After Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) acquired Pride FC, it took on a very large portion of the Japanese promotion's roster. Some fighters, however, seemed expendable, and UFC was willing to buy out many of their contracts and move forward.
One such fighter was former K-1 World Grand Prix champion, Mark Hunt, a fighter known for his impressive striking acumen.
Of course, this aforementioned striking acumen was not quite enough to make Hunt a hot commodity in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), as evidenced by his five-fight losing streak heading into the roster integration of Pride FC into UFC. As such, UFC offered to pay him off and part ways, but Hunt wanted to fight out his contract.
Initially, this seemed a poor decision by "Super Samoan."
In his first fight inside the Octagon, he was submitted in little more than one minute by the unheralded Sean McCorkle, further displaying a glaring deficiency in his game ... his lack of grappling skills. Fortunately for Hunt, he was given another shot in the promotion, and he made good on his chance, blasting Chris Tuchscherer with an uppercut for an amazing walkoff knockout win, something he has become known for in recent years.
A grueling battle with Ben Rothwell in Denver, Colo., at UFC 135 showed fans the tremendous heart that Hunt possesses, as he and Rothwell struggled against each other for the entirety of their 15-minute bout, clearly exhausted after just the first round. Hunt's horrendous cardio in this fight could be forgiven because it was at a high elevation, but it still made fans and analysts alike question his ability to fight at a high level.
Despite questions surrounding his MMA ability, Hunt reeled off two more knockout wins following the Rothwell fight against two heavyweights who were fairly respected at the time, Cheick Kongo and Stefan Struve. Hunt obliterated Kongo within the course of just over two minutes, and went nearly the full fight in a perplexing battle with Struve that even saw Hunt initiate ground exchanges, something many fans thought to be misguided.
In the end, Hunt's bizarre gameplan worked, leveling Struve with a series of big punches en route to a walkoff knockout win.
The Struve win put Hunt on a new high -- he was now a respectable UFC talent. As such, he was placed in a bout with former title holder Junior dos Santos, and though he managed to go three rounds before succumbing to a spinning hook kick knockout, he was never really in that fight.
It was a shock to see Hunt go down at all based on his notoriously solid chin, especially since the kick didn't really land flush, but the way in which he stumbled across the cage following the knockout showed just how much damage had been done. To most fans, this loss essentially squashed any hopes of Mark Hunt making it to heavyweight contendership, something many fans had been hopeful for after seeing his brilliant career revival.
Hunt's next fight would be a main event fight at UFC Fight Night 33 with Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, former challenger for the UFC heavyweight title. Nobody anticipated the epic clash these two men would put on, as both of them bludgeoned each other for five rounds straight in a bout many considered one of the best fights of the year.
This fight saw both men seriously hurt and at some points, just seconds short of a certain referee stoppage, but both were able to fight on, and made it to the judges' decision. The bout was called a majority draw, something very uncommon in MMA these days, but it marked a very impressive for Hunt, showing yet again his tremendous heart and fighting spirit, if nothing else.
Hunt's most recent fight was perhaps his most impressive, when he took on Roy "Big Country" Nelson just two months ago in the main event of UFC Fight Night 52 in Japan. In the second round, Hunt barreled forward with a combination before catching Nelson with a vicious uppercut that sent the notoriously tough Nelson, face-planting into the mat as Hunt walked off with hands raised.
Even with the impressive Nelson victory, any title hopes for "Super Samoan" looked to be a huge long shot unless some extenuating circumstances emerged. Though he had just taken out a top heavyweight mainstay, his loss to dos Santos was a harsh mark against him.
And in the unclear heavyweight title picture, Hunt had little part.
In a wild turn of events, however, the ever-so-fragile Cain Velasquez pulled out of his scheduled title defense tonight at UFC 180 just one month in advance. Hunt was given the call up to replace him, his biggest opportunity to date, and now will be fighting for a title -- albeit an interim one -- against Fabricio Werdum.
To see Hunt with a UFC title strapped around his waist would be perhaps the most surprising career turnaround stories in the history of the sport. And that could possibly happen this evening.
Although Hunt is not favored to win this fight, and rightly so, there is a definitive path to victory for him. Werdum is an excellent fighter, making a name for himself as a very tricky grappling specialist. But, he is not without his flaws. Though his striking has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of his career, Werdum is not quite an elite striker, which may put him in a bad place if he is standing with Hunt for any long period of time.
To add, Werdum has never been a great wrestler, even infamously resorting to flopping onto his back to get the fight to the ground against Alistair Overeem, which may leave him at a big disadvantage in this fight.
Hunt will have to avoid being put on the ground at all costs because Werdum is unforgiving there. Hunt's ground game may not be in the same pitiful state it was some years ago, but there is no way he can compete with Werdum on the mat ... and he has to be very cautious in that regard. That being said, his takedown defense has grown immensely through his tenure in UFC, and I think he has the capability of keeping Werdum at bay for at least a round or so.
The biggest concern in this fight for Hunt is that it is at high elevation.
If we look back, Hunt's most grueling performance was in "Mile High City" against Rothwell, which also had a very high elevation, sapping Hunt of his energy. If the Antonio Silva fight is something to go by, Hunt can still fight somewhat effectively even when exhausted, but this fight may take it to the next level.
Whereas Werdum has had a full fight camp to prepare for the high cardio demand this fight will entail, Hunt will be coming in on less than one month's notice, leaving many people wondering if he can put up a fight after the first round. Even in great shape, Hunt will be hard pressed to look good after expending any amount of energy in this fight, so that is just another challenge he will be facing for this bout.
If, by some chance, Hunt scores the upset, it will undoubtedly be among the greatest stories in the sport. Once on a five-fight losing streak -- on the brink of irrelevancy -- Hunt could now hoist a UFC championship belt at the age of 40. Hunt has always been a huge fan favorite, and I can guarantee that at UFC 180, there will be a huge contingent of MMA fans backing him to win this fight.
If he does, he'll undoubtedly face Velasquez at some point for the heavyweight title. And if that isn't incredible, I don't know what is.