Welcome back to From the Vault - a series at Head Kick Legend focused on classic fights from kickboxing's past. With more and more fans discovering kickboxing every day, this series aims to revisit some of the sport's greatest fights.
JEROME LE BANNER v. MARK HUNT
May 25, 2002
K-1 World Grand Prix in Paris
He needs to retire.
He's going to get hurt.
He's embarrassing himself.
As 2009 drew to a close, this was the accepted view of K-1 legend Jerome Le Banner. One of the all-time greats, Le Banner had been on the losing end far too much lately, capping off 2009 with arguably the worst performance of his career in a loss to Semmy Schilt. To many, it looked like the Hyper Battle Cyborg was finished.
Then he went and did a strange thing. He turned in the most aggressive, most passionate performance we've seen from him in years, beating back new generation star Tyrone Spong and showing fans that yes, there still is some life left in this man. For any long-time K-1 fan, Le Banner's win over Spong was a great moment. Because along with men like Aerts and Hoost, Jerome Le Banner IS K-1. He's been a part of the organization since 1995 and has been in countless classic battles over the years. Yet of all those battles he's fought, of all those men he's faced, few made such a mark on his career as the series of classic fights with Mark Hunt. And so, to remind ourselves what Le Banner once could do (and, who knows, what he could do again?) let's take a look at those classics.
By 2000, Le Banner was already a massively popular K-1 veteran. He'd been in there with all of the best, and with KO victories over names like Hoost, Aerts, and Greco, he'd shown that he was a man to be feared in the ring. Despite his fearsome reputation, Le Banner had yet to secure his name in the record books as a Grand Prix champion. A 1999 GP semi-finalist, JLB was one of the favorites for 2000, and he started the year in style with four straight knockout wins heading into the qualifying GP in Nagoya. That tournament featured two heavy favorites: Le Banner, and an opponent he knew all too well - Ernesto Hoost. A finals showdown between these two men seemed destined. But before getting there, Le Banner had to make it through the quarter and semi-finals. His night started against a relative unknown making his Japanese debut.
Mark Hunt came into fighting through the backdoor. Picked up by a trainer after a bar fight, Hunt had racked up a decent record against lower level opponents in Australia before entering the K-1 Oceania Qualifying GP. Three wins later, Mark Hunt had a ticket to the big stage in K-1 - the Nagoya GP and a fight with Jerome Le Banner. (Click here for the fight) Despite being the massive underdog, Hunt put in a game performance, however it was Le Banner's experience that led him to the decision win. Little did any of the audience know that they had just witnessed the first chapter in one of K-1's classic feuds.
After dispatching Hunt, Le Banner went on to win the Nagoya GP, defeating Hoost in the finals. Sadly, Le Banner suffered an injury, and was forced out of the 2000 GP, his dreams of being a Grand Prix champion forced to wait another year. Upon returning from injury, Le Banner faced another setback as he was knocked out in a tremendous fight with Mike Bernardo. Replays revealed that the knockout came just after the bell, so the fight was ruled a No Contest, yet this did not erase the image of JLB KO'd. From there, Le Banner went on what can only be described as a rampage, with a series of brutal knockout victories over Pavel Majer, Ebenezer Fontes Braga, Adam Watt, and Marc de Wit. With the 2001 GP about to begin, Le Banner wasn't just winning, he was destroying people.
Back in Australia, Hunt continued to win as well, including claiming his second Oceania GP title. From there, Hunt too hit a snag in the road, losing three straight fights to Hoost, Peter Graham, and Ray Sefo (in a classic fight previously covered in FTV). The Sefo loss should have kept Hunt out of the 2001 GP, but when Sefo went down to injury, Hunt got a second chance, defeating Adam Watt and earning his spot in the final 8.
During the draw for the final 8 fights, Hunt made a bold and surprising move by choosing to face Le Banner in the quarter finals. With a previous win over Hunt and momentum on his side, this looked like an easy win for the Frenchman. But it was not to be. (Click here for the complete fight) One massive combo, and suddenly Jerome Le Banner was out, his reign of terror stopped by a classic underdog performance.
Hunt would continue his role of spoiler throughout the tournament, ultimately winning the 2001 GP and becoming the most surprising GP champion to date. With their personal series now tied at 1-1, a rubber match was inevitable, and K-1 did not wait long (just long enough for Le Banner to add another highlight reel KO, and for Hunt to lose a tough decision to Mirko Cro Cop).
The third fight between these two adversaries would take place mere months later on May 22, and it would take place in front of Le Banner's countrymen in Paris, France. All the pieces were in place for an epic encounter. Le Banner, the brutal knockout artist, angry at his knockout loss, out for vengeance, and fighting in his own country for the first time in three years. Hunt, the reigning K-1 champion, brutally tough, never stopped in a fight, coming in to prove that his GP win was no fluke. Le Banner came in to a hero's welcome, and the fight was on:
A solid round 1, but watch out for round 2...
And with that, Le Banner did the unthinkable - he stopped Mark Hunt (a feat only two other men can claim). After opening up early in round 2, Le Banner looks on his way to taking this, only to see Hunt turn things around completely with his own knockdown. For the French fans, this must have brought horrible flashbacks to Hunt's previous KO victory. Yet this time, Le Banner makes it back up, charges back, and seals the deal with a stunning round-ending head kick. Hunt does manage to regain his feet and find his corner, but it's all over. Le Banner has done it, and his celebration in front of his patriotic fans is a thing of beauty.
The two rivals would meet once more later that year, with Le Banner besting Hunt in the GP semi-finals (click here) only to have his GP victory snatched away from him thanks to an arm-shattering Ernesto Hoost kick. As for Hunt, he was not long for the kickboxing world. He continued his K-1 career for a year after this fight before leaving to focus on MMA. One final meeting between these two was set to take place under MMA rules at Dynamite 2008, but Le Banner's broken arm caused the fight to be cancelled.
As rivalries go, this is one of the great ones in the K-1 history books. As both men move into the later stages of their careers, it's doubtful either will reach these highs again. But for their effort put forth in these fights, they will forever have a spot in the hearts of K-1 fans.