Two of the UFC's most dangerous heavyweight strikers will collide this Saturday night (February 25, 2012) as Mark Hunt takes on Cheick Kongo on the UFC 144 main card in Saitama, Japan.
Mark Hunt was never widely expected to still be employed by the UFC at this point in his career but he's surprisingly on a two fight winning streak in the division and is now just one victory away from becoming completely relevant. He's hoping to secure that relevance with a strong performance against Kongo.
Cheick Kongo has always been in the second tier in the heavyweight division, but has on several occasions knocked on the door to the top level. He's been unbeaten in his last four fights and if he can defeat the likes of Hunt, he'll be once again in a position for a very big heavyweight showdown down the road.
Will Mark Hunt's incredibly comeback story continue in Japan? Does Cheick Kongo have the skill-set to defeat "The Super Samoan? What's the key to victory for both heavyweight brawlers?
Let's find out:Mark Hunt
Record: 7-7 overall, 2-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Ben Rothwell (UFC 135), Mirko Filipovic (Pride Shockwave 2005), Wanderlei Silva (Pride Shockwave 2004)
Key Losses: Sean McCorkle (UFC 119), Gegard Mousasi (Dream 9), Melvin Manhoef (Dynamite!! 2008)
How he got here: Mark Hunt got into fighting after impressing promoters at a night club. "The Super Samoan" didn't get an easy start in kickboxing, forced to fight tough top opponents early in his career when promoters were trying to use him as a stepping stone for their other stars. Instead, Hunt gained valuable experience against top opposition and came through with a respectable 15-4 record.
Hunt got his big break in kickboxing in 2001. He had won the qualifier tournament in both 2000 and 2001 to advance to the K-1 World Grand Prix and he shocked the world by winning three fights in one night to win the K-1 World Grand Prix Championship.
After a few more kickboxing matches, Hunt would transition to mixed martial arts. He would lose his debut in Pride via armbar but would go on an impressive five fight win streak that included wins against Dan Bobish, Mirko "Cro Cop" and Wanderlei Silva which would earn him fights against some of the toughest heavyweights in the world.
He would lose every bout from 2006-2010, stepping into the squared circle against the likes of Josh Barnett, Fedor Emelianenko (for the Pride Heavyweight championship), Alistair Overeem and Gegard Mousasi, losing each fight via submission of the arm.
Due to some leftover contract obligations from Pride after the buyout, Hunt was granted a pair of fights in the UFC. He would lose to Sean McCorkle via Kimura in barely a minute but would rebound against Chris Tuchscherer earlier this year with one of 2011's most memorable knockouts. His victory earned him another fight against a top heavyweight in Ben Rothwell and he capitalized on Rothwell's conditioning, earning a unanimous decision and continuing one of 2011's best surprise stories.
Hunt has a tremendous opportunity to break through if he can defeat Cheick Kongo on Saturday night.
How he gets it done: This one is pretty simple. Mark Hunt has a tremendous chin, the ability to check kicks and big time knockout power in his hands. He wants to keep this fight standing and he wants to be able to trade blows with Kongo.
Hunt showed improved takedown defense and ground game in his last fight and he needs to do whatever it takes to remain upright and try to land that knockout blow before he's put on his back. It worked against Tuchscherer and it can happen again. Hunt also has some pretty heavy kicks so if he can land some of those and take some zip out of Kongo's takedowns and wrestling, that would be a big help as well.
The main thing here is Hunt has a tremendous chin so if he can sucker Kongo into trading big power strikes, he's likely not going to be the one who goes down.
Record: 17-6-2 overall, 10-4-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Matt Mitrione (UFC 137), Mirko Filipovic (UFC 75), Pat Barry (UFC on Versus 4)
Key Losses: Frank Mir (UFC 107), Cain Velasquez (UFC 99), Heath Herring (UFC 92)
How he got here: Cheick Kongo entered the UFC very highly trained in the striking arts which included Kendo, Karate, kickboxing and Muay Thai.
Kongo had a big 5-1 stretch in his UFC career from 2007-2009 but eventual UFC champion Cain Velasquez stood in his path. Velasquez was nearly knocked out at the beginning of all three rounds by the Wolfslair fighter but would recover and put the Frenchman on his back to pull out a unanimous decision victory.
Since the loss to Cain, Kongo has gone 3-1-1 in the UFC. For some reason, he was infatuated with Travis Browne's shorts at UFC 120 which resulted in the fight being a draw. His last fight against Pat Barry was one of the most memorable of 2011. After getting rocked and nearly knocked out on 2-3 occasions in a matter of 20 seconds, Kongo pulled off the ultimate Hail Mary by knocking Barry out cold with an uppercut-cross combo of his own once he got to his feet.
He rose up a couple notches and earned a bout against the undefeated Mitrione, where he outwrestled the former NFL lineman and was able to hand "Meathead" his first career loss. With the victory, he scored a very intriguing bout with Mark Hunt for this Saturday night.
How he gets it done: Cheick Kongo has a solid striking background but the key path to victory for the Wolfslair fighter is to be unpredictable in his attack, mix in some takedowns with his striking.
Kongo isn't a great wrestler, but he's shown that it's a part of his overall game that he's put a lot of work into and it has steadily improved. He utilized his wrestling very well in defeating Matt Mitrione in his last fight and with his physique and tremendous overall strength, he might be able to muscle Hunt to the canvas.
If the fight is standing, Kongo will need to avoid the low blows and the pants-grabbing. He's built a bad reputation for all the points that he's been deducted throughout his UFC career so the referee may be giving him a short leash. He'll also have to do a better job of playing defense. He's been hurt badly in some of his recent fights and he can't afford to do that against Hunt.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest factor for this fight, while both men are more known for their striking, is going to be the battle between Kongo's improving wrestling and Hunt's improving takedown defense and ground game. Neither of these skills are elite or even close to elite for either man, but if Kongo doesn't like what he sees in the striking, it's been proven time and time again that he'll try to take the fight to the ground, especially in recent fights.
If Kongo can't take Hunt down at will, he might be putting himself in a bad position to eat some big punches, but if he can put the former kickboxer on his back and keep him there, he's going to have a very strong chance to at least win a decision if not more.
Bottom Line: This is the type of fight that makes hardcore MMA fans drool. Who'd have thought that a battle between Mark Hunt and Cheick Kongo would be relevant in 2012? Both men have a ton of power in their strikes, are terrific kickboxers and can finish fights. If this breaks out into a big slugfest, it could be one of the most entertaining heavyweight battles of the year. There also is a possibility of some slowdowns in the action, however, as Kongo has been known to shoot for takedowns and clinch for extended periods of time. He might do the same against Hunt if things aren't going his way, but you never know. This could be the best fight or the night or a complete letdown. It's a toss-up.
Who will come out on top at UFC 144? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!