Mark Hunt was the heavyweight fighter the UFC never wanted. His contract came as part of the Pride acquisition, but whereas fans were rubbing their hands with anticipation at the prospect of seeing the likes of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and Takanori Gomi inside the Octagon, the New Zealander was little more than an afterthought.
Hunt was on a four-fight losing skid, had a record of 5-6, and hadn’t registered a win in nearly five years and things went from bad to worse when he finally made his Octagon debut at UFC 119. He was submitted by Sean McCorkle in just over a minute and even the “Super Samoan” was under no illusions as to his standing with his new employers.
“I wasn’t wanted. I don’t blame them, who would want someone who lost six fights in a row? They were contractually obliged to do it. They didn’t want me in their ranks,” he said
The UFC’s strategy for coping with the unwelcome presence of Hunt on the heavyweight roster was to tuck him away on the undercard like a guilty little secret. Expectations were virtually non-existent when he was matched with Chris Tuchscherer in his second outing as a Zuffa employee, and the New Zealander knew he had a point to prove.
“Of course that made me more determined because I felt like I was backed into a corner. I still thought I was the best fighter in the world and I had no option but to win,” he said.
Hunt is not short of confidence, but as he prepared to face Tuchscherer at UFC 127, he admits the defeats were playing on his mind.
“I’m the best [expletive] fighter on the planet. That’s my mindset, but then you lose six fights in a row.”
UFC 127 will go down in history as the moment Hunt turned his career around. He dominated Tuchscherer for the first five minutes and then finished the job early in the second, pocketing a “Knockout of the Night” bonus and breaking his six fight losing skid.
Hunt would never look back and followed that up with wins over Ben Rothwell and Cheick Kongo. There was even an online campaign for him to be given a title shot after Alistair Overeem’s elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio ruled him out of a proposed match-up with then-champion Junior dos Santos.
Hunt had already won the K-1 World Grand Prix in front of 65,000 fans in Tokyo in 2001 and is no stranger to success, but it wasn’t until he started winning fights with the UFC that he began to receive widespread recognition for his achievements.
“You didn’t get nothing back then. No fanfare or acclaim and if you were doing it for glory you won’t get it. I’m the only person outside of Europe that’s ever won the K-1 and still there was no nothing. It was just one of those things, they celebrated other stuff, that was the sport at the time, but what’s really good about UFC is they’ve made it mainstream.”
Hunt is based in Australia, where he has become a fan favorite. Having spent the majority of his career competing in Japan, he was overwhelmed by the reaction when the UFC first gave him the opportunity to fight in his adopted home country.
“I’m a Kiwi, but I live in Oz, and you hear the crowd and they’re all for me and I was like ‘wow people still remember who I am’ and that was a good feeling,” he said
Had it not been for an altercation outside of a nightclub, Hunt would probably still be stuck in New Zealand doing menial work instead of travelling the world to train and fight.
“I had my first fight when I was about 16. It was Muay Thai and I had four days of training. I got into a fight outside a club in Auckland and the bouncer who saved me from getting arrested from the cops said ‘would you like to fight on my show this weekend?’ and I said ‘yeah’.”
According to Hunt, he won both the unsanctioned street fight and his first ever Muay Thai bout and then continued to compete, but only on a very casual basis.
“I did a lot of partying. I fought a few times in New Zealand and then in Oz, but I never took it seriously. I was still working a full time job as a laborer.”
Hunt won the WKBF Super Heavyweight World Title in 1999, but it wasn’t until K-1 came to town that he decided to leave the laboring behind and become a full-time martial artist. He came into that competition as an unheralded underdog, but beat three opponents in a single night to become the K-1 Oceania Grand Prix Champion.
Hunt went on to become one of the biggest names in K-1, facing the likes of Ernesto Hoost, Ray Sefo, Jerome Le Banner, Mirko Cro Cop, and Semmy Schilt, during the glory days of the Japanese kickboxing organization, when live events would attract audiences in excess of 60,000 people.
At the time, Cro Cop was the biggest name to make the transition from K-1 to Pride and Hunt followed in his footsteps by making his MMA debut against Hidehiko Yoshida in 2004.
“I started MMA because I had a PCL injury in 2002 and I was out for a year. When I came back, I had an offer from Pride. I had six weeks to train for my first fight, so I started doing jiu-jitsu,” he said.
Yoshida submitted Hunt in the opening round, but the entire experience was an eye opener and he decided to dedicate himself to studying some of the more unfamiliar aspects of MMA.
“I was a name in Japan, I won the K-1 world title, but MMA gave me the desire to fight again because it was a new sport and a different challenge. I’d never been manhandled like that before. I thought I was a great fighter until I started doing jiu-jitsu,” he said.
The results were there for all to see as the New Zealander won his next five fights for Pride, scoring surprise wins over both Wanderlei Silva and Miko Cro Cop in the process. A series of losses would follow as Hunt came up short against some stellar names, including Fedor Emelianenko, Josh Barnett, and Alistair Overeem.
He eventually got his MMA career back on track and has a record that currently stands at 9-8-1 overall and 4-1-1 in the UFC. His most recent bout ended in a controversial majority draw after five hard-fought rounds against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
This bruising encounter headlined UFC Fight Night 33 and was one of the most memorable matches of 2013, but whenever the judges are unable to pick a winner, dissatisfaction is inevitable and this feeling was compounded when Silva failed a post-fight drug test.
Hunt was disappointed not to have had his hand raised at the end of the five rounds, but says he has no complaints with the decision.
“I thought I’d won, but I’ll take the draw. It was a good fight; a great fight. I don’t really like watching replays of my stuff because I can do so many things much better, but I watched it once and I think I did more damage to him, but I accept the draw,” he said.
The legality of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is the burning issue in MMA at the moment and Hunt remembers his initial reaction to hearing Silva had been discovered to have fought with elevated levels of testosterone.
“The first thing I thought was ‘I should be on that stuff. I’m the old [expletive]. I should be on that [expletive]!’”
With his fortieth birthday rapidly approaching, Hunt could probably justify a TRT prescription better than most and suspects that being completely clean of performance enhancing drugs might put him in the minority among modern mixed martial artists.
“I’m pretty sure the whole world is taking TRT whether they say they do or they don’t,” he said.
Given the slender margins involved in deciding the outcome of the fight, Hunt could be forgiven for asking the question, “What would have happened if my opponent’s performance hadn’t been enhanced by TRT?” but he says he has no hard feelings towards Silva.
“I respect him as a fighter and as a person. He’s a good person. It is what it is. You gotta do what you gotta do to stay ahead of the game.”
Hunt did confirm that he would be open to the possibility of facing Silva for a second time, as many fans had initially wanted following their battle.
“That was a good fight. I’m an employee of the UFC and if they want us to rematch, we’ll go at it again.”
However, he is still recovering from injuries sustained in the first fight.
“I thought I broke both my hands and my leg. I was lucky to have just my hand broken in three places. Normally I can keep someone down, but when I was grappling with Bigfoot, I didn’t know why I couldn’t keep him down and it wasn’t until I took my glove off that I was aware my hand was broken,” he said.
Hunt has been told he won’t be able to hit anything for a few more months, but is hoping to return to the Octagon in June or July. The title talk might have receded in the wake of the stoppage loss at the hands of Junior dos Santos, but the 39-year-old believes he can still work his way back into contention for a shot at the UFC heavyweight belt.
“It’s not about money for me. I’m in it for a shot at the title. I don’t want to be just fighting for the sake of fighting. My goal is to be the best fighter on the planet. I don’t give a stuff what anyone else thinks, I just want an opportunity to fight for it and I don’t think I’m far away.”
(Folllow @JamesGoyder on Twitter)