Mark Hunt's rise, fall and rise again is one of the most compelling stories ever to emerge in fight sports. The modern-day ‘Cinderella Man' was on a six-fight losing streak four ago, a shell of the man who won the K-1 Grand Prix in 2001.
The UFC didn't want him but were forced to honor the contract they acquired in the PRIDE FC buyout. That second chance at success lit a fire under Hunt and he now finds himself 24 hours away from a fight for the UFC interim championship.
It is an inspiring story and one which has caught the attention of fight fans worldwide. Numerous fighters have also taken a close interest in Hunt's endeavors; physical decline is a fear which haunts every professional athlete's slumber so this resurgence of Hunt's resonates strongly with them.
Mirko ‘CroCop' is a man who knows Hunt and Werdum well. He and Hunt fought under the K-1 banner in 2002, one year after Hunt's winning of the K-1 World Grand Prix tournament. The two fought again in 2005 when they were part of the PRIDE FC line-up, while Werdum was ‘CroCop's grappling coach in the PRIDE years and was based in Zagreb, Croatia.
These days ‘CroCop's is back in kickboxing, part of the GLORY heavyweight division, while Hunt remains in MMA. In homage to Hunt's background, Bloody Elbow spoke to three heavyweight kickboxers about tomorrow night‘s fight at UFC 180: Mirko ‘CroCop', Rico Verhoeven and Errol Zimmerman.
"It is such a great story," says ‘CroCop'.
"He suffered six losses and everyone wrote him off but the legendary Samoan fists brought him back. It's a nice story. And we are the same age so I like that, he proves guys like me and him can still compete at a high level.
"And of course I know Fabricio Werdum very well also. He was my former jiu jitsu coach and training partner, he is like a brother to me, but we are all sportsmen and so I say ‘let the best man win.'"
Some fighters are reluctant to make predictions for fights, especially if they know the people involved. ‘CroCop' is one such; out of politeness he didn't want to weigh in but with a bit of nagging I managed to get some detail.
"Fabricio has the advantage in terms of a longer preparation. Mark wasn't fighting and had put a lot of weight on, but he has such courage and such dynamite in his hands that for sure it will be an interesting fight," he said.
" I feel sorry for Velasquez though, that he isn't defending the title against Werdum. But it's good for Mark Hunt and I am very happy for him, he's a very nice guy. So is Fabricio.
"Who would I put money on? Ah I don't know. If I was forced to, I would say Werdum because Hunt only got three weeks' notice, had to travel a long distance, Mexico City is high above sea level and he had to lose a lot of weight.
"So all of that, then he has to be prepared to fight five rounds... But he showed us against Bigfoot Silva that he can go all five rounds so, who can say? He has the power to stop the fight with a knockout but at the same time Fabricio might take the fight down in the first round and it is finished."
‘CroCop' thinks Werdum is likely to play a tactical game rather than try to prove a point via a firefight with the notoriously hard-hitting Samoan.
"Fabricio will be careful and he has more range because he is taller. He can move around him, use range, jab, high kick, move around. That is what I would do. He doesn't have to be concerned if he falls down on a kick either because he is the best heavyweight grappler in MMA, together with Frank Mir," he says.
"He is a really good finisher from top or bottom and his stamina will be better than Mark's because he has had longer to prepare. I don't like to make predictions, it's a little impolite, but I think we can say that if Fabricio takes a disciplined approach he will probably win on points and if the fight gets to the floor he will get the submission.
"For Mark, he has to find that big punch which would cause a knockout. If he lands one of his legendary hooks or uppercuts then it can be all over."
Rico Verhoeven is the GLORY World Heavyweight kickboxing champion. He's also the Dutch national heavyweight champion in No-Gi grappling, though his present career is focused on kickboxing. He defends the belt against Errol Zimmerman at GLORY 19 on December 19.
"This is could be a good fight but if Werdum takes Hunt down right away he will get submitted," he says. "That would be too bad for the fans because otherwise this could be a great fight. If they stay standing, I give Mark a good chance of winning with his hard-hitting hands. Let's see what happens Saturday."
Zimmerman, also notorious for one-hit knockout power, would love to see a Hunt win.
"He's a legend in kickboxing and he's an explosive fighter, which is the kind of guy I like. He always looks for the knockout. Definitely he will try and put pressure on Werdum early, try and force him to make a mistake and open up," he says.
"I hope he can do it, it would be a great story. But obviously Werdum has had more preparation time and he hasn't had to travel so far or drop so much weight. If it goes to the floor he will win. If it stays standing it can be anybody's fight."
Hunt brings a 5-2-1 UFC record into the bout and is #4 in the official contender rankings. Werdum rides a four-fight win streak into the fight and is 9-3 in the UFC overall. He was originally set to face Cain Velasquez but the Mexican-American champion suffered a knee injury in training and had to pull out of tomorrow night's event in Mexico City. UFC 180 airs in the US on pay-per-view.