by Ivan Trembow – MMAWeekly.com
(pictured: Mark Hunt)

MMAWeekly has learned that Mark Hunt is definitely off of the Pride USA card due to his ongoing visa issues, and despite reports earlier today, Olympic Gold Medalist Rulon Gardner will also not be fighting on the card.

Pride officials were still hopeful as recently as Thursday evening that Mark Hunt would be able to get his visa issues resolved in time to fight Eric “Butterbean” Esch in a boxing match on Saturday night’s show in Las Vegas.

Former pro wrestler and K-1 kickboxer Sean O’Haire had already been secured as a replacement, but Esch vs. Hunt is the match that Pride was still trying hard to put together.

Unfortunately, Hunt’s visa issues could not be worked out. Keith Kizer, the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, tells MMAWeekly, “Pride informed me that Hunt could not get clearance to enter the U.S. because he failed to resolve a legal matter resulting from an alleged altercation in a bar the last time Hunt was in California.”

As for the reports that Olympic Gold Medalist Rulon Gardner was going to be Hunt’s replacement, Kizer said that Gardner was only scheduled to be on the card if a very specific scenario played out.

If Josh Barnett’s drug test results had not come back in time for Barnett to be cleared to fight Pawel Nastula as scheduled, Sean O’Haire would have been the fighter to step into the ring with Nastula instead, and Gardner would have been the fighter to step into the ring with Esch.

As it turns out, because Josh Barnett’s drug test results did come back on Thursday and he tested negative, Gardner’s services as a last-minute replacement will not be needed.

Instead of fighting Mark Hunt or Rulon Gardner, Esch will be fighting Sean O’Haire on Saturday night in a fight that will be contested under MMA rules, on a line-up that has become increasingly chaotic in recent days and weeks.

Pride actually spent several months earlier this year trying to come to an agreement with Gardner to fight Fedor Emelianenko in the main event of the Pride USA show, with the belief that the fight would be a big draw in the United States, Japan, and Russia. When negotiations with Gardner didn’t progress after several months, Pride started to look for other possible opponents to face Emelianenko in the main event, and eventually Mark Coleman was signed as Emelianenko’s opponent.

Even though Gardner is not fighting on this particular card, just the fact that Pride appeared to have come to financial terms with Gardner is a likely indicator that we’ll be seeing Gardner compete in at least one more Pride fight in the future. With that in mind, it’s a safe bet that at some point Pride will begin to push hard once again to put together a match-up between Gardner and Fedor Emelianenko.

Gardner has one MMA fight under his belt, a decision victory over Hidehiko Yoshida on December 31st, 2004 in a Pride fight in which Yoshida suffered a broken foot.

Gardner showed no interest in having anymore MMA fights after that, partially because he said he didn’t feel comfortable in MMA and partially because he given two yellow cards during the Yoshida fight, which took away 20 percent of his pay.