(Warning: The following article is over 3000 words long.)
I knew very little about either Mark Hunt or his fighting career going into UFC 144. I knew that he was an aging Samoan heavyweight with an iron jaw and iron fists. I knew that he was a former Pride fighter and a former K-1 Kickboxing world champion but if you had asked me what year he won, or who he had defeated, I would have had to look it up.
I knew that Hunt was on a two fight win streak in the UFC and I knew that many fans were claiming that a third consecutive victory, over Cheick Kongo, would elevate him to contender status. I had a hard time reconciling this. After all, Hunt had most recently defeated Ben Rothwell in a pretty uninspiring performance, at least by my standards. Both men looked gassed by the time the third round rolled around, with Rothwell looking particularly out of shape. That Hunt had out-grappled Rothwell was the lone bright spot in the fight; Hunt had not shown much proficiency in the ground aspect of mixed martial arts competition, with all but one of his losses coming due to submission. His previous UFC victory was a knockout over Chris Tuscherer, who never really belonged in the UFC in the first place. So I found the talk of a title run to be extremely pre-mature, even if he could manage to earn a victory over Kongo.
Then I started doing some research. My first stop when learning about a fighter is to check out their record. I look for things like most used method of victory, number of times they've been knocked out, strength of scheduled, length of time between fights, etc. etc. Mark Hunt has a very interesting MMA record:
- He is 8-7 overall, but is 3-1 in the UFC.
- He entered the UFC on a five fight losing streak, surely the first and only time this will ever happen.
- His first 10 fights included Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Josh Barnett and Melvin Manhoef. He fought each man when they were at their absolute prime, save for perhaps Overeem. No one has, or will ever face that level of competition in their first 10 fights ever again. What's more, he was the man who brought an end to Wanderlei Silva's 20 fight Pride unbeaten streak, when Wanderlei was considered the best fighter in the world.
I also learned that Hunt was told by the UFC not to bother coming to fight for the organization when his contract was included in the deal that saw Zuffa purchase Pride Fighting Championships. So skeptical of his ability to compete that Dana was content to simply pay him the money on his contract, no questions asked, but no fights either. Hunt turned down the offer and demanded that he be allowed to earn his pay. It was an attitude that might seem typical of a fighter, but when you consider that he was on a five fight losing streak and would be entering an organization which was far more wrestling-centric than Pride, it would be understandable if Hunt had taken the president up on his offer.
I was intrigued, to say the least.
Then Hunt went out and absolutely destroyed Kongo in the first round, finishing what Pat Barry had started, in clinical fashion. He joked around with Ariel Helwani in his post fight interview, although he was very serious when he stated a desire for his next fight to be this weekend in Australia.
I was now sold on Hunt as a character, but wasn't yet on board with the idea that he was a legitimate heavyweight title contender. I wrote that a match-up with Mike Russow would be appropriate for Hunt, as Russow is on a nice little four fight win streak himself and has exactly the type of game that would vet Hunt's chances against the top of the division (a strong chin and solid wrestling).
Yet over the past few days, I've read in many places that Hunt is a contender right now. Could it really be? Even though I wasn't convinced, I set about to analyze every potential match-up for the "Super Samoan" on the road to the title, just to see if maybe I was wrong and everyone else was right.
1. Junior dos Santos
Strengths: Boxing, Speed. Dos Santos has destroyed everyone he's faced in the UFC, with only Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin managing to make it to the judges scorecards. I could be wrong but I don't believe that he has lost a round in the UFC. He has a devastating uppercut and closes distance like a heavyweight Georges St. Pierre.
Weaknesses: One dimensional. If you were to find a weakness, it would be that dos Santos has only shown that he can win a fight in one way: Punching his opponent in the face. Joe Rogan has been pleading for dos Santos to throw more leg kicks for as long as I can remember, but dos Santos seems content to simply blast away with uppercuts and hooks. He hasn't gone to the ground at any point when a fight hangs in the balance. He did take Shane Carwin down a couple of times but he had already beaten him to a pulp and the take downs were academic.
How would a fight against Hunt look: It's difficult to imagine that Hunt would be able to match the speed that dos Santos would bring. That being said, the fight would almost surely be fought on the feet and you could never count Hunt out of a stand up fight. We've yet to see how dos Santos responds to adversity, so Hunt would need to land early if he was going to have any chance of winning.
2. Alistair Overeem
Strengths: Offensive Kickboxing, Striking defense, Take down defense, Guillotine Choke. Overeem is the defending K-1 World Grand Prix champion, having won the title 10 years after Hunt. He is a powerful and accurate puncher, he has beautiful knees in and out of the clinch and can throw all the kicks in the book. After being knocked out a handful of times early in his career he dramatically improved his defense, using his massive arms and shoulders to cover up when he is being attacked. He also possesses an underrated ground game, having won eight fights by guillotine and 19 overall by submission.
Weaknesses: Chin, Cardio. While his striking defense is top notch, it really has to be, as he has been stopped by TKO or KO 9 times throughout his MMA and kickboxing career. He put on a large amount of weight when he made the transition from light heavyweight to heavyweight some five years ago and while he has only been to a decision once since, against Fabricio Werdum, he looked noticably tired in the third round of a fairly lacklustre fight.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Overeem and Hunt have already met up once, with Alistair securing a keylock submission in just 71 seconds following a Hunt takedown. A second match-up would probably feature Overeem seeking to bring the fight to the ground; I believe Alistair has become one of the most tactical fighters in the world and even though he might beat Hunt in a striking battle, he wouldn't chance it, especially since a match up would likely only take place if Hunt were to double his current three win streak.
3. Cain Velasquez
Strengths: Wrestling, Cardio, Offensive Kickboxing, Efficiency. A former champion, Velasquez used his excellent wrestling and all-world cardio to get to and win the title. He has excellent technique in all phases of the sport, wasting little in terms of movement and energy to accomplish what he wants to.
Weaknesses: Defensive Kickboxing, Chin. It's kind of difficult to say that Velasquez has any weaknesses, as his only loss came in 64 seconds to Dos Santos in the last heavyweight championship fight. Velasquez started the fight out landing a handful of leg kicks before being dropped by an overhand right on the temple and quickly finished. Dos Santos is a face melter, so it's tough to say Cain has a weak chin based just on that brief encounter. However, he was also dropped multiple times in his win over Cheick Kongo, so it's fair to start asking if his chin is going to hold up. Hand in hand with that goes his proclivity to absorb blows in order to land his own. No one really talks much about it, but he was trading with Brock Lesnar pretty evenly before he was able to get Lesnar down and take the fight over.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Especially after Dana White criticized him for not shooting on Dos Santos, Velasquez wouldn't likely bother trying to engage in any kind of kickboxing match with Hunt. He'd take him down. Velasquez has never submitted anyone, preferring to simply grind his opponents out, and he'd likely do so to Hunt.
4. Frank Mir
Strengths: Submission grappling. Frank would be quite annoyed to see that I consider him a one-dimensional fighter, but realistically he is just that. He is an outstanding submission fighter though and holds the distinction of being the only man to submit Big Nog, Lesnar and Kongo.
Weaknesses: Striking defense. While not being particularly amazing in any one area but submissions can seem like a negative, Mir has good skills in just about every other facet of the game but one, which is his maddening tendency to absorb punches without attempting to maneuver out of bad situations. Lesnar finished him this way, as did Shane Carwin. Both guys have big power to be sure, but Mir seemed unfazed by the blows being landed on him until it was far too late. He was also losing the stand up portion of his last fight with Big Nog quite handily.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Mir's wrestling was good enough to get Roy Nelson to the mat repeatedly and if he were to get Hunt down, he'd tap him out for sure. I just don't have enough faith in Hunt's ability to keep the fight standing.
5. Fabricio Werdum
Strengths: Submission grappling, volume striking. Werdum made a successful return to the UFC with a win over Roy Nelson at UFC 143, after spending three years fighting for Strikeforce. He is widely considered to have the most dangerous guard in the heavyweight division and he is the only man to have submitted Fedor Emelianenko. He has worked very hard on his striking game, having put in a good performance in the stand up portion of his fight against Overeem. He doesn't have one punch power but has a good work rate and is accurate with his strikes.
Weaknesses: Wrestling. While he did look good on the feet against Overeem, he also failed miserably to get the fight to the mat, resorting to butt flopping a ridiculous number of times. It seems that he decided it would be more beneficial to improve on his striking rather than his take down ability, which I think is pretty questionable, as he is just not powerful enough to strike with the best in the world at this weight.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Hunt has a great chance of beating Werdum. While Werdum is arguably the most dangerous of the submission fighters on the list, he also has the worst take downs, and if Hunt could keep the fight on it's feet for a few minutes, he'd likely land a telling blow.
6. Shane Carwin
Strengths: Power, Defensive Wrestling. I say defensive wrestling because Carwin was able to shuck Brock Lesnar off him early in their championship fight. We haven't really seen him use his wrestling in an offensive way, although he showed some good clinch work against Frank Mir. As for power, Carwin rivals Hunt in his ability to end fights with one punch.
Weaknesses: Power, Cardio. Joe Rogan famously said that "Leonard Garcia had so much power that it was almost a curse". While the statement was ridiculous to make about Leonard, it actually applies perfectly to Carwin, who had 12 straight first round stoppages before facing Lesnar. He had the champ hurt and emptied his gas tank in the first round, believing (understandably) that he would get the stoppage. When he didn't, he was easily taken down and submitted in the second round. Against Dos Santos he simply could not match the younger man's speed and should have tried to take the fight to the mat relentlessly. Instead, he tried to land a knock out blow and ended up taking an epic beating for his questionable game plan.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Another fight that looks favorable to Hunt, as he can match Carwin in the power department and far exceeds him in the technicality of his attack. As with all the fighters on this list, the threat of the take down looms large, but with a guy as powerful as Carwin, you have to wonder if he'd go that route, especially if he didn't find success with it early.
7. Big Nog
Strengths: Submission Grappling, Boxing, Heart, Experience. One of the great heavyweights of all time, Nogueira really needs no introduction. He isn't the fighter that he once was, having been slowed by injuries, but he was enjoying a bit of a renaissance, knocking out Brendan Schaub and taking it to Mir right up until the moment wMir submitted him at UFC 141.
Weaknesses: Speed, Chin. Nogueira wasn't particularly quick to begin with, and as I mentioned above, his movement has really suffered in the last few years. In his Pride days, he fought with a bad style for longevity, taking an awful lot of damage in order to latch on to a submission. He has been stopped by Velasquez and Mir in the UFC and if and when he does return to the ring, his chin will be a concern.
How would a fight against Hunt look: I think Hunt would take this fight as well. Nogueira has never exactly been known for his wrestling skills and having slowed down as much as he has, Hunt would likely be able to manuever away from Nogueira until he was able to catch him. Hunt would have to be smart about finishing the bout, as Nogueira is always dangerous on the mat, no matter how badly hurt he is. Hunt is smart enough to do so, making this fight extremely winnable.
8. Antonio Silva
Strengths: Size, Well Rounded-ness, Ground Striking. There really isn't any one aspect of the sport that Big Foot excels at, although he is very solid in all areas. He's quite big, cutting down from around 280 pounds. He has decent striking, good offensive wrestling and is an excellent top control grappler due to his large frame. His best work is done from the mount position, as he showed most recently against Mike Kyle and Fedor.
Weaknesses: Chin, Striking defense. Unfortunately for Silva, he has a very big chin. While you might think that is good for absorbing blows, in the heavyweight division where most guys have extreme power, it has served as more of a target for good strikers. He was rocked and nearly finished by Kyle before he came back and knocked him out. Daniel Cormier caught him with the same punch that Kyle did, and Big Foot never recovered from that one.
How would a fight against Hunt look: If this is starting to sound like a broken record, well, that's because there is a clear path to victory for Hunt against almost every one of these guys: Keep it on the feet, knock them out. Silva is good and quick enough to get Hunt to the ground, making this the second worst match-up for him behind Velasquez. Truth be told, I think this fight would end pretty badly for Hunt.
9. Cheick Kongo
The guy that Hunt just beat, there is really no need to review him. I simply have left him here for perspective on where Hunt might sit in the division.
10. Brendan Schaub
Strengths: Athleticism, Power,Offensive boxing. Schaub had a cup of coffee in the NFL and has translated his athletic skills over to the boxing aspect of MMA striking quite well, using a very effective jab and straight punches on his way to four straight wins over the likes of Gabriel Gonzaga and Cro Cop.
Weaknessess: Striking defense. Schaub hasn't shown too much in the way of well rounded-ness, and that was a problem for him against Roy Nelson and Big Nog, who were able to adjust to his jab and land knock out blows. It'll continue to be a problem for him in the future I honestly don't like his chances of being anything more than a gate-keeper to the upper levels of the division.
How would a fight against Hunt look: Schaub did get Mirko Cro Cop to the mat a handful of times when he met up with the legendary K-1 striker, but he didn't look particularly effective and the Cro Cop he faced was but a mere shell of his former self. As I mentioned above, his striking defense has a ton of holes in it that Hunt could exploit. His athleticism might be the determining factor in this fight and I'd like to see how he does against Ben Rothwell to get an idea of his chances against Hunt.
So there you have it. By my count four out of the nine fighters on the list could pretty clearly get Mark Hunt to the mat and either tap him out or dominate him with ground striking: Alistair Overeem, Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir and Big Foot Silva. Four of the other five fighters in the heavyweight top ten would be in tough, having a clear disadvantage on the feet and not being particularly well versed in getting the fight to the ground. The lone fighter who would be on equal footing in the stand up game is the current champion, Junior Dos Santos.
So is Mark Hunt a contender? Well, it seems that it isn't quite as far fetched as I thought it was just a few days ago.
If you've gotten this far, thanks for reading.