In the co-main event of the weekend in Vegas for UFC 160, an unlikely challenger takes on a former champion.
Like everyone else, it's still taking some getting used to; "UFC Heavyweight title contender, Mark Hunt!" Hunt's history tends to be overblown a bit, however. Yes, he lost six straight at one point, but look at the list of opponents: Fedor, Overeem, Barnett, Mousasi. The Manhoef loss remains an aberration; not because Hunt lost, but because he was knocked out.
If fans gave up on Hunt, it's because he lost to Sean McCorkle. And now here we are, actually considering the potential of a Hunt title shot with a win over dos Santos.
It's difficult to identify just how we got here. Hunt's game is the same. Favorable matchups? Not really. Ben Rothwell and Stefan Struve were difficult opponents, and stylistic nightmares. Yet Hunt kept on pushing, earning victories and endearing him to fans with his charming indifference.
For dos Santos, the trick will be recovering from a prolonged beatdown at the hands of Cain Velasquez. Most people recognized that the rematch probably wouldn't look the same, but fans still had faith. And that faith was quickly shattered when Cain took complete control, beating Junior on the feet, and getting Joe Rogan to convince fans that the first fight between was meaningless during the commentary. Not that Cain's performance failed to make the point invalid.
If Hunt was to gain a title shot with a victory, this is his best chance: against one of the few heavyweights who will be willing to stand with him.
In addition, his timing and ability to counter strike happen to be impeccable. He's easily the division's best striker, which is what makes this fight so interesting.
JDS is a great striker, too. His jab and his right hand are enough to be feared, even by a guy like Mark Hunt. Hunt may be able to boast one of the sport's greatest chins, but at 39 years of age, and battleworn, it's not a trait you want to flaunt, or test this late in the game against the sport's elite.
I'd like to mention something about their respective ground games. In JDS' case, his wrestling is quite underrated, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this become a factor. Hunt, despite the fact that it still isn't good, obviously showed signs of life against Struve. Struve has always been a gifted grappler, although I have to suspect Hunt's resilience had more to do with Struve underperforming on the ground than Hunt secretly being gifted from his back (though to be fair, he's shown to be aggressive on top).
What both men can't do: This is where things get interesting. On the feet, the edge goes to Hunt. I won't necessarily call it a wash, however. Cigano's problem is that he still leaves himself wide open. He brings his left hand back too slowly, and this leaves him open for a right hand. If Hunt is looking for Cigano's chin, he won't have trouble finding it.
On the other hand, Hunt's cardio is still a question mark. Struve managed to land hard strikes on Hunt, and if you watch closely, Hunt didn't just shrug them off. Obviously, the difference here is that Struve had a huge reach advantage. At the same time, Struve's punches are less powerful than Junior's.
Obviously, I don't expect Junior to out-strike Hunt. But I do think it can stay competitive. The x-factor in this fight will be Junior's wrestling. I predict he'll use it. Fights like these rarely tend to play like we desire them to. Some of us hope they'll make a gentleman's agreement and stand and bang, and if they do, it'll be because Hunt is able to defend the takedown. However, for all the love thrown Hunt's way, let's not kid ourselves into thinking he's an elite fighter who will one day be mentioned in the same name as Cain Velasquez, or Daniel Cormier.
The man lost to Sean McCorkle before the first round hit the two minute mark. It's only a matter of time before he gives up the ghost, and the weekend of his biggest fight against an elite heavyweight seems like just as good a time as any.
Prediction: Junior dos Santos by Decision.