Though he's of Samoan descent and hails from New Zeeland, Mark Hunt (7-7) should feel right at home in Japan. A staple in both K-1 and Pride FC, Hunt has been a professional kickboxer since 1999 and boasts the vaunted honor of being the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix Champion, meaning he's one of the rare few with true "world class striking." After achieving his dream in the pure striking arts, Pride Fighting Championships approached Hunt with an offer and he made a clean transition to MMA in 2004.
Hunt was burned by the sport's intolerance for incomplete fighters against his first opponent, Hidehiko Yoshida, who was world class everywhere Hunt was not. The Olympic gold-medalist Judoka exploited his inexperience by taking him down and tapping him with an armbar, though Hunt's feisty perseverance through a few submission attempts and grappling transitions signified his natural instincts and gameness.
He evened up his embryonic record by cramming a kick into the sternum of Dan Bobish for his first MMA victory, then skyrocketed his reputation by snapping Wanderlei Silva's five-year, eighteen fight undefeated streak. It's worth noting that Hunt outweighed Silva by a vast margin and the bout was a closely contested split decision, yet it was still an amazing accomplishment in only his third outing. The good vibes continued when Hunt picked off another Pride superstar in Mirko Filipovic, who had just risen through the ranks for an unsuccessful stab at Fedor Emelianenko's title. The highlight of the bout was CroCop's panic-inducing "cemetery kick" bouncing off Hunt's head unnoticed.
Notching five straight after losing his debut, Hunt would then suffer an atrocious seven consecutive defeats, though his caliber of opposition included elite heavyweights like the aforementioned Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett. The ugly sequence concluded with tapping to Sean McCorkle's kimura in his UFC debut, and Hunt realigned the boat with back-to-back wins over Chris Tuchscherer (TKO) and Ben Rothwell (decision).
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French kickboxer Cheick Kongo (17-6) emerged in the Octagon with style in the form of two devastating TKOs (the late Gilbert Aldana, Christian Wellisch). Like Hunt, Kongo was a one-dimensional striker who was quickly inspired to fill the holes in his game after a submission loss, his version being a Carmelo Marrero armbar in his third UFC performance.
Kongo racked up two straight decisions (Ausserio Silva, CroCop) before unveiling improved wrestling and scrambling in a split-decision loss to Pride vet Heath Herring. Continuing to chip away, Kongo notched three consecutive TKOs (Dan Evensen, Mostapha Al-Turk, Antoni Hardonk) but lost momentum against upper-echelon talent in Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir.
Kongo has been flawless in his remaining four: he forced Paul Buentello to cry uncle with a series of elbows to the body, drew with Travis Browne (Kongo was docked a point for grabbing Browne's shorts), treated fans to an unforgettable come-from-behind knockout of Pat Barry and, most recently, handed the surging Matt Mitrione his first official loss.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
The overwhelming consensus is that Kongo will resort to his newly refined wrestling, which is hard to refute -- trading leather with a K-1 Grand Prix champion ranks alongside skinny jeans and country music as things to avoid at all costs.
With that dynamic in mind, let's examine how Hunt approaches opponents who endeavor to drop levels for takedowns. His first and best line of defense is the vicious combination he sinks Tuchscherer with to the right, which is the right uppercut-left hook medley. Both punches are devastating and pack a massive wallop.
Hunt's timing and accuracy is impeccable, and he rockets the uppercut to discourage his opponent from placing their head anywhere near its trajectory. He follows it up with his explosive left hook, which he uncorks with blinding speed and ungodly power. Despite his rotund girth, Hunt is deceivingly agile, quick and light on his toes, plus he's bullishly strong with a low center of gravity. His enhanced takedown defense is depicted to the left when Rothwell tries to slide under his overhand right, but Hunt immediately lowers his base, retracts his hips and hurls him to the canvas.
To the right is Kongo's method of closing distance in order to clinch and work takedowns.
His gifts of natural strength, athleticism and his freakishly elongated frame are more prevalent than any high-level wrestling fundamentals. He was able to plant Mitrione, a beefy, former NFL player, on his back twice by squashing him into the fence and then peeling him up and away from it (below) by restraining his hips -- so the results are there. Kongo also deserves credit for going downstairs with the body shot that backs Mitrione up initially.
The key difference on Saturday will be that Hunt has unparalleled footwork and counter-striking abilities compared to the fighters Kongo has implemented takedowns against in the past, and also won't be as leery about the incoming punches because of his kitchen sink of a chin. That means that shrinking the gap with his hands down and chin exposed as he does in the sequence above will not be devoid of risks. Additionally, most of the focus seems to rest on Kongo's improved takedowns rather than Hunt's equally enhanced sprawl and defensive scrambling.
To be fair, I'd say Kongo has the made the greater strides in grappling. Beyond his takedown prowess, he is a mauler with elbows and ground-and-pound and has exhibited decent control from the top. Hunt's chin is one of the most bulletproof in the game but, with five-ounce gloves and a slugger like Kongo, a knockout is not unfathomable. Kongo's shown a pretty sturdy beard as well.
Kongo is an understandable favorite on the betting lines but numbers as high as +300 seem a little skewed. Admittedly giving way to a personal favorite, I think Hunt has a better shot at catching Kongo on the feet than being out-wrestled and contained for all three rounds.
My Prediction: Mark Hunt by KO.
All gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com