It’s easy to see why Mark Hunt has drawn such a cult following in mixed martial arts. Standing at around average height and, yet, cutting weight to make the UFC's 265lb heavyweight limit, to the uneducated he looks like a man who might more typically be expected to watch a great deal of sports, but not participate in any.
Looks can be deceiving, however, as Hunt's physique belies outstanding athleticism. A man who achieved near legendary status fighting at super-heavyweight in Japan's K-1 kickboxing events, the New Zealander made an unlikely splash in MMA by defeating two of Pride's most illustrious names, Wanderlei Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. But after a promising start, it seemed as though time- and a seemingly impoverished grappling skill set- had undermined his ambitions, and he went on a multi-fight losing streak which lasted the demise of Pride and its subsumption into the UFC.
What happened next has now passed into MMA folklore: As a consequence of Hunt's contract with Pride, he was entitled to further fights when purchased by the UFC. White and his acolytes considered the "Super Samoan" to be something of a throwback- at odds with the raft of toned poster-boys which now dominate Zuffa's marketing campaigns- and offered to buy out the remainder of his contract. Much to their surprise, Hunt was determined to continue fighting on the biggest stage, and they reluctantly allowed him to step into the Octagon for the first time back in 2009.
Hunt's first fight against Sean "Big Sexy" McCorkle was a vindication of White's scepticism in many fan's eyes, as he was finished in little over a minute via a straight arm-bar from McCorkle's back. The submission popped Hunt's arm and most expected that would be the last American fans would see of the former K-1 fighter. Four years later and no one could have predicted the difference in Hunt's fortunes. Having won four consecutive fights (including three spectacular KO finishes), he now finds himself fighting former UFC heavyweight champion Junior Dos Dantos for a shot at the title at UFC 160 in Las Vegas on the 25th of May.
The man himself, however, seems less surprised at this turn events. Speaking last month, only a few days before his 39th birthday, he was in the sort of forthright mood which only swells his "everyman" appeal when asked about this turnaround in his career:
"Even though I lost that first match, I put it down to not fighting for a long time. I've always felt the same about being the best."
When Hunt makes such a statement, one senses none of the customary chest-beating or hyperbole typically associated with the sport. Nor is there a sense in which Hunt is in any way in the throes of the UFC's relentless hype machine. Hunt is a sort of "anti-Chael Sonnen"- with regard to the majority of his public statements- laconic to the point of being mono-syllabic at times, he is confident- both of his skills and in himself, without being in any way conceited. In, perhaps, an all too old-fashioned way he retains the art of speaking plainly without ever being impolite.
It was assumed by many, that this strength of character was what had, in part, inspired a reported delay in him accepting his title elimination fight with JDS. Among the reports- which were largely conjecture- Hunt was unhappy with the facilities provided for him and his entourage for his spectacular KO victory over Stefan Struve, and wished for these concerns to be addressed prior to signing on. It's certainly conceivable that any fighter in contention for the world heavyweight title would be concerned by deficiencies in this area- especially when Hunt's basic rate of pay has so far paled in comparison with some of his colleagues.
However, it seems this rather neat narrative is some way short of the reality. While he had concerns, he says, they bore absolutely no relation to the issues which were solved in a one on one discussion with Dana White. Asked about the incident and whether a fighters union could reduce such tensions and inequalities in the sport, the response was surprising.
"Well no, I didn't take a while when I was asked [About fighting Junior Dos Santos] I agreed, I didn’t hesitate, and I tried to help start a union a while back."
When the subject of a fighters union has been raised in the past- something which seems all the more pressing given the way in which the UFC so profoundly dominates the market- it is often assumed that such a notion would be aggressively resisted by Zuffa, White and the Fertittas. The dispute between the Culinary Worker's Union and the Fertitta's Station Casinos is a long and bitter one, and it is their influence to which Dana White has partially attributed the UFC's inability to get mixed martial arts licensed in New York State.
However, when approached on the topic, White has been a lot less hostile than one may have expected, regarding a union as just another part of business, one that should not prevent him from "getting the job done."
And, it seems- if Hunt's comments are correct- that it is not Zuffa whose influence has stifled the birth of a professional fighter's union- it is the self-interest of senior fighters.
"Well the union didn’t work it takes only 51 percent of the fighters around the world to join the problem is the guys don't want to sign up.
The top guys wouldn't sign up, ‘cause why would they let others in on if they’re getting good money?"
Hunt is typically matter of fact on the subject and, seemingly, somewhat resigned, even a little sad in tone. And yet, in a sport so relatively youthful- especially one so firmly based in the Unites States- it is perhaps not an unreasonable position for some of MMA’s leading lights. Fighters- young men at the peak of their game- fear that their star may be extinguished by one devastating loss or training injury and, perhaps lacking a little of the perspective that comes with age, are keen to simply make as much as they can in the shortest time possible.
And, yet, it is such names that would be relied upon to secure sufficient support to make the idea viable. Perhaps, in the future, a similar venture would have more success backed by the elder statesmen of the game; those still considerable in stature, but aware that their own days were numbered. Presently, personalities like Randy Couture, Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz are all too few in number to carry the campaign for a union on their own- even if they were so inclined.
Keen to return to fighting matters inside the cage, Hunt turned to the topic of his most recent victory. He scored a knockout over the 7ft tall Stefan Struve at UFC on Fuel in Japan in which he- in the third round- landed a devastating left hook before turning away in victory, despite Struve still clearly being conscious. Herb Dean had initially beckoned Hunt to continue, but after a few seconds of Struve failing to respond, called the win in the Super Samoan's favour.
It was later revealed that Hunt's famous left hook had, in fact, broken Struve's jaw quite cleanly. Had the experienced kickboxer felt his lanky opponents jaw break upon impact? Responding with typical brevity, he said,
"No, I didn't, boy! I knew he wasn't coming back. Sometimes you just know!"
Another feature of his battle with Struve was an unusually aggressive ground game. Hunt took to the fight to the ground several times voluntarily and resisted calls from his corner to stand back up, preferring to pass the guard and land strikes from the top against his young opponent who had hitherto garnered praise for his slick BJJ. But, for the New Zealander, talk of his recently acquired grappling skills- often attributed to his work with American Top Team- have been greatly exaggerated.
"I've been doing groundwork for ten years now. I know what they [the media] are trying to do [re: my losses].But they were more of a psychological thing from outside the ring."
On the subject of the title, Hunt took a different tack to most fighters who can be apprehensive about the prospect of fighting friends or training partners. It seems he would prefer Antonio "Big Foot" Silva to win and enjoy the belt- but only he until he takes it off him,
"I don't know who will win [Big Foot or Velasquez] and if it’s for the strap I don't mind [who I fight] I hope Bigfoot wins as he is an ATT member."
But first he must contend with Junior Dos Santos. The former UFC heavyweight champion with only two losses in his entire career and, probably, the finest pure boxer Mark Hunt has faced in mixed martial arts. Since his defeat to Cain Velasquez- whose triumph was largely attributed to outstanding anaerobic fitness and the sheer relentless diversity of his assault- "Cigano" has spoken of broadening his typical sprawl n'brawl style, and taking advantage of a hitherto underutilised wrestling and jiu jitsu game. Certainly, against a striker of Hunt's calibre, he might be wise to employ a more varied approach, but Hunt responded to the possibility with typical candour.
"Well I don't know what he will do, all I focus on is what I am going to do."
It's a simple and honest sentiment from a man with a simple and honest approach to his sport and to life. And if he does not realise his dream of becoming the UFC's heavyweight champion, he has already won the right to regard himself among the sport’s true treasures.