As an entire continent gets ready to embrace the biggest moment in its Mixed Martial Arts history this weekend with the UFC’s first foray into Australia with UFC 110 – Nogueira vs. Velasquez, there will be another country paying very close attention to this event as well. This country doesn’t happen to reside in the Oceania region, however. This would happen to be the country of Croatia, literally a half a world away. This small European nation on the Adriatic Sea is located roughly 10,000 miles away from the Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia, where UFC 110 will take place on February 21st. However, what the countries of Croatia and Australia lack in proximity, they make up for with a long shared history and it’s no coincidence that the UFC brass strategically placed three of Croatia’s top MMA fighters on the first ever UFC fight card to be hosted in Australia.
Croatians in Australia can be traced back to the middle of the 1800’s, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that Croatia had become a very noticeable source of migrants to the country. Over the years these Croatian immigrants weaved their way into Australian culture, so much so, that by the end of 1977 an unofficial Croatian embassy was opened in Canberra, the capital city of Australia. The significance of this was that Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia at that time. The embassy closed almost two years later due to the legal and diplomatic problems it caused between the Australian and Yugoslav governments, but it also raised significant awareness of the Croatian people and Croatia as a nation about 15 years before it gained its independence.
The close ties between the two countries continues to this day, but it’s no longer reserved to just the political scope. This Croatian-Australian connection can now be found everywhere on the world stage, including sports, fashion, and even Hollywood. One of the most talked about games during the group stage of the 2006 World Cup of Soccer saw Australia and Croatia placed together in Group F, along with powerhouse Brazil and upstart Japan. The Australian side known as the “Socceroos”, had seven Croatian-Australian players on their national team, including team captain Mark Viduka. Meanwhile, the Croatian side, which ended up tying Australia 2-2 in the final match of the group stage, had three Croatian-Australian players on their national team. This can be linked to the fact that Croatians in Australia and their Croatian-Australian offspring are revered for their commitment to the sport. In fact, they have established several soccer clubs throughout Australia with the two most notable and successful teams being the Sydney United FC (Sydney Croatia) and the Melbourne Knights FC (Melbourne Croatia). These clubs developed the soccer skills of a large number of Croatian-Australians, many of whom now play professionally overseas.
This is not just some trend reserved to soccer, however. In the NBA, former #1 draft pick Andrew Bogut of the Milwaukee Bucks is having a career year. Bogut is a Croatian-Australian, who was also the starting center for the Australian basketball team in both the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In the world of modeling, Laura Dundovic became Miss Australia 2008 and a Top 10 finalist at Miss Universe 2008. Dundovic is a Croatian-Australian, who is now the face of fashion house Charlie Brown. In Hollywood, the 2005 hit horror film Wolf Creek was based off “The Backpacker Murders” committed by Ivan Milat, who was a Croatian-Australian that would become the most prolific killer in Australian history and one of the most prolific serial killers of all time. On a much lighter note, Hollywood is also home to the highly acclaimed Croatian-Australian actor Eric Bana, who has starred in such films as Star Trek, Munich, Troy, Hulk, and Blackhawk Down.
That is why Zuffa precisely stacked the deck with three Croatian fighters at UFC 110. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, who is a legend in the sport and a hero in his country, will be featured on the main card. Cro Cop, the PRIDE 2006 Openweight Grand Prix champion, also set aside retirement talks in order to be a part of this historic event. Blue-chip prospect Goran Reljic, who has finally recovered from nagging injuries, will be making his long-awaited return to the Octagon. This will come 21 months after disposing Wilson Gouveia via TKO in a UFC “Fight of the Night” award winning debut performance at UFC 84 in May 2008. Finally, Igor Pokrajac, who has been a training partner of Cro Cop for the past decade, is also set to return to action. He will be eager to pick up his first UFC win in his sophomore performance for the promotion, after making his debut this past September.
This trio of fighters represents three of Croatia’s four biggest names in the sport with the other being Zelg “Benkei” Galesic, who is a PRIDE veteran currently fighting in the Japanese promotion DREAM. Also worth mentioning is Cro Cop’s opponent this weekend, Ben Rothwell, who has trained most of his career under former world champion and world-renowned MMA coach Pat “The Croatian Sensation” Miletich, who is a Croatian-American. That brings us to the final piece added to the UFC 110 fight card that will pay homage to the Croatian-Australian theme taking place at the first UFC in “The Land Down Under”. That piece would be the inclusion of Elvis Sinosic. Sinosic has long been considered the face of MMA in Australia, but that’s not all. He was born in Canberra, Australia to Croatian parents and is proud of his Croatian-Australian heritage. Sinosic is now set to return the Octagon to rematch fellow Australian MMA pioneer Chris Haseman this weekend. The two previously met in the second round of an MMA tournament called Caged Combat in 1997, which was the first ever MMA event to take place in Australia. That only makes it fitting that their long-awaited rematch will now be taking place at the first ever UFC event to take place in their homeland.