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‘Cro Cop’ is upset in the first round

Special to The Times

Seeking inroads into Britain, Ultimate Fighting Championship came and found the inroads already laid and pretty much paved with you-know-what.

It introduced itself to people who already adored it Saturday night at Manchester Evening News Arena, if hints come from a sellout crowd of 14,921, a merchandising haul that trumped arena records, and a recurrent din that sometimes suggested the loudest stage on Earth.

Other than the announcement of fighters’ weights in both pounds and stone, plus one fan who bemoaned a bout’s insufficient bloodshed by blaring, “C’mon lads,” you’d hardly know an ocean and a continent separated northwest England and Las Vegas.

“I feel like I had a little baby tonight,” said UFC’s United Kingdom president, Marshall Zelaznik.

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If so, that was one knowledgeable tot.

In the interim since UFC played to 5,000 in London in 2002, the tot clearly has studied Bravo’s weekly replays of America’s fastest-growing sport enough to become connoisseurs of mixed martial arts.

During the 10 bouts in this “Nations Collide” program, the crowd treated UFC mainstays like rock stars.

When heavyweight champion Randy Couture suddenly appeared on the six giant video screens, the roar went on for a solid minute.

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When Englishman Mike Bisping of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality-show fame emerged from the tunnel, well, Bisping said, “It absolutely just blew me away. It kind of took over me a little bit.”

And when the main event ended in a sight altogether shocking, a virtual mass gasp followed.

That’s when, four minutes, 51 seconds into the first round, Zeus took a foot to the side of the head and went down in an unconscious heap.

Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the 32-year-old former anti-terrorism officer who holds seats in Croatia’s Parliament and inside the minds of intimidated foes, already had struggled with 27-year-old Gabriel “Napao” Gonzaga from Rio de Janeiro. He already had spent a good three minutes underneath Gonzaga’s 242 pounds taking about 20 elbows and fists.

But when the referee ordered them upright again, the headline act gathered himself and looked again like the world’s buffest legislator, when suddenly Gonzaga’s right foot swept upward and caught Filipovic’s left ear.

The favorite flew to the floor, the underdog pounced, the referee hurried over to shoo Gonzaga and the medics started attending to the giant.

“Top of the world,” Gonzaga said in a news conference that Filipovic missed.

Asked in the ring where he’d go from here, Filipovic mumbled, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

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Seeing a Couture-Filipovic heavyweight title bout vanish, UFC President Dana White said, “Our job now is to sell Couture-Gonzaga.” He paused. “I can do it,” he said.

Evidence of that found its quintessence in the arena lobby seven hours earlier.

At 4:30 p.m., as a crowd waited for the doors to open at 4:45, off in the corner stood four young men from Wigan, a rugby hotbed about 40 minutes away by train.

Chris Heyes, Lee Rannard and Kieran Atherton, all 23, and Scott Wilding, 25, know seemingly every intricacy of UFC. They watch every Sunday night on Bravo.

They train in mixed martial arts themselves, in one of the budding grass-roots gyms in Wigan.

They had primed for this event since it started turning up on billboards and the sides of buses, and they couldn’t wait to see Filipovic. Instead, they saw Bisping’s match rule the night.

The 28-year-old from Clitheroe, population 15,400, northwest of Manchester, faced Australian Elvis Sinosic.

Sinosic reckoned he traveled for 30 hours to reach Manchester. Within 32 seconds, he had traveled to the ground.

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As the roars swelled, he spent the next three minutes there on his back as Bisping pounded him, rivulets of blood formed on his forehead, and observers wondered whether he’d even reach a second round.

He did, and even sent Bisping sprawling with a kick and had him in a momentary choke before everything flipped, and the referee called it.

Soon Bisping, a former salesman, postman, cow herder and demolition worker, told the crowd, “I love all of ya.”

And the crowd loved him back.


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