It is fitting that the UFC’s 8th Fuel event will be taking place in Japan. The card is chock full of MMA stars whose careers were made in the land of the rising sun, languishing though some of them are now in the UFC. Headlining the card we’ve got thawed Brazilian caveman Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann, a man with Captain America’s patriotism, Batman’s jawline, and Aquaman's personality. Also on the card, born-again Templar Diego Sanchez will be trying to put the fear of God into professional haymaker Takanori Gomi as both men strive to regain some semblance of their former glory.
But even more exciting than the cavalcade of Pride-era stars is the fact that this card follows one of Japan’s most beloved traditions: freakshow fights! Yes, since time immemorial brave men like Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, and Ikuhisa Minowa have walked the earth, challenging representatives of the extremes of the human physique, testing the limits of their relatively small frames against these giants. They happily crushed the likes of Akebono, Hong-man Choi, and Zuluzinho in a multitude of freakshow matchups, all for the pleasure and glory of the Emperor (and the Yakuza).
And, in the spirit of giving Japanese fans two very different-sized men to look at, the UFC is pitting the tallest fighter in the organization against the shortest man in the heavyweight division. Sunday March 3rd, "The Super Samoan" Mark Hunt (8-7) squares off against Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve (25-5). But the UFC has made a titillating change to the usual freakshow fight format: this one isn't a guaranteed one-sided beatdown.
In fact, Hunt vs. Struve is a very promising matchup. And I have a good idea of who takes it. But first, let’s take a look at what these fighters have to offer.
Mark Hunt is a badass, and no mistake. If you doubt that statement, then I would direct you to watch his K-1 bout with Ray Sefo, in which he openly invites the fellow power puncher to hit him square in the chin several times, and then smiles, nods, and asks for more. Watch it on Youtube here, and behold the brotherhood of violence.
But Hunt is more than just tough. He brings a special skillset to the UFC, especially so in such a technically limited division. Mark's striking is superb as far as heavyweights in MMA are concerned. He proved that in his bout against touted kickboxer Cheick Kongo, who simply had nothing to offer the seasoned K-1 veteran. In fact, there is a laundry list of things that Mark showed in the Kongo fight (his most impressive UFC win) that most heavyweights seem completely unable or unwilling to do. For one, he checked kicks like it was nothing, which seemed to baffle the Frenchman instantly. So Kongo quickly gave up on the kicks and charged Hunto with his usual barrage of power punches. The thing is, normally Kongo is fast enough and strong enough to get away with less-than-stellar technique. Not so with the Super Samoan. Check it out:
Kongo's lunging punch leaves him wide open for a counter. And Hunt's footwork and head movement is just too much for him: almost effortlessly Mark fades the right hand and pivots into a cracking left hook that floors Kongo. This left hook is Hunt's money punch. He likes to use it in conjunction with the right uppercut to keep opponents from changing levels on him and trying to take him down, or on its own, either as a counter or as a leaping lead that slips around and through leaky guards with ease.
And, on the subject of Hunt's punches, how about his knockout power?
Note how little wind-up Hunt's hands require to do significant damage, and how little clean contact. Even the glancing blows he landed on Kongo connected like sledgehammers. The same can be said of his famous uppercut knockout of Chris Tuchscherer--the man can crack, and what appear to be pawing or slapping shots regularly put his opponents to sleep.
Hunt also showed in his Pride meeting with Mirko Cro Cop that he's perfectly willing to attack the body, as well as reminding everyone that he can take a flush Cro Cop head kick and keep coming. The body will be even more wide open on a towering opponent like Struve, especially considering the Dutchman's cover-up style of defense, which we'll get to in a moment. Expect Hunt to feint his way in and pound the torso of Struve with malicious intent, using those shots to bully the larger man into opening himself up for the knockout blow.
A final, and perhaps overlooked, aspect of Mark Hunt's style is that he is a naturally gifted mixed martial artist. He has a great base, helped by his stocky stature, and he has quick, powerful hips. His fight with Cro Cop is further evidence of this. Despite being soundly beaten by Mirko in his K-1 days, under MMA rules Hunt was able to rough the Croatian up soundly, despite the fact that the head kick aficionado is remembered far more for his success in MMA than in kickboxing. Hunt was able to get in close and tire Mirko out by roughing him up and tossing him around. He was able to do the same to the big powerful Ben Rothwell in the UFC. The only trouble is that this natural tendency to pounce on his opponents and stick tightly to them is exactly what has landed him in so many submission finishes in the past. Hunt will have to be very cautious about following the Skyscraper to the ground in Japan this Sunday. His potential success depends largely on his ability to learn and improve his game.
Stefan Struve has made his career getting his ass whooped and coming back to knock out or submit his foe. He's tough, and he's survived a lot of wars for his age. But the problem is not Stefan’s durability. It’s the fact that he gets his ass whooped in the first place. Stefan Struve is seven feet tall with an 84 inch wingspan, and yet when he fights it seems anyone who wants to is able to hit him in the face. This should not be.
Here, look at these stills of Stefan in his recent fight with Stipe Miocic.
That is not the way a man of Struve's considerable dimensions should be defending his space. Struve should present a very great threat envelope, and yet Miocic, a man eight inches shorter and with four fewer inches of reach is able to close in on the Skyscraper by simply feinting his jab. And the holes left in the sides of Stefan's double forearm guard are more than large enough for a Mark Hunt leaping left hook to squeeze through. And, thankfully for Hunto, Struve unwisely hunches his back and leans forward when he covers up, making the openings easy for even 5'10" Mark Hunt to take full advantage of. Worse still, Struve is completely out of position in those stills, allowing Miocic to easily get dominant angles on him. This passive method of defense is far from optimal.
Stefan should be using his own jab or a stiff teep to maintain his space, but he doesn't. In fact, the lack of a teep may be the most mind-boggling aspect of Struve's game in light of his natural kicking ability and freakishly long legs. The addition of such a kick, or a sharp up-jab would help tremendously, and yet Struve only ever paws with his lead or throws a cumbersome, telegraphed power jab that invariably goes sailing over his opponents' heads.
It isn't simply that Struve doesn't have a handle on his game yet. Despite his young age, the Skyscraper has been in 30 fights, and he fights practically the same way that he did in his first UFC outing three years ago, a beating at the hands of future champ Junior Dos Santos that saw Struve unconscious less than a minute into the first round. Despite the constant praises of Joe Rogan every time the young Dutchman steps into the Octagon, Stefan Struve has not shown much improvement in his striking. Rather than bettering his boxing ability and learning to utilize his reach to get underneath his opponents' guards, he still fights as tall as possible (which means very tall for Struve) and throws constant, short range power shots without setups. Mark Hunt's style of boxing is suited perfectly to his frame, whereas the looming Struve seems to get himself caught in mid-range wild exchanges that he should be able to avoid simply by jabbing and circling his smaller opponents.
Despite his success in the above .gif, that is not the type of exchange that Struve belongs in. His chin happened to outlast the static jaw of Morecraft, but there's no chance it will prove superior to the iron beard of Hunt. Unfortunately, the habitual Struve has given us good reason to believe that he'd be more than willing to get into a similar exchange with the Samoan this Sunday.
The real danger that Struve presents to Hunt is his ground game. For all his obliviousness to the advantages of his long limbs on the feet, Struve knows exactly what to do with his miles of legs on the ground. He has a very dangerous triangle and arm bar, and the straight arm bar has proven to be Hunt's nemesis more than once in the past. The difficulty in accomplishing such a victory will be in getting Hunt to the ground, which is actually no easy feat, especially for someone with Struve's lackluster takedown ability. The greatest chance that Struve has of submitting Mark is if, like Pat Barry before him, the stout kickboxer follows the Skyscraper to the canvas after hurting him. That is Struve's domain. Unfortunately for him, the ref can make both fighters stand; he can't make 'em both lie down. Fortunately for him, Hunt has shown a dangerous tendency to get sucked into his opponents' superior ground games many times in the past.
In this matchup, the power punching and clever footwork of Mark Hunt will outclass the clumsy boxing of Stefan Struve. The Skyscraper will have difficulty if he expects to outwork Hunt with his kicks, since this gameplan already proved futile for Mirko Cro Cop, a fighter with far quicker and far more powerful kicks than Struve. Hunt and Struve both have more than enough cardio to make it to the end of this fight, which will come before the end of the third round, so endurance shouldn't be a factor. If Hunt avoids following Struve to the ground too carelessly after the knockdown, he should be able to take this fight. That's a very big if, but still... My prediction: Mark Hunt by TKO in Round 2.
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