Mark Hunt (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

The UFC Journey of Mark Hunt: From Castoff to Title Challenger

The injury bug has left the UFC in some peculiar situations over the past 12 months. Countless main and co-main events have been altered. T.J. Dillashaw ended up defending his bantamweight title against a UFC newcomer at UFC 177 on what amounted to 24 hours’ notice. UFC 176 was canceled completely after Jose Aldo pulled out of the main event. It seems like every event has been hit, many of them at the worst possible time, and sadly it doesn’t appear that this unfortunate plague of injuries is ending any time soon. As evidenced by the recent announcement of Cain Velasquez’s resignation from his scheduled title fight in Mexico next month, the UFC’s luck isn’t quite ready to change.

There’s no denying the UFC just took a major blow by losing its most popular Hispanic star just weeks before heading to Mexico. Velasquez has been the UFC’s poster boy for Mexico from the moment he became a heavyweight contender, and his subsequent title reigns and all-around dominant performances have made him irreplaceable, especially in that market. But while the UFC lost the chance to sell a very marketable champion in front of what may be his most rabid fanbase, the company gained what may end up being MMA’s feel-good story of the year by inserting Mark Hunt in Velasquez’s spot in the main event.

Hunt isn’t supposed to be here. He isn’t supposed to be headlining a major UFC pay-per-view, and he sure as hell isn’t supposed to be fighting for UFC gold. When he entered the Octagon over four years ago, Hunt was in the midst of a five-fight losing streak that stretched over four years. He was sitting below the .500 mark with a 5-6 record. Despite a reputation for putting on solid performances and picking up wins over MMA legends Wanderlei Silva and Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic, Hunt was deemed a low-level heavyweight that wasn’t worthy of a UFC contract, something that was confirmed when Zuffa, after purchasing the rival Pride company, offered to buy out “The Super Samoan’s” Pride contract instead of giving him a shot inside the Octagon. Instead, Hunt opted to fight. He subsequently lost via submission in just over a minute in his UFC debut to Sean McCorkle, dropping his record to 5-7 and confirming the doubt that had been sitting in the minds of fight fans since his UFC bout had been announced.


Then things suddenly started turning around. A second-round, walk-off knockout of Chris Tuchscherer earned him redemption for his lackluster performance in his first Octagon bout, and Hunt just kept winning after getting a little momentum. He followed up his “Knockout of the Night” performance with a decision win over Ben Rothwell a few months later and back-to-back knockout wins over longtime veterans Cheick Kongo and Stefan Struve in the months that followed. Suddenly, Hunt found himself in a No. 1 contender’s bout against perennial contender and former champion Junior dos Santos. While “The Super Samoan” suffered the first knockout loss of his UFC career that night, he proved himself very capable of standing toe-to-toe with the unanimous second-best heavyweight on the planet.

Since the loss to “Cigano” last summer, Hunt has slowly worked his way back into the title mix. An absolutely insane “Fight of the Year” candidate with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva ended in a draw after both men beat the life out of each other for three rounds, but the fight was good enough that it only ended up helping both men work their way back up the heavyweight ladder. After handing top-10 fighter Roy Nelson only the second knockout loss of his 30-fight career last month, Hunt has suddenly become the obvious choice to step in for Velasquez and compete for an interim heavyweight title in November.

Just getting to a UFC title fight is remarkable considering where Hunt was when he started his UFC career four years ago, but now that’s he gotten to this point, it seems ridiculous to count out “The Super Samoan” against any opponent. Standing across the cage from Hunt come fight time will be Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Fabricio Werdum, who should present a bigger challenge to Hunt than anyone he’s fought in the UFC thus far, including dos Santos.

When Hunt stood toe-to-toe with dos Santos for three rounds, he didn’t really have to worry about the ground game, which has been his Achilles’ heel throughout his MMA career thus far, with over half of Hunt’s losses coming by submission. Against Werdum, Hunt is going to need to anticipate takedown attempts early and often, because if “Vai Cavalo” can get the fight to the floor, Hunt’s chances at a storybook ending to his career resurgence drop by the second. While Hunt has fought a few grapplers in the past, the only one that has a skill level that even compares to that of Werdum is Josh Barnett, who Hunt locked horns with eight years ago in Japan. Hunt lost that fight in just over two minutes, and while his ground game has improved dramatically since that time, it likely wouldn’t take Werdum much longer than that to pull off a victory if the fight hits the mat and stays there.

Even on the feet, Hunt is in more danger against Werdum than many fight fans realize. A few years ago, Werdum would have been diving at Hunt’s ankles every few seconds in order to get the fight to the floor. Back then, he would have wanted no part of “The Super Samoan’s” striking game, but lately the Brazilian heavyweight has been showing vast improvements in his ability to stand and trade on the feet. Since rejoining the UFC in early 2012, Werdum has been more than willing to stay on the feet and strike with heavy hitters like the aforementioned Nelson and Travis Browne, and he even has a first-round knockout win of his own due to his dismantling of Mike Russow at UFC 147. While it’s safe to say that the mat is where Werdum would prefer to be, especially against a slugger like Hunt, he’s far from the hesitant striker he was when he left the UFC for Strikeforce a half dozen years ago.

Werdum is going to cause problems for Hunt no matter where the fight takes place, and it’s safe to say that “The Super Samoan” is going to be a sizeable underdog when fight time rolls around. But as improved as Werdum’s striking has looked over the past few years, Hunt has been so devastating with his power since entering the Octagon that a scenario where Hunt leaves Mexico with a UFC title around his waist doesn’t seem all that ridiculous. As his takedown defense and ground game have improved over the past few years, Hunt has only grown more confident in his abilities. That confidence could definitely lead him to an interim title win.

However, even if Hunt is able to pull off yet another upset and ends the year as the UFC’s interim heavyweight champion, his run is going to end soon after. As a fight fan, I’m more open to the possibility of Hunt winning the title fight against Werdum next month, and I may even convince myself to pick him by the time fight time rolls around. None of that will happen if he ends up standing across the cage from Velasquez in the next year.

Hunt is a fantastic striker who hits like a truck and can take more punishment than most people realize is possible, but a fight against Velasquez isn’t going to end well for him. Injury issues aside, Velasquez is one of the most dominant champions the sport has ever seen. His mixture of cardio-destroying pressure and constant takedown attempts make him a nightmare opponent for a fighter like Hunt, who’s been known to have trouble with his gas tank, especially when his back is flat against the mat. As clichéd as the whole “styles make fights” mantra has gotten over the years, sometimes the amount of truth to the statement is overwhelming, and the truth is that Velasquez’s style is going to be way too much for Hunt to handle if they ever end up in the same cage. Hunt would get beaten, and it would probably happen rather quickly.

At 40 years old and with Velasquez standing in the way even if he is able to earn an interim belt, Hunt is never going to be the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion. That doesn’t matter. Hunt’s unbelievable climb to the top of the heavyweight division after hitting bottom in his UFC debut is one of the more remarkable stories in the history of the sport. In a way, it’s more impressive than any accolade the UFC can throw his way. When he started his UFC career, Hunt wasn’t even an afterthought. Now, he’s headlining a UFC pay-per-view event with a chance to hold gold for the first time in his career. How’s that for someone that isn’t even supposed to be here?