As a long-time fan of K-1 and all the striking arts, nothing on the UFC 144 card has me quite as giddy with anticipation as Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo. It's a chance to see Hunt, a former K-1 Grand Prix champion who looked to be finished in MMA, continue his miraculous run back to relevance, and to do so in front of the Japanese crowd that has witnessed so many of his classic battles.
To get ready for this fight, I dusted off the old Pride videos and watched Mark Hunt in his early MMA days, ready to come here and write about what makes him such a great MMA striker. And then, I read an interesting article on Head Kick Legend. Writer Jack Slack asks an interesting question - What is "World Class" Striking, and how does it relate to Hunt vs. Kongo? It's a good breakdown, but I have to take issue with one of Jack's points:
In a way reminiscent of Chuck Liddell, who could not learn to keep his hands up even when working with Howard Davis Jr., Hunt may be too stuck in his ways to learn to keep his hands up. It was this fault which got him knocked out by Manhoef and stunned by Gegard Mousasi, who is not known as a hard puncher.
In my eyes, Jack is only half right here. Yes, it was his low hands that got Hunt KO'd by Manhoef. But is that because he has not learned to keep them up and is too stuck in his ways? I respectfully submit that it is no such thing. And to get an idea why, let's break down the unique and deceptively technical striking defense of Mark Hunt.
At first glance, Hunt doesn't seem like much of a technical striker. It's easy to find his faults - he keeps his hands low, he is over-reliant on punches, he can get trapped in the corner or against the ropes. Looking at these issues, you can write him off as a heavy handed puncher whose iron chin has allowed him to succeed in spite of these defensive holes.
But as you watch closely you relize an interesting thing - that's exactly what Mark Hunt wants you to believe.
The low hands, the movement to the corner - these are not errors in technique, they are specific stylistic choices. And they are made by Hunt with one goal in mind - to draw you into a slugfest. And then, yes, he will rely on his iron chin and put you out. But there's a lot more going on than you may at first think.
To start, let's look at Hunt's stance. He stands in a non-traditional manner, with his body more perpendicular to his opponent and his weight slightly forward. This puts his head and chin closer to the opponent, not further away as you normally want. He also keeps that chin up, and keeps his lead left hand dangling at his hip. The result is a clear invitation - "Hit my chin." Hunt only adds to that feeling with his slow movement, giving opponents the sense that of course that can land on him.
When opponents swing for the chin, Hunt typically will take one of two approaches. First, a defensive posture. Despite the stance, Hunt is prepared to defend, either with movement or by blocking the shot. Hunt has surprisingly good head movement, and will slip punches with a quick dodge to the side. He also keep his rear right hand close to his face, and will use that hand to catch incoming punches.
Still, it would be untrue to characterize Hunt as a defensive fighter - after all, he's inviting these punches. And in doing so, he does get hit often. When he does, Hunt will often allow a fighter to connect with more than one shot, flowing together punches. When they begin working punches into combos, they let their hands move away from the face, which is when Hunt strikes, landing a hard counter shot. One trick he uses to add to the power of his counter is to take a shot that sends his head to one side, then use the momentum from that movement to follow through with a punch in that same direction. Essentially, he's using the momentum from his opponent's punch to move his body and add more power to his own punch. It's a tactic that won't work unless you have the chin to do it, but Hunt definitely does.
The one time Hunt was KO'd, at the hands of Melvin Manhoef, it was not due to this defensive style. Hunt rushed in with his hands down, an uncharacteristic move for the Samoan, and Manhoef's heavy hands caught him flush and made him pay. That was a defensive error, but it was one he had not made before, and has not repeated since.
In the end, Mark Hunt's striking defense may not be the prettiest. It may over-rely on his granite chin. And it certainly isn't a style for everyone. But there is a very deliberate and technical plan behind that apparent brawling style. Anyone who fails to see that plan suffers the consequences. The question is, will Chieck Kongo figure this out and avoid the fatal shoot-out with Mark Hunt? My hope is that he won't, and we'll see this wild ride of Mark Hunt take one more step forward at UFC 144.