a good showing not only because he’s coming off two straight losses, but because his UFC career in general hasn’t gone the way he might have liked.
“I will never be able to forgive myself,” Cro-Cop said of his disappointing showing, which began with him putting up a 1-3 record in 2007. “I just blew it. When I came to UFC I was treated like a king. Even today they treat me like a king and I just didn’t make it. The reasons are not important. Everything was good when I was in Japan and then, unfortunately, the injuries started. I had six operations in the meantime and it all reflects, especially in your head. But I’m relaxed now, especially since I’m aware this could be my last fight.”
Cro-Cop sounded most excited about a future raising his two young children at home in Croatia, but said he’d trained hard for his meeting with Nelson. He said his conditioning is perhaps the best it’s ever been and that he’s looking forward to putting on an exciting show in his swan song in the sport, if indeed that’s what it turns out to be.
“Why would I leave [MMA]? There are 37 or 38 reasons [because] that’s exactly how old I am ...,” Cro-Cop said. “Of course I could keep fighting, but every man comes to the point when he asks himself, ‘Do I need it anymore?’ I have two sons, two kids at home and [there are] so many things that I would still like to discover.”
Nelson too seems like a new man. Coming off a disastrous performance against Frank Mir that drew criticism from all sides at UFC 130, he’s obliged UFC President Dana White in losing some of his trademark belly and even looked resplendent -- sort of -- in a suit and tie to go along with his shaggy beard and long hair at Thursday's event.
The one constant remained Nelson’s sense of humor. He joked, in a prickly sort of way, about people writing off Cro-Cop after his recent losses. If back-to-back losses mean you’re over the hill, Nelson said, then count him in, pointing out his own defeats by Mir in May and Junior dos Santos at UFC 117.
“For this fight, everybody was talking about Cro-Cop retiring,” Nelson said. “Apparently if you lose twice you have to retire, so apparently I’m retiring [too].”
Nelson obviously isn't as close to pulling the plug as Cro-Cop -- and White shied away from questions about whether Nelson needs to win this one to keep his job -- but the message was clear: If "Big Country" wants to secure that bright future for himself, he can't afford to take Filipovic lightly this weekend.