On the Hunt for a true blue Rocky story.
September 25, 2010.
He's known as the "Super Samoan", but on this particular night in Indianapolis, Mark Hunt isn't feeling too super. Actually, he's feeling downright disappointed and frustrated as he slumps into a chair in his changeroom just minutes after suffering a first-round loss to American journeyman Sean McCorkle in his UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] debut.
It's good ó they [fans] probably like to see an underdog story, a Rocky story of coming back from people saying your career is done.
It is Hunt's sixth consecutive loss. It's now been four long years since the New Zealand-born, Australian-based former K1 kickboxing world champion won a mixed martial arts bout. For a man who boasts wins over legendary MMA pioneers such as Wanderlei Silva, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic ... and for a man who tested the legendary Fedor Emelianenko like few others before him ... it's inconceivable that he can't get himself out of this rut.
As he talks about that moment less than three years later, Hunt can't help but laugh. Actually, it's more bellow than laugh. A 120-kilogram heavyweight frame tends to do that.
"I didn't know what happened. I was losing for a long time and I wasn't really worried about it ó I was just losing and I didn't know what to do," Hunt recalls.
He can afford to laugh about it now, because the Mark Hunt we're talking to today is a very different Mark Hunt to the one the UFC didn't even want to sign just a few years ago.
Today, Hunt is on a three-fight win streak and is preparing for one of the most important fights of his career ó a showdown with seven-foot (213 centimetre), 115kg Dutchman Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve. A win in this fight at one of his happiest hunting grounds, the Saitama Super Arena in Japan, will secure a top-10 ranking in the heavyweight division and move the big Kiwi one step closer to a title shot that nobody except Hunt himself would have dreamed he could have earned less than three years ago.
If you're looking for the UFC's Rocky story, this is it.
Hunt readily admits that combat sports was the key to getting his life back on track. As a teenager in Auckland, he was fast heading down the wrong track when he got into a fight outside a nightclub. After a then-16-year-old Hunt knocked out a fellow troublemaker, the nightclub's bouncer intervened and asked Hunt if he wanted to take up kickboxing. The rest is history.
A kickboxing natural, Hunt moved to Australia to train and a decade later, was crowned the K1 world kickboxing champion. He switched to MMA shortly afterwards, becoming a legend in the Japan-based Pride and Dream promotions, establishing a huge following not just in Asia, but throughout the world.
He got a Pride heavyweight title shot against Emelianenko in December 2006, but was submitted after eight gruelling minutes against arguably the greatest heavyweight the sport has seen. That loss was the second of what turned into a six-fight losing streak before he finally stepped into the UFC's Octagon against McCorkle.
Truth be told, outspoken UFC president Dana White didn't want anything to do with Hunt. When the UFC bought out the Pride promotion in 2007, Hunt still had three fights left on his Pride contract. Having decided Hunt wasn't going to make it in the UFC, White tried to buy out Hunt's contract to prevent him ever stepping into the Octagon.
Hunt refused. He was not giving up his dream that easily. He stepped into the Octagon that night in Indianapolis on September 25, 2010 intent on proving White wrong.
The fight began exactly as he wanted it; Hunt pushing the pace, stuffing a McCorkle takedown attempt and ending up in top position in his opponent's guard. As he attempted to finish the fight with big ground and pound, he made a careless error ó leaving his left arm exposed and allowing McCorkle to attempt a kimura, which he then turned into an armbar. Hunt had no choice but to tap, and with just over a minute gone in the bout, it was all over.
In just one minute inside the Octagon, his career looked finished.
"The fight against McCorkle was my first fight in the Octagon ó my first fight in ANY Octagon ó but he still got me. He was lucky," Hunt says wryly today.
But there's little doubt the loss was a massive blow for Hunt, who had made some significant changes in his life in an attempt to get back on the winner's list. He travelled to the USA to train with some of the best fighters in the sport at the famed American Top Team gym; he focused on improving all aspects of his MMA game; he improved his diet and fitness. Yet it had taken just one minute inside the Octagon to bring him back to earth with a thud.
Hunt could have given it away then. But rather than throw in the towel, Hunt returned to Australia with renewed purpose and ó safe in the knowledge he had two fights left on his UFC contract ó set about preparing for what was now a must-win bout against two-time all-American wrestler Chris Tuchscherer.
"I'm like an old horse that doesn't give up. I'm like the old mutt that won't get out of the door. I'm like 'hey, I'm still fighting!'," he laughs.
"But [even after six straight losses] I still felt different. I felt like if some circumstances had have been different, it would have been different like a lot of other fighters at the top level who should be in the UFC but aren't ó it's just the circumstances, you know what I mean? But that's what happened, and here we are now."
Where we are right now is a very happy place for Hunt. In front of his Sydney fans in February 2011, Hunt scored a devastating first-round knockout victory over Tuchscherer ó a victory that earned him a $75,000 bonus for the knockout of the night as well as untold value in unexpected publicity.
The fight (pictured above) was never meant to be televised ó it was not even meant to be shown on the UFC's Facebook page, along with other fights that don't make the preliminary card ó but the KO victory was so devastating that producers televised the fight immediately after the evening's main event.
That main event just happened to be one of the most anticipated fights of the year: a welterweight bout between former two-division champion BJ Penn and fellow title contender Jon Fitch, ensuring Hunt's handiwork was subsequently seen by millions of UFC fans around the world. Hunt was back, having reminded the UFC's fans ó and hierarchy ó exactly why he was one of the most popular heavyweights in the world.
That fact was none more evident than in April last year when Alistair Overeem was forced to withdraw from a scheduled title shot against the then-champion, Junior dos Santos, because of a failed drug test.
With dos Santos left without an opponent for his scheduled May 26 title defence, Hunt's fans took matters into their own hands, creating the Rally for Mark Hunt ó a social media campaign that bombarded the UFC and its president, Dana White, demanding Hunt be given the title shot.
Hunt had just come off his third straight victory in the UFC ó another devastating knockout victory, this time over the highly-rated veteran Cheick Kongo ó and watched in amazement as White was forced to hose down continued speculation Hunt would step in to face dos Santos.
"Dana White was probably going, 'I'm sick of these guys talking about this. What are they still talking about with this guy who's lost six in a row? I didn't even want to sign this guy, come on!'," Hunt said.
"But it was fun, for the first time I had the support. I was like, 'wow, I've got the support and I'm not even on a good run'.
"It's good ó they [fans] probably like to see an underdog story, a Rocky story of coming back from people saying your career is done.
"I was sitting there talking to a lot of people and they were like, 'are you still fighting?'. And I'm still telling them 'I still feel like I'm the best fighter in the world' and they go, 'yeah, right!'. They just sit there and sort of laugh at me.
"I'm still going to pursue it (the UFC heavyweight title) any way I can. But the Rally For Mark Hunt was fun, they're still there and my Twitter is getting bigger and bigger, it's great."
Hunt's bout with Struve is a second attempt at matching the Kiwi against Struve, currently ranked the number nine heavyweight in the UFC. They were originally scheduled to meet at UFC 146 in May, the night dos Santos eventually defended his title against former champion Frank Mir, but Hunt sustained a PCL injury the week before the bout. Now that Hunt has regained full fitness, he'll get the chance to face Struve and in turn earn a top-10 ranking.
"I've got to win this fight again to keep going [on the path to a heavyweight title shot]. That's the way it is. But I'm glad I've got destiny in my hands instead of the way they were before," Hunt said.
"It's really good, for someone that was getting kicked on the ground and almost getting kicked out the door, to having an opportunity to try to change the heavyweight division and to make my way in the heavyweight division."
For his part, White has admitted he wrote off Hunt too quickly.
"I have apologised and praised Mark Hunt for what he's accomplished in the situation he was in," White said when interviewed on Hunt's title prospects.
"I guarantee you this: he beats Struve, his next fight will be against someone in the top five that can get him closer to that title shot."
Hunt is grateful ... but he, for one, never stopped believing that he belonged in the top echelon of the sport.
"I've always said the same [thing] ... that I'm one of the best fighters on the planet. I've still got the goals and dreams to become the world's best. I still feel I'm the best. You probably would have started kicking me if I had have said that to you two years ago, but..."
It might have been a Rocky road, but nobody is kicking Mark Hunt now. Especially in the Octagon.
Hunt vs Struve: how they line up
At 178cm, Mark Hunt is one of the shortest heavyweights fighting in the UFC today. And while the 120kg Kiwi will outweigh Struve by 5-10kg on fight night, he'll be giving away a whopping 25cm in height to a man known as "The Skyscraper" (pictured above, dominating Chase Gormley in 2009).
Hunt has fought taller heavyweights his entire career, but concedes it's a different prospect facing the tallest heavyweight in the UFC.
"I only trained with a guy that's six foot eight, that's all. There's not many [seven footers] around! Most of the heavyweights are taller than me anyway, I'm a short heavyweight so it doesn't really matter."
Hunt's weighty issue
As part of his preparation for this fight, Hunt did seven weeks of modified strongman training to ensure his power punching would be at its peak.
However, that strength work has caused some problems for the big man in terms of making the 265 pound (120kg) heavyweight limit, which he was still some way off a week out from the fight.
"Iím really hungry at the moment," Hunt said on Monday, just a few hours before boarding a plane for his flight to Japan.
"I havenít been eating carbs for the last month, and itís been so hard with training when Iím trying to make weight. Iíve still got three or four days until I weigh in, so itís disgusting. Iím just on protein right now and my mindís delirious!
"Iíve had a few days when itís been pretty hard ó Iíve been walking around delirious in the sauna and all that, talking to myself. People would look at me and think Ďis this guy crazy or something?í. Yeah, Iím crazy ó no look, Iím just hungry!"