There are no two MMA careers that are exactly the same, but there are some career arcs that are more common than others. MMA is much like other sports in this regard – competitors typically experience their best years in the middle of their careers, after an early-career period of improvement and a late-career period of decline. From my observations of many fighters, a common career arc for a UFC fighter may look something like this:
- The first 6-12 fights take place on the regional circuit against low-level competition, for the fighter to gain experience and sharpen his skills.
- After that, the fighter makes his way to the UFC, where he will compete against top competition for a few years. This is when the fighter is at his best.
- After having competed in MMA, and particularly the UFC, for a number of years, the mental and physical stresses of fighting, along with Father Time, cause the fighter to decline until retirement.
There are plenty of ways an MMA career can happen, but that’s the story of most top fighters – a period of seasoning, a prime, and a decline.
And Mark Hunt has seemingly turned this trajectory inside out.
Before he began his MMA career, Hunt was best known as the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix champion. He won this kickboxing championship with victories over Jerome LeBanner, Stefan Leko, and Francisco Filho, all of whom have had storied K-1 careers of their own. With that improbable championship run, Hunt joined Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, Branko Cikatic, and the late Andy Hug as K-1 World Grand Prix champions, and this status meant Hunt was an automatic star in Japan.
When Hunt decided to try his hand at MMA, this stardom worked both for him and against him. It worked for Hunt because he was already a famous athlete, and as such, made his debut in PRIDE FC. It worked against him because, instead of having the standard handful of fights to get acclimated to MMA, Hunt was immediately thrown into the ring against a tough opponent in Hidehiko Yoshida. The idea obviously wasn’t to develop Hunt as an MMA fighter – it was to get Yoshida, a much bigger star, a victory against an opponent with a name Japanese fight fans recognized.
In total, Hunt competed in PRIDE eight times, fights which were also Hunt’s first eight in MMA. Most MMA fighters use their first eight fights as an opportunity to gain experience, hone skills, and prepare for the tougher challenges that exist in the sport. Hunt had no such opportunity – these were his eight opponents in PRIDE:
- Hidehiko Yoshida – never an elite fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but Yoshida’s Judo background and submission skills were obviously too much for a debuting kickboxer.
- Dan Bobish – an easier opponent than Yoshida, but also a wrestler who weighed well over 300 pounds. Bobish gassed out by hitting Hunt with repeated knees to the head, and Hunt got the TKO shortly afterwards.
- Wanderlei Silva – a perfect example of how matchmaking was just different in Japan. Hunt was a very short-notice replacement for Kazushi Sakuraba, and probably out-weighed Silva by something like 70 pounds. Despite the massive weight difference, Hunt was absolutely expected to lose the fight, as Silva was the PRIDE middleweight (93 kg) champion at the time, and on a very long undefeated streak. Instead, it was Hunt who won by controversial split decision due to some heavy strikes that knocked Silva down.
- Mirko Cro Cop – the #2 heavyweight in the world at the time, in a rematch of a K-1 bout that Cro Cop won. This time, it was Hunt who won a striking battle, once again by controversial split decision.
- Yosuke Nishijima – a professional boxer making his MMA debut. Nishijima showed a lot of toughness, but really shouldn’t have been in the ring with Hunt, who won by third-round TKO.
- Tsuyoshi Kosaka – an MMA veteran who had competed against many of the best heavyweights of all time. Kosaka stated that he would retire if he lost, and stayed true to his word after Hunt won by second-round TKO.
- Josh Barnett – an elite heavyweight, but unlike Cro Cop, an elite heavyweight because of his submissions. Barnett quickly got Hunt to the ground and forced a tapout due to a kimura.
- Fedor Emelianenko – PRIDE decided that it wanted a heavyweight championship match on its 2006 New Year’s Eve show. With Cro Cop having departed to the UFC, and Barnett unwilling to take the fight, Hunt got the title shot. Somehow, Hunt was able to escape an early armbar attempt to later establish side mount and threaten Emelianenko with two keylock attempts. Late in the first round, Emelianenko finally got the takedown he was looking for, and soon followed up with a kimura attempt of his own to force Hunt to tap out.
So in his first eight fights, Hunt took on four truly world-class fighters (going 2-2, although it easily could have been 0-4), a gold medalist in Judo, an enormous wrestler, a pro boxer, and a longtime veteran of the sport. No pressure.
PRIDE was sold to Zuffa months after Hunt’s loss to Emelianenko, and in the following couple years, Hunt took three fights that he looked entirely unmotivated for. Hunt lost by quick submission to both Alistair Overeem and Gegard Mousasi, and was knocked out in lightning-quick fashion by middleweight kickboxer Melvin Manhoef. Manhoef hits like a truck, and Overeem and Mousasi are both excellent, so those losses aren’t completely unexcusable, but the fact remains that Hunt lost his first three fights after PRIDE in a combined 169 seconds.
With a record of 5-6, it was after the Mousasi loss that Hunt got the call from the UFC. Not to actually compete in the world’s top MMA organization, but instead to be bought out of his PRIDE contract, which was a part of Zuffa’s 2007 acquisition of PRIDE. Instead of taking the easy money, Hunt chose to fight, and subsequently lost in 63 seconds to Sean McCorkle, due to a straight armbar from the guard.
At that point, most fans thought Hunt would be released from the UFC, but his contract guaranteed Hunt the opportunity to compete again. He was matched against Chris Tuchscherer, a wrestler and a training partner of Brock Lesnar. Although Tuchscherer never displayed skills worthy of the UFC, it was widely believed he would beat Hunt, as it was just hard to trust Hunt’s ability to win against any tough opponent.
In what should have been Hunt’s formative years in MMA, he fought legends of the sport. In what should have been Hunt’s prime, he went on a long losing streak. And in what should have been Hunt’s swan song in high-level MMA, he instead went on a winning streak.
Hunt scored a knockout victory over Tuchscherer, and followed that up with wins over Ben Rothwell, Cheick Kongo, and Stefan Struve. In doing so, Hunt not only has made himself relevant again, he’s climbed his way into the top ten, and now will be taking on none other than Junior dos Santos at UFC 160, as a replacement for the injured Overeem.
Hunt’s career is one that has simply defied convention. It’s easy to laugh at his 9-7 record, but there are a lot of very good fighters who would have that record or worse against the kind of competition Hunt has faced. Hunt is the very rare fighter who was thrown into the deep end of the MMA talent pool from his very first fight, and has persevered through it to find himself a genuine UFC title contender.
It might seem that Hunt represents a Cinderella story almost guaranteed to come to an end against Junior dos Santos. I won’t be picking Hunt to win the fight – like Hunt, dos Santos is an excellent striker with a fantastic chin, and better conditioning to go along with it. But I won’t be counting out the “Super Samoan.” Not now, or ever again.