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Cro Cop looks for kicks in UFC fight

There are major leaguers who grew up playing baseball using a stick as a bat and a rolled-up sock as a ball.

Then there’s Mirko Cro Cop, who as a young boy growing up in Croatia was so fascinated by the power in his legs that he used to fill bags with sand and kick them to test his strength.

What he found then — and now — is there are not many people who can kick with the force he does.

Whether it’s knocking the stuffing out of a bag or taking the fight out of a world-class foe, Cro Cop’s kicking power is legendary in mixed martial arts.

It’s made him one of the finest heavyweights in the world and a strong favorite tonight when he takes on jiujitsu expert Gabriel Gonzaga in an Ultimate Fighting Championship title eliminator in Manchester, England.

Gonzaga said he knows the significance of avoiding Cro Cop’s kicks.

“Everybody who faces him knows you have to avoid the kicks,” Gonzaga said. “But he’s so good at it, even though most guys try to avoid it and game plan for it, he still gets them.

“That’s the sign of a great fighter. I have my plan for it, and I think I can (neutralize his kicking).”

The winner of tonight’s bout, the main event of a Spike TV card that begins at 6 p.m., will land a title shot against UFC champion Randy Couture.

Cro Cop, a member of the Croatian parliament, said he understands the implications of the fight with the little-known Gonzaga. If he wins, not only is he in line for a shot at Couture, but he’ll be one step closer to a rematch with Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.

Emelianenko, widely regarded as the top mixed martial artist, scored a unanimous decision over Cro Cop in a ballyhooed 2005 bout in Japan.

But to get to Emelianenko, Cro Cop needs to get past Couture and Gonzaga.

“Gabriel Gonzaga is a very solid fighter and I’ve seen some of his fights,” Cro Cop said. “He’s a tough guy. He won’t hesitate to fight toe to toe if he has to, but he’s a first-class grappler. I have to be careful. I need to keep the fight in the stand-up position as long as possible and he, of course, will try to turn the fight to the ground.

“We’ll see. I don’t want to underestimate Gonzaga.”

Cro Cop won his UFC debut by stopping unheralded Eddie Sanchez on Feb. 3 at Mandalay Bay, but it was hardly an overwhelming performance.

Contributing to Cro Cop’s lackluster showing, he had to chase Sanchez and was unaccustomed to fighting in a cage. His fights in Pride all were contested in a ring.

“Sanchez avoided fighting, and so that was hard for me,” Cro Cop said. “And plus, it was my first time fighting in a cage. It was a strange feeling. The cage is bigger than the ring and it’s a little bit different.

“My opponent was running away and so I had to run after him. I don’t like that kind of fight. I believe Gonzaga is a different type of fighter (and won’t run).”

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