Combat Sports

The last days of Mark Hunt

Round One

The clock is ticking. It always is. Mark Hunt knows that.

At 43, the combat sports legend is well into the final phase of his career. That he is still fighting at all is remarkable, given the setbacks, beat-downs and disappointments of recent years.

Hunt has good reason to keep trading massive punches, kicks and knees with the most dangerous men on the planet – the three remaining fights on his UFC deal are believed to be worth $1.5 million. But those dollars will be hard earned. The question is whether the price he pays for them will be too high. The most dangerous striker on the planet is not what he once was. At his age, no one is.

For eight-and-a-half minutes at UFC Fight Night in Auckland on Sunday, it looks as if Hunt has indeed soldiered on too long.

For the first 90 seconds of his bout with Derrick Lewis, a hulking 32-year-old African American striker with a head like a cannonball and a prodigious belly, Hunt didn’t throw a punch. He shuffled around, fending off Lewis’ probing knees and head kicks. Spark Arena went silent. The crowd of over eight thousand had expected fireworks. What they were seeing was two men who appeared to struggling to convince themselves they really wanted to go through with this madness.

Lewis is the first to commit, landing a solid kick to Hunt’s side. Hunt winces. Eventually he throws a monster right hand. The crowd erupts, relieved that Hunt still shares their enthusiasm for mixed martial arts.

Lewis responds with a pair of head kicks that Hunt half-blocks. Hunt dips his head and Lewis lands monster upper cut, splitting Hunt’s forehead. This could get bloody.

It could also be over at any moment, as both men unleash strikes that could immediately render the other very, very unconscious – a state Hunt has become all too familiar with.

The round ends, with Lewis clearly taking the honours.

The Prelims

Ngaruawahia panel beater Luke Jumeau is nearer the opposite end of the fighter cycle to the legendary Hunt. The 29-year-old has plugged away, fighting across seven countries on small beer promotions since debuting in 2008. He compiled a tidy 11-3 record before the UFC came calling to offer a spot on the Auckland fight night.

Jumeau’s breakthrough seemingly owed as much to his burgeoning social media profile as it did to an undefeated streak that dates back to 2012. A facebook campaign to include him on the card achieved over 100,000 clicks, catching the eye of UFC’s decision makers.

Jumeau was offered a four-fight deal, starting with Sunday's showdown with the imposing Dominique Steele, an American veteran of 23 fights in the Octagon.

Initially, it looks like a case of being careful what you wish for as Steele, the bigger fighter, dominates the first round. Jumeau, though, composes himself and changes the course of the contest with a heavy combination to the head at the start of the second round. The shaken Steele stays on his feet, but Jumeau is now the dominant fighter, and he punishes Steele for the remainder of the fight.

“I’m here now,” an emotional Jumeau says shortly after being awarded a unanimous decision. “I’m here man. I’m here. It is going to be a wild ride.

“I was offered a four-fight contract but there are no guarantees.”

Had the fight gone the other way – or even resulted in a dull victory – Jumeau’s dream could have evaporated instantly. Instead, like Hunt, he will fight another day on the world’s most brutal stage.

Round Two

Lewis flicks out his hand and a finger burrows into Hunt’s left eye. The fight stops. Lewis clearly feels bad about the unintentional foul. His apologetic handshake is accepted. Hunt dodges a follow up haymaker, but he has no answer to an opponent who is 11 years younger. Then, 3.30mins into the round, he does. A huge right-hand staggers Lewis, followed by a crushing left hook to the chin.

The Super Samoan is back. “Fucking beautiful!,” one of his cornermen screams as Hunt takes a seat at the end of the round.

Hunt’s glory days might not be behind him just yet.

In May 2015, he was close enough to see the top of the fighting world. After 15 years of slugging his way around the globe on the K1 and Pride circuit, the Auckland-born Samoan-Kiwi had arrived in the UFC.

His first fight on the world’s biggest martial arts promotion had ended with a shock submission loss to freestyle fighter Sean McCorkle. But Hunt had bounced back with four straight wins – including three spectacular KOs to set up a showdown with Brazilian legend Junior Dos Santos. The winner would become the UFC’s number one contender, with a title shot all-but guaranteed.

Hunt was close to the pinnacle all right, but that status would be fleeting. Dos Santos picked him apart, finishing the fight in the third round with a spectacular spinning hook kick to Hunt’s temple that rendered him unconscious.

After a seven-month hiatus, Hunt returned to the Octagon for what would be an horrendously brutal five round war with Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silver, a hulking Brazilian who later returned a test for elevated testosterone levels during the fight. The bout remained a draw on Hunt’s record, however he received the Brazilian’s share of the $US100,000 payment as compensation.

The money was hard-earned. As thrilling as the contest was, it was hard to watch, with the fighters somehow both remaining conscious while inflicting a huge amount of damage.

Round Three

Lewis backs Hunt onto the cage and unleashes a half-dozen wild haymakers. The sledgehammer blows either miss or are deflected, eliciting minimal damage. Then, suddenly, Lewis is done. He spends the rest of the round walking away from Hunt with his hands down, occasionally hitching up his Reebok pants.

Hunt stalks his man, alternating between powerful leg kicks, body punches and an occasional mighty swat at Lewis’ jaw. He ends the round knowing victory will be his. It’s just a matter of time – a commodity that is no longer his friend.

On March 23, 2014 Hunt turned 40. Traditionally an age when professional fighters would be pondering the disappearance of their best – and most lucrative days – the milestone signalled the start of big things for the Super Samoan.

In November that year, Hunt would challenge Brazilian Fabricio Werdum for the interim UFC heavyweight title. It was the sort of chance he had fought for his whole life. But it didn’t go well.

In the second round, Werdum, clearly clued up on Hunt’s propensity to drop his head as he defended takedown attempts, feinted a dive at Hunt’s legs and instead delivered a catastrophic knee strike. Hunt was out as soon as the blow landed, but Werdum landed a flurry of punches just to make sure.

The level of violence was shocking, more so because, for once, it was the hammer-fisted Kiwi on the receiving end.

Any thoughts the loss might spell the end for Hunt were swiftly erased when he signed on to fight American Stipe Miocic as the headline contest of the UFC’s first show in South Australia in May, 2015.

Both fighters were coming off losses, and hoping to get back in the title-shot frame. If Hunt was desperate, it didn’t show. He was totally outclassed by the future heavyweight champion. Miocic pounded Hunt for over 20 minutes. By the time the fight was stopped in the fifth round, Miocic had set the record for the number of total strikes landed in a UFC bout, - 361 blows to Hunt’s 40-year-old body and head.

Hunt landed just 46 blows of his own, with the 315-strike differential also setting a record. Hunt had just taken the biggest beating in UFC history. He’d lost 11kg in one day to do it: the dramatic weight cut required to qualify for the fight meant he was done before it even began.

Time to call it a day?

Apparently not. Hunt would fight again in November, avenging his tainted draw with Silver with a KO victory.

Another KO win, over Frank Mir in Brisbane, would set up the mega-showdown with Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 in Las Vegas in July 2016.

The Undercard

Two fights before Hunt enters the ring, countryman Dan Hooker takes on England's Ross Pearson. A 32-year-old veteran with an impressive 21-13 record, the heavily tattooed Pearson is shorter, stockier and looks meaner than the baby-faced Hooker.

After a first-round dominated by the lanky Hooker’s strikes from range, Pearson appears to be closing the distance and wearing down the Kiwi, whose face is now bloodied.

“He’s in range,” screams Hooker’s trainer Eugene Bareman from ringside. “Now Dan.”

On cue, Hooker delivers a crushing knee to Pearson’s face. The Englishman crumples, unconscious. The fight is over, but not before Hooker pounces and lands a heavy hammer fist to his prone opponent’s head. In MMA, no sucker is ever given an even break.

“New Zealand stand up,” screams Hooker at the start of his post-fight interview.

New Zealand does.

Round Four

A monster Hunt leg kick at the start of the round spells the beginning of the end for the clearly-drained Lewis. Hunt lands a huge right hand. Earlier in the fight, Lewis had shaken off these punches. This time, he acknowledges Hunt’s work with nod. Hunt smiles and nods back. Both men know the end is coming. For such a brutal contest, there has been a genuine air of gentlemanliness throughout. The mutual respect is clear – but Hunt has a job to do.

Lewis drops his hands and stops defending himself. Hunt moves in for the kill and the fight is quickly stopped. Hunt, looking more relieved than jubilant, raises both arms to the approval of the baying Spark Arena crowd.

“This is my hood,” Hunt says. “For me if it ended here tonight then so be it. I’ve have a good run. I’ve had lots of fun.

“Derrick is a tough guy. I respect him because he doesn’t use steroids.”

That’s important to Hunt.

The aftermath of a one-sided beat down victory by Lesnar is now playing out in the courts after it emerged the hulking professional wrestler and former UFC heavyweight champion failed tests for the anti-estrogen drug clomiphene before and after the fight.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission docked Lesnar’s $US2.5million fee by 10 per cent. Hunt, who received $US700,000 for the fight, was incensed.

"Before the fight I was assuming he was cheating," Hunt said. "Look at him. There's no way that guy makes 265 pounds. That guy is a gimp, he's sticking needles in his ass like the rest of these cheaters. And the thing about that is, he's sitting here saying ‘this is a fair place.' Well, it's not fair. These guys are cheating and they should be in court for it. (They should) lose all of their money if they're cheating, because if I die in there, who's going to look after my family?

"That's corrupt sh*t, man. These motherf*ckers should be penalized hard. Dirty, scummy, cheating scum. That's how that monkey won his world title. He didn't do it by doing it clean. He did it by cheating, just like the rest of these cheaters."

Hunt was as good as his word when it came to suggesting Lesnar should face court. He engaged lawyers and has filed a suit against the UFC, its president, Dana White, and Lesnar, seeking millions in damages, to his person and to his brand.

"I want the UFC to understand it's not OK to keep doing what they're doing," Hunt said.

"They're allowing guys to do this. They had a chance to take all the money from this guy, because he's a cheater, and they didn't.

"What message is that sending to the boys and girls who want to be a fighter someday? The message is, 'You just have to cheat like this and it's OK.' In society, if you commit a crime, you pay. Why is it different in MMA? It's hurt the business, so it's even worse. They need to be held accountable for this."

His deep annoyance at his paymasters and disillusionment with the sport seemed to signal that Hunt’s career was finally over; that his future battles would take place wearing a suit and tie sitting alongside his lawyers.

Incredibly, not so. In March this year, Hunt returned to the Octagon to face Dutch kickboxer Alistair Overeem in Las Vegas. It was a fight Hunt was tipped to win, but ended with him knocked out cold, again by a huge knee to the head.

That was just 99 days before fight night Auckland.

The Aftermath

“Yeah, nah, that 50K will help bro,” quips Dan Hooker, who could hardly be more Kiwi as he again warms up the crowd for Hunt – this time at the post fight press conference.

Hooker runs through the cut and thrust of an impressive victory that has earned him a $US50,000 fight of the night bonus.

The gate revenue for the event was $US1,150,428, so Hooker has walked away with a nice chunk of that.

The excellent crowd of 8,649 means UFC will be back in Auckland, most likely in a couple of years. By then, Hunt will be retired, and Hooker might just be the headline act. He is just one of many Kiwis primed to storm the sport’s largely north and south American barricades.

“We are just the tip of the iceberg, me and Luke,” he says. “We are both home grown guys. We came up fighting on the same shows.

“New Zealand has got so much more talent to showcase.”

Hunt’s left eye is still bloodshot from its encounter with Lewis’ finger, but the wound to his forehead doesn’t look serious. “Have I got anything on my nose?” he asks as he takes his seat in the press room.

I’m there to ask him one question – how much more of this can he, the oldest fighter on the UFC’s books, take? Before I can get to it, he’s asked about his crushing loss to Overeem.

“He is always going to be a cheating bum,” Hunt says, a reference to the Dutchman’s links to steroids, which include an abnormally high testosterone test and nine-month suspension. “That’s what he’s always going to be to me, regardless of whether he beat me. He is always going to have that cloud over his head for all of his achievements. Sorry Alistair, you are a cheat.”

Hunt is adamant that taking money from fighters who use PEDs would stamp out the problem.

“If you take away the incentive then cheaters wouldn’t want to do it. If you take away the money, they wouldn’t do it. It’s just a clause in the contract saying the cheater doesn’t benefit at all. Because right now it pays to cheat. But if you take that away and it will make it even. It’ll take a bit of time but no cheaters will start cheating, using steroids and shit. That’s the way I see it. Before someone dies.”

Speaking of health issues, it’s time for my question.

“I’m not slurring my speech and I’m still alive, so you can’t kill me yet, man,” answers Hunt. “The old dog is still going. I’m doing what I’m doing and I’m still beating the top end guys. I said if I can’t start beating these guys then I will retire – these guys are too good for me.

“But, you know, the last two guys [who beat me] are cheaters and today I faced number six and I beat him. I don’t like listening to anyone saying: ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do this’. Otherwise I wouldn’t be a fighter.

“I love to get beat up. I mean, shucks, there’s nothing else I’m good at. I’ve got a couple more fights on my contract and that is it. Why not see the contract out and then retire?”

These may be the last days of Mark Hunt, but he’ll be the one to decide when they are finally up.

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