This weekend, Mirko ‘CroCop’ Filipovic will fight in his home city of Zagreb, Croatia for the first time in over a decade. Having recently left the UFC and officially retired from mixed martial arts, he is back to competing under his beloved K-1 rules.

The event is being billed as CroCop’s ‘final fight’ but that is only half true. If he loses, he will retire from all fighting. But if he wins he is hoping to get back on the K-1 circuit (if it revives) and take a run at winning a Grand Prix before finally hanging the gloves up for good.

His opponent will be fellow veteran Ray Sefo, who at 41 years old is several years older than Filipovic and of equal experience. As Sefo reveals to Fighters Only, he is also hoping for a return to the K-1 circuit if the Japanese show can come good, and he has no intention of making CroCop look good in Zagreb.

FO: All sorts of names were in the mix for this fight; how did you end up being CroCop’s opponent?

Somebody tweeted me asking if I would fight CroCop and I was like ‘yeah it would be a great opportunity but I believe CroCop is retired’. Then the following week I had all these other people tweeting about it and I started to think there must be something to it. So I called a mutual friend of mine and CroCop’s in Croatia and it turned out he was promoting a show and CroCop was to be the main event.

He asked if I would be interested in fighting on the card and I said yeah great love to, then a while later he called me back and said how would you feel about fighting CroCop and I said yeah, its on. I was super-excited about it because although I’ve got nothing but respect for CroCop and his achievements in kickboxing and MMA, its a fight that was meant to happen nine years ago, ten years ago, then he pulled out a few weeks before and I ended up fighting Mark Hunt.

So when the opportunity presented itself [recently] to make the fight I jumped at it and here we are now, a few days from getting in there and banging it out.

FO: Obviously ten years ago you were both younger and therefore faster and more explosive and so on; can we expect a classic fight?

I’ve watched pretty much all of his fights. I agree to a certain point that he has lost some speed, I don’t feel I have lost speed or power, I move just as fast now if not faster than my last four years of K-1 because I work with a strength and conditioning coach now.

It depends how you train, I live in the gym. People might think I am old for the game but I don’t drink, I don’t smoke I don’t do drugs I don’t party. I don’t do drugs. I live in the gym, six times a week, twice a day. I’m always in the gym. So I can last a lot longer, I think, than a lot of people.

We will not see the final bell. I guarantee you one hundred per cent. One hundred per cent. No decision. Not at all.

FO: You’re predicting a stoppage win for yourself then?

Oh I have no doubt in my mind. I am confident, I know that I am going to be very aggressive, my training has been tremendous. I am a fast starter, a fighter that is in your face, and CroCop is a very slow starter and is a ‘mover’. I think I am a really bad match-up for him.

Well yeah when you have been fighting as long as I have you are always going to be carrying some battle wounds and so on, but its mind over matter. You get in there and you do your thing.

FO: Sorry to deviate here but its just occurred to me that you just said you don’t drink, which is funny because I used to watch this New Zealand film called ‘Once Were Warriors’ all the time and I always pictured you being from that sort of background, don’t ask my why!

Ha! I’ve never drank. I mean, I’ve tasted alcohol but I’ve never had the desire to drink. I never liked the taste, I hate it. I have seven brothers and two of them drink occasionally but the rest don’t drink any more. They used to drink here and there but its never been a thing in our family. I remember as a young kid my dad would bring a couple of bottles home with him after work, have a few beers with his dinner and that was that.

FO: I think you’re probably the only Kiwi I have ever met that doesn’t like a beer or three.

Haha! Well, Kiwis work hard but they like to play hard too, you know what I mean? I’m sure there’s a lot of people in New Zealand who don’t drink but a lot of my friends do. Its something that’s fun I guess but its something that just never appealed to me, drinking and alcohol and all that. But each to their own, I can still go out and have a great time without having to touch alcohol.

FO: So living in Sin City Las Vegas but not being a party animal, what do you do in your spare time?

Well the little free time that I do have I spend with my family and my son.

FO: Las Vegas is an MMA mecca but not really somewhere you would call a kickboxing hotbed. Have you found it hard to stay ‘K-1 level’ ?

Fortunately we have guys that come into our camp from time to time, like the guy I am working with now is a kickboxing and boxing trainer who has switched to MMA. He worked with Mike Pyle for his last fight and I liked the way he worked so I got him to hold pads for me and its not bad at all. And we have a couple of boxing coaches in the gym so the striking part is top level really, and of course I have my own input as well. So overall its pretty good.

FO: What’s your general take on the standard of striking in MMA?

I think it is improving a lot, if you look at ten years ago compared to today its improved a lot – a lot, a lot! Nowadays guys aren’t afraid to stand and bang, even the ground guys are learning how to strike and MMA today is really a complete game now. Ten years from now it will have kept evolving and jiu jitsu guys and wrestlers wont hesitate to stand with strikers.
FO: K-1 in your heyday was enormous, now its declined to the point they cant even get an event together…

I am very saddened by it. Obviously there was a lot of mismanagement of the company in so many ways, to the point where they ended up owing fighters, including myself, so much money. Like I’m still owed $700,000 US. And a lot of other fighters are similar. Its very sad; there’s been a lot of mismanagement in terms of what they have done.

Where the UFC is today in the States, they could have been here now but they didn’t know how to let Scott Coker use his intelligence and his understanding of the market, understanding what the Americans want and how to promote here in the States. That was the downfall of its marketing here. They became big worldwide but the market they wanted to break into was here in the States.

But they went about it the wrong way and as soon as things started falling apart… well, it didn’t help that Ishii went to jail for tax evasion but I think Tanigawa could have done a better job. Someone said it well – Tanigawa wasn’t there at the start so when it began to fall, he didn’t know how to rebuild it. He couldn’t sustain it and so eventually it collapsed.

FO: People often take sides with either Ishii or Tanigawa in the K-1 civil war; do you?

I think the blame lies more on Tanigawa side because when Ishii was done for tax evasion he had to step down and Tanigawa took over. In the time he was inside and when he came out, Tanigawa was in charge and he didn’t do the right things to maintain K-1 punching power, if you will. And its not Ishii that owes me money its Tanigawa that owes me money, you know what I mean?

So to me personally, he’s the one to blame, because at the end of the day if you don’t have money to pay the fighters then maybe you shouldn’t be trying to keep these events going. And I had emailed him and called him countless times and the reply I kept getting was – well, I couldn’t speak to him anyway, I don’t speak Japanese and he doesn’t speak Japanese – but I used to get replies off his secretary, ‘oh we are so sorry Ray, we are working on it but these are difficult times’.

I understand they are difficult times but one, I have still got to feed my family and number two, why the hell do you still have events if you don’t have the money to pay the fighters?! And so it got to the point that nobody would fight for them because they weren’t paying anyone.

FO: People in the know generally side with Ishii or Tanigawa in the K-1 side of things, do you think one is more responsible than the other for the show’s downfall?

Back then money was flowing like the ocean and I don’t know what he was doing, what he was planning, but obviously he thought it would never come to an end. So there was a lot of money around. And I did hear that this company to collect, and they did.

Then I heard that a company out of China bought it and they were gonna go into partnership. Then I heard both deals fell apart, in China and Singapore, and no one has anything, and Ishii won’t sell the K-1 rights to Bas Boon.

FO: Did you hear about Ishii turning up at a Chinese press conference with a porn star? That is supposed to have been one of the major factors in the Chinese backers pulling out?

Oh no! No I didn’t!

That’s just ridiculous. They could have paid some money to a model to go along. If you are going to go to that sort of extent get someone with a good name or reputation… that is crazy.

FO: A lot of people also blame Semmy Schilt for killing audience interest in K-1. Is that unfair?

Ha! Listen I don’t think he can be blamed as such because for a big guy who has limited skills he really knew how to use those skills. He is one of the few guys I have seen who really knew how to use limited skills and height to his advantage.

Did it kill K-1? In a way it did because he is not the most exciting fighter out there. But he still did what he did, it is very difficult to deal with a guy who is seven foot tall, knows how to use his range and has a work rate like a middleweight – although that was suspect to me, but I’m not going to go into those issues.

This guy at seven foot could outwork ninety per cent of us… it doesn’t add up, the physics doesn’t make sense… anyway….

FO: We recently learned of the death of Mike Bernardo and the sad circumstance surrounding. Some of his former K-1 peers were really upset by it, what was your reaction?

I was very sad about it. Mike was a friend and he was also a great warrior. Its very sad it came down to that…its sad what happened. Obviously Mike was dealing with a lot of issues… I wont say he didn’t have backup because his family were there, but its hard to try and rationalise because you’re not in that circumstance so you never know what goes through someone’s mind.

I always kept him in my prayers, its sad that we have lost him. He was one of the great K-1 fighters and not only that he was a great persona, very personable and a friendly guy, fun to hang out with. Its so sad that we lost him, and at such a young age.

FO: Well that was another reason the manner of his passing was so strange; he was a very devout Christian and it was assumed he took a lot of solace from his faith…

Oh very strong, very strong Christian background. Strong faith. But we are all human and we just have to understand that it doesn’t matter what kind of ’celebrity’ you are – so to speak – an actor, singer, fighter or whatever, you have to have a life after the limelight is over. And that will keep you focused and motivated.

When I spoke to [Mike’s friend Jan one point recently] he wasn’t really sure what Mike was doing and what sort of direction he was going. Its really sad, we have lost a great fighter, a good person and a good person as well.

FO: Do you keep in touch with other K-1 opponents on a regular basis?

I see Tyrone from time to time, he is over here in the States now. He’s down in Florida working with Rashad Evans. Occasionally we would email each other. I am in contact with Peter Aerts and Jerome Le Banner a lot. I see them in Japan for the pro-wrestling and we keep in touch a lot. Who else.. I email Gokhan Saki from time to time, I just got a phone call from Chalid Arrad actually, he just found out Mike Bernado had passed. So yeah I keep in touch with a lot of the guys.

FO: Who are your favourites from the current crop of K-1 fighters?

Gokhan Saki is a beast, Badr Hari is a beast. I think those two, outside of the top ten older guys, are the most talented guys in the past eight years or so. They have come up in the rankings and really made a name for themselves. They are both very skilled fighters and both very strong. They bring a full game to the fight. They come to fight and they are my two favourites in recent years.

FO: If they can sort their issues and get back to staging events, would you be interested in a return to the K-1 circuit?

Absolutely, if K-1 can get back on track and pay me what they owe me I would love to fight for them again. I think I would give fighting a couple of more years and then retire. You cant do this for too long. The only reason I still do it is I enjoy it. I still have the passion to train and compete. The morning that I wake up and don’t have the desire to train is the day I hang it up.