Growing up in a tight-knit Samoan family, nothing came easy for Mark Richard Hunt.. “Everything was a struggle, but it’s made me a better person now.”
By age 21, Hunt was in a bad way. “I was on a bad path,” he acknowledged. “I’d just got out of jail for a second time. Aggravated robbery. That’s how stupid I was.”
In search of a fresh start, Hunt gathered the funds to join a friend moving to Australia. With ten dollars to his name, a brown leather suitcase and a one-way ticket to Sydney, Hunt was getting his second go around.
In late 1999, Hunt was offered a place in the inaugural K-1 Oceania Grand Prix. For the largely unheralded fighter, the opportunity was a potential game changer.
Making quick work of his opposition, Hunt would emerge champion with three quick knockouts as a heavy underdog. “I won the tournament,” says Hunt. “I spent 27 minutes in that ring and made $37,000. I was like man, I could really do this.”
The 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix Finals took place at the Tokyo Dome in Japan, featuring 8 of the worlds premiere kickboxing talents. “I wanted the hardest fight and that was Jerome. That’s what started my popularity with the people in Japan, they’re like woah this guy’s crazy man!”
Hunt would go on to KO Le Banner in the opening round of the tournament, a fight lauded as much for the brutal sequence of punches that ended the bout as much as it was for the stunning upset.
A dominant semi-final victory over Stefan Leko would land Hunt a place in the finals versus Brazilian Francsico Filho.
10-9 for Hunt on all three scorecards, a unanimous decision victory. The feeling when they called your name, I asked. “Just imagine me, a street kid from South Auckland who had been in jail twice. Then walking out in front of eighty thousand people and taking out the world title in my first go. I was absolutely ecstatic”
In the aftermath of winning the K-1 World Grand Prix Title, the issues with motivation began to rear their head once more. “I lost interest. I didn’t want to train, I’d made over a million bucks. Just like that, in that one night.” Along with the prize money came a full time contract with K-1 that would have Mark competing for the promotion six times per year for a flat fee. Hunt would go on to fight seven times under the K-1 banner, amassing a 4-3 record while fighting in Japan, France and the United States.
Boredom, and a better offer convinced Hunt to walk a new path.
“I was offered $250,000 for my first fight with PRIDE. I didn’t know what the sport was, I just wanted a different challenge,” says Hunt. “I said these ground fighters are mud, they’re idiots. Like girls rolling around. But I got taught a big, big lesson.”
Matched up with Japanese grappler and Olympic gold medalist Judoka Hidehiko Yoshida, Hunt was questioned about how much grappling he had done in preparation for the bout, to which he proudly replied that he’d completed eight hours of training. “The whole room cracked up laughing and I was like ‘hey man, it was a good eight hours!’”
It would take 5:25 before Yoshida caught Hunt in an armbar, defeating the kickboxer by submission in his much hyped debut.
With an injury to Kazushi Sakuraba forcing him out of a fourth bout with reigning Pride Middleweight Champion Wanderlei Silva, Hunt was tabbed to step in, an invitation he duly accepted on three days notice. “I was training on a squash court at the time, putting the mats down there but I said ‘hell yeah, I’ll do the fight!’”
Despite being knocked down twice and enduring multiple barrages of Hunt’s bombs, Wanderlei made it to the final bell where he would lose a split decision.
Perhaps most famously from the bout was a move Hunt pulled, reveled over in MMA circles as the Atomic Butt Drop, where he launched himself rear-end first at Wanderlei’s head. “That’s what you call a street fighter,” chuckles Hunt. “I just didn’t know what to do! I was so green. I just jumped on him!”
With the Wanderlei fight in the rearview mirror, Hunt would exact revenge on Mirko “Cro-Cop” Filpovic for an earlier defeat in K-1 and amass a 5-2 record before meeting Fedor Emelianenko for the PRIDE Heavyweight Championship.
Hunt looked outstanding in the early proceedings, countering an armbar by Fedor early and even gaining full mount. Hunt attempted an Americana which looked set to end Fedor’s reign, but an incredible escape by Fedor led to an armbar attempt of his own that this time found a home.
When Zuffa purchased PRIDE FC, Hunt still had two fights remaining on his PRIDE contract that he wished to fulfill in the UFC.
Dana White explained the situation, saying “He had a losing record in PRIDE and we didn’t want to bring him into the UFC, so we said, ‘We’ll pay you the money and you can ride off into the sunset and do your thing.’ First of all, a losing record, his age, the guy hadn’t fought in a long time. It just made no sense to bring the guy in.”
The situation in which Hunt found himself in was all too familiar, the loss to McCorkle adding yet another tally to a losing skid now sitting at six. “I’ve always had the attitude that I was the best fighter in the world, I just didn’t know what was wrong and why I was was always losing.” Call it cliche, but for many people before true change can occur, they must first hit rock bottom. Losing to the Overeem’s and Fedor’s of the world was one thing. Losing to Sean McCorkle was something else completely. For Mark Hunt, Sean McCorkle was rock bottom.
“You back me into a corner, I’m not going to lay down and die. I’ve been down that road too many years in my life. No, I’m going to get up and bite you in the face!” Hunt exclaimed with ferocity, drawing the attention of the entire cafe in a moment equal parts exhilarating and isolating. “All I’ve ever said I need is an opportunity. Give me a chance and I’ll take it with both and and run with it.”
“I think fighting back at home, being backed into the corner, being not wanted, being told you’re not freakin’ good enough and you just lost again. You’re worthless. Imagine being a kid and being told you whole life that you’re not worth anything. That makes me so angry. I get that attitude again and the fire comes back, just like that. I think that’s what happened.” Little did anyone realise at the time, the win would be what sparked a career renaissance for Mark Hunt.
With his highlight-reel win over Tuchscherer followed up by a gritty decision victory over veteran Ben Rothwell, the Zuffa brass was impressed with what they saw and Hunt was given the opportunity to return to Japan and take on heavyweight mainstay Cheick Kongo. Hunt would prove the doubters wrong, demolishing Kongo and exemplifying the difference between a good MMA striker and a K-1 kickboxer.
A PCL injury Hunt had been carrying from his K-1 days was flaring up and the decision was made to put him on the shelf for twelve months. Upon his return, Hunt would again be matched up with Stefan Struve in a bout that ended with a jaw-shattering left hand and Struve sprawled on the canvas.
With Alastair Overeem forced out of his heavyweight contendership bout with Junior Dos Santos after being popped with testosterone levels more than twice the mandated limit, opportunity was knocking once more for Hunt.
“I felt great coming into that fight,” said Hunt. After an excellent training camp and preparing to depart for the US in advance of his bout to acclimatise, Hunt would remain stranded at Auckland airport, unable to travel to Las Vegas due to visa issues. It was a touch and go situation until the last minute, the UFC had even brought in Roy Nelson to cover for Hunt in the instance he didn’t make it to the US in time.”I only got over there three days before the fight. But what happened had nothing to with the acclimatisation, I just lost. I got knocked out and I accept that.”
Then we broached the subject of Mark’s fight with Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva.
“I’m not ranked inside the top-10, yet they’re giving me the chance to fight Bigfoot who’s number 4. Imagine if I beat this guy, where does that put me?” Hunt asked. “It makes me relevant again and in quick succession. I could potentially fight someone else for a title shot. If I win this one and then beat another top-10 then I’m going to get a title shot.”
Did he really he think he could get there?
“Of course I believe I can get there! I wouldn’t be saying it to you if I didn’t believe it. I’m just a little black monkey from South Auckland but I can beat anyone in this world. I’m going to fight as long as I can. I’ll fight until the very end, I don’t care. For me, it’s all or nothing. I want everything or I want nothing and I’m going to keep fighting util the very end when they kick me out and say you can’t wheelchair yourself in here and fight.”
“I’m going to fight until the last bell rings for me, and that’s coming soon. I’m thirty nine years old. I can’t hang with these young guys anymore training wise. I’ll do it as long as I can, I love to be a fighter. I still have more journeys and goals ahead of me. I want to be the best UFC fighter. I want to be the best mixed martial artist in the world.”