Title shots in the UFC have long been determined by more than just win streaks and one’s place in the rankings. Not for nothing did Jon Fitch find himself languishing in the doldrums as other fighters with more crowd-pleasing styles got shots which he, if wins and rankings were the sole factors, should have had ten times over.
The UFC is a sports-entertainment company and so fighters who provide that entertainment angle - whether by performance or by being a one-man PR engine like Sonnen - can edge out their nearest competitors by their efforts in that sphere. It is the UFC’s prerogative to let excitement be the deciding factor between contenders.
Now, Hunt isn't exactly the leading contender at this stage, though he is on a 3-0 run, so for the UFC to bump him into the title shot would be a brave move. But its one they should make - there’s a big opportunity here for them to kill multiple birds with one stone. That stone is large, Samoan and named Mark Hunt. Throwing it towards Junior Dos Santos at UFC 146 will create a possible Fight of the Year contender and would make Mark Hunt’s story into more than just a good luck tale - it would elevate it to an MMA legend.
If you put Hunt in with Dos Santos, you will be guaranteed an absolute war. There is no way that Hunt is going in there shooting doubles, there is no way that Dos Santos is. The pair of them will stand there and test each other’s jaws - and if it does end up on the floor, keylocks and ground ‘n’ pound will be the order of the day, big crowd-pleasing barrages and savage submission attempts.
MMA has a short history and to date it has produced only a handful of people who have carved timeless legends in the sport. Compare the amount of boxing greats to the amount of MMA greats for example, and you will see you’ve got a ratio of about 30:1, if not more. Boxing’s modern form is around a century or so old, so that makes its Memory Lane so much longer.
What’s interesting about boxing’s roster of legends is that they aren’t all champions and undefeated studs. For me, the incredible story of early 20th century boxers such as ‘Two Ton’ Tony Galento is more interesting than the unparalleled achievements of his more esteemed peers such as ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson or Joe Louis.
James J. Braddock is another boxing name who looms large in the annals despite a relative paucity of achievement. A promising contender in his youth, he was derailed by the tendency of his hands to break when unloading heavy leather. That was compounded by the arrival of the Great Depression, which forced Braddock from the prize fighting ring onto the docks in search of work. At times there was none, and - to his eternal shame - he had to go on the dole.
His story was well-documented in the film Cinderella Man and so I won’t reiterate it in exhaustive detail here. Suffice to say that when a last-minute pullout meant a vaguely credible opponent was needed for a contender elimination match, Braddock was pulled from the docks and into the biggest fight of his career. When he won by way of third round KO, and followed that with two more wins, the most remarkable comeback story in boxing history came around: he was given a title shot against Max Baer, and won.
The parallels between Braddock and Hunt are obvious. Both were highly-touted at their peak and were considered very, very difficult opponents to face. The risk of being separated from your senses was very high when you fought one of them while the odds of knocking them out were so low as to make it almost pointless to try.
But then both of them suffered losses that seemed to wind them, Braddock to Tommy Loughran and Hunt to Fedor Emelianenko (his preceding loss to Josh Barnett didn’t seem to have dismayed him so much, given the spirited follow-on showing against the Russian). Suddenly the wind was gone from their sails and, for whatever reasons, could not be compelled to return.
Hunt in particular slid into ignominy. He became a parody of himself, a chubby brawler wandering to the ring to be a super-size sacrificial lamb for whichever fighter DREAM were looking to build up. He didn’t seem to care whether he won or lost and he didn’t bother training. It showed. The depth of his decline was a KO loss to the middleweight Melvin Manhoef. This remains the only time that Mark Hunt has been knocked out in his career. Whatever was going through his mind at the time, it seems it turned his chin to china.
Another loss to a middleweight/light-heavyweight followed when Gegard Mousasi submitted him in just over a minute. Hunt looked like he was having trouble staying awake. At that point he was on an 0-5 losing run and even his most die-hard of fans had written him off. In fact if you were a Mark Hunt fan it became painful to look at his results column. His decline was as complete as it was spectacular; he entered the footnotes of MMA history.
And then the improbable happened - the UFC signed an 0-5 fighter. Well, not quite. It turned out Hunt was owed fights on his Pride FC contract and the legal responsibility fell on the UFC since their parent company Zuffa had bought the Japanese promotion a few years earlier. The UFC tried telling Hunt to leave it; he was offered the cash value of his fights NOT to fight, but he insisted on competing and so he was matched with Sean McCorkle, who was in the UFC largely for his online self-promotion skills.
When McCorkle submitted him with a kimura in just over a minute, the final nails were put into place on the coffin of Hunt’s career. This was surely it. And then the improbable happened again - the UFC didn’t cut Hunt immediately. Instead he was matched with Chris Tuscherer, a sparring partner of Brock Lesnar’s, for UFC 127. That probably wasn’t philanthropy. Tuscherer was struggling to cope in the UFC and it may well have been thought that ‘feeding’ Hunt to him would be doing him and Lesnar, the UFC’s biggest PPV star, a bit of a favour.
But in the event, Hunt fed Tuscherer a right hand that put him to sleep so instantly and comprehensively that Hunt performed what they call a ‘walk-off KO’ - the second the finishing blow landed, he turned and walked away without looking back, having felt through his hand that the impact was so complete there was no way Tuscherer was still conscious.
This was vintage Hunt, the kind of thing that he used to be famous for. His fans were delighted; it would have been a good win for him to go out on. Instead he soldiered on, taking a fight with ‘Big’ Ben Rothwell at UFC 135.
Almost a year to the day on from his embarrassing debut against McCorkle, Hunt put on a career-best performance. He showed improved wrestling, cardio and submission skills. He ragged Rothwell like a dog with a toy and was unlucky not to put him away. Rothwell took almost as much punishment in that fight than in all his previous fights combined.
That cast the Tuscherer performance in a new light. Hunt was clearly taking this UFC thing seriously. Having been given a second chance he was grabbing it with both hands. A man emerging from the depths of defeat and irrelevance, he has burst into the UFC like a drowning man finally breaking to the surface - a second chance at life; a heartfelt, desperate intent never to sink again.
And so the Mark Hunt who made his way to the cage against Cheick Kongo in Japan earlier this year was no more than a relative of the Mark Hunt who scuttled, head bowed, into fights with Manhoef and Mousasi. Head up, chest out, Hunt was born anew and had something to prove. Kongo, who took Cain Velasquez the distance despite having one leg and a crippled back at UFC 99, went down in just over two minutes.
“What we do in life, echoes in eternity,” snarled Hunt’s fellow Antipodean export Russell Crowe in Gladiator (ironically, Crowe also played Braddock in the Cinderella Man movie).
If that maxim is true then, somewhere in the mists of time, echoes of the hammer blows that felled Tuscherer, mauled Rothwell and collapsed Kongo may have stirred the ghost of James J. Braddock. Their sports may be different but their spirits and stories are similar - a spritual and professional death and rebirth.
The removal of Alistair Overeem from the UFC 146 title shot against Junior Dos Santos could be perceived as a disaster for the UFC. But it could also be an opportunity, to rise above the confines of rankings and relevance, to take an active hand in writing what may come to be the first truly legendary story of mixed martial arts.
Frank Mir is apparently the frontrunner for the vacant slot; he is a worthy contender in sporting terms but does that match lift the spirit, inspire the underdog, tell a story that is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life itself?
It does not; Hunt vs. Dos Santos does.
Win or lose, the fight would provide the closing chapter to a bona fide MMA fable. Mir can fight the winner, there’s plenty of time for that down the line. But right now there is only once chance for the UFC to take its part in writing a legend, and its a fleeting chance at that. Now is the time for Cinderella Man 2.
You can do your part by reaching out to @DanaWhite and @LorenzoFertitta…