When you start to think about MMA's most improbable stories, you may immediately think about Matt Hamill and his early success, or perhaps Nick Newell's comeuppance in recent years.When you think about tournaments and championships, perhaps Mark Coleman's run in the Pride Grand Prix 2000, or Randy Couture's return to the heavyweight division in 2007, will come to mind. Or maybe you throw out Matt Serra's stunning upset of Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight belt.
Those would be matched, if not exceeded, in improbability if Mark Hunt walks out of UFC 180 as the UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion on Saturday, Nov. 15, in Mexico City, Mexico. It truly would be one of the most remarkable stories in this sport's young history.
When Hunt entered his MMA career, he was already a notable kickboxer who had won the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix. With some status in Japan and as an ever-tough competitor, he jumped right into action against quality competition.
Hunt began his career 5-1 with wins over Wanderlei Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. However, it was still apparent he was out of his depth on the ground as his MMA debut against Hidehiko Yoshida showed. Regardless, he was a fan favorite because of his style of fighting, and Pride placed him in suitable matchups early on.
His fifth consecutive victory came in the opening round of the 2006 Pride Openweight Grand Prix.
After advancing, Hunt would begin to suffer a significant setback as he was exposed time and again. He was taken down and submitted easily by Josh Barnett in the quarterfinals. That would not stop Pride from putting him against Fedor Emelianenko for his next contest.
Hunt was still a novice on the ground and was only five months removed from his quick loss to Barnett. Fedor won on the ground as many would expect.
After the fall of Pride, the “Super Samoan” would continue fighting. He would also continue losing.
At DREAM 5, Alistair Overeem finished him with a rudimentary keylock in just 71 seconds. In 2008, at the year-end Japan classic Dynamite!!, Hunt suffered his most surprising defeat when 185-pound Melvin Manhoef cracked the talented striker and his thick skull in just 18 seconds for an upset knockout.
If anyone had hopes of Hunt doing anything special in MMA, their dreams died on that night. We knew who Hunt was—a fantastic striker who was fun to watch in stand-up fights. He had virtually no ground game and now suffered a KO loss to a fighter two weight classes below him.
Hunt would carry on and lose to Gegard Mousasi in the DREAM Super Hulk Tournament by straight armbar in 80 seconds.
Even with three fights, and three losses, after the death of Pride, Hunt was still in negotiations with the UFC. His contract came as part of the Pride buyout. Dana White and the UFC attempted to buy him out, but Hunt refused. He wanted to test himself in the best MMA organization on the planet.
In 2010, Hunt made his UFC debut.
It was a 63-second loss to Sean McCorkle.
Hunt had become a punch line. We already knew what kind of fighter Hunt was, but at least he lost to notable names. Now Hunt had just lost to McCorkle. The “Super Samoan” had little to offer the fans, the heavyweight division or the UFC.
Or, so we thought.
Five months later, Hunt would get a fight close to home in Australia. He pasted Chris Tuchscherer with a walk-away KO. Hunt was able to show the UFC audience why so many fans had loved him during his earlier career.
His next test would be against Ben Rothwell at UFC 135—a matchup that screamed Rothwell would take him down and submit him or, if nothing else, control him for a decision win. That did not happen. Hunt defended 12 takedowns in the fight and landed two of his own. He kept the fight on the feet for the final two rounds and won a decision.
Enter Cheick Kongo. Exit with a TKO win.
With three wins in the UFC, Hunt moved himself up the ladder nicely. Now he would face Stefan Struve, a young gun in the division with a nice ground game. It was Hunt's stiffest task to date under the bright lights of the UFC. Another passing grade.
Hunt survived takedowns and submission attempts, came from behind and delivered one of the best knockouts of 2013.
Four straight wins earned Hunt a potential title eliminator against Junior dos Santos. The two stood toe to toe, but Hunt would come out on the losing end to a spinning heel kick in the last minute of the fight. It earned him a Fight of the Night bonus, but it also earned him many new fans for the performance.
The UFC knew it had a fun draw in Hunt. In the shallow talent pool of the heavyweight division, he was a valuable commodity. Back near home, Hunt would take on Antonio Silva. The two put on a Fight of the Year candidate. It turned out to be a majority draw, but the fight itself gave everyone the fight they wanted.
Hunt, 4-2-1 in his UFC career, would get Roy Nelson for his first bout in 2014. Nelson had improved boxing, but his wrestling and submissions seemed like a natural fit for a quick end to Hunt's night. That is, after all, what history has told us.
The New Zealander had apparently burned his history books.
Hunt defended takedowns from Nelson and survived on the ground. Improbable, but his improvements in these categories have stunned us all. In the second round, Hunt gave us another stellar walk-away knockout.
After the fight in September, one would have thought Hunt would earn another top-10 fight, but we did not expect the UFC to give him the call once Cain Velasquez got injured.
Now we are here. UFC 180 is on Saturday, and Hunt will get a shot at UFC gold.
This isn't the Hunt of nearly 15 years ago. Yes, he has improved takedown defense, but at 40 years old, he is also slower on the feet. He is still crafty, but this seems like a steep hill to climb. The deck is stacked against him in facing Fabricio Werdum.
If Hunt can pull this off on Saturday, it will be an all-time story to tell. His technical deficiencies, his unlikely road to the UFC and his surprising progression as an MMA fighter have made this one of the most improbable roads to a title ever.
Interim championship or not, Saturday could yield a special result.
If you want an underdog story, Mark Hunt is the book you grab off the shelf to read. He is the one who will make you believe in incredibly unlikely things happening in MMA. If the stars align just right in Mexico City, the jaws of millions will be left on the floor as Hunt's hand is raised as a UFC champion.
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Article by By Nathan McCarter ,