MONTREAL – Mark Hunt very well could be on the verge of a shot at the UFC’s heavyweight title.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Hunt (9-7 MMA, 4-1 UFC) will meet Junior Dos Santos (15-2 MMA, 9-1 UFC) in May in the co-main event of UFC 160 in Las Vegas. With a win, he very likely gets a shot at the winner of that night’s title fight between champ Cain Velasquez and Antonio Silva.
That a win over JDS would give Hunt five straight wins in the UFC’s heavyweight division makes a title shot seem fairly obvious. But you have to go back a few years, back to Hunt’s PRIDE and DREAM days, to understand just why Hunt fighting for the UFC title would be such a big accomplishment.
Hunt dropped five straight fights in Japan – all to big names, mind you. Names like Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett. He was 5-6 in MMA, outside his successful kickboxing career.
So when the UFC signed him, it raised a few eyebrows. And as the story goes, the UFC’s purchase of PRIDE came with some fighters owed some fights – including Hunt.
On Thursday, UFC President Dana White revealed just how close Hunt was to not even being in the UFC, let alone one more big win away from a shot at a belt. Hunt took the fight with Dos Santos only after White assured him that things he was upset about would be fixed.
Chief among those things? That the UFC didn’t want to give him fights, but instead was willing to pay him the money owed him on his contract to just walk away.
“He felt very disrespected and felt like he never really belonged here,” White said. “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.’ And he was like, ‘F— that. I want to be paid to fight.’ 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.”
But Hunt stood his ground.
“He fought it and fought it and fought it, and finally we said, ‘Fine. You wanna earn the money and fight for the money, come on in,’” White recalled.
And so come on in, Hunt did. He was given a prelims-opening spot on UFC 119 in Indianapolis against hometown newcomer Sean McCorkle, and he was submitted with an armbar just 63 seconds into the fight.
At that point, it looked like the UFC brass knew what it was talking about by not wanting to bother with him. But they stuck with him, and five months later, Hunt got his first MMA win in nearly five years with a knockout of Chris Tuchscherer. Then he beat Ben Rothwell. Then he knocked out Cheick Kongo.
And the highlight of highlights came earlier this month when he shattered Stefan Struve’s jaw for a knockout win at UFC on FUEL TV 8 in Japan, his second “Knockout of the Night” bonus in the UFC.
“Even though we weren’t wrong (about not wanting him at first), we ended up being wrong,” White told MMAjunkie.com. “He proved us wrong, he proved everybody who doubted him wrong. We just didn’t cut him, we kept him – and imagine if we had cut him.”
White said having the conversation with Hunt to find out how he felt and straighten some things out made all the difference between Dos Santos still needing an opponent after Overeem fell off with an injury and Hunt stepping up for the biggest fight of his career.
“Since that day, how we didn’t want him, and just wanted to pay him and have him basically go away, he took incredible offense to that and never felt like he really belonged here,” White said. “I understand that. I said, ‘I’ll fix the things that made you feel this way. You’re right, and I’m sorry this happened to you. We do respect you and I think you’re one of the greatest stories in sports right now, to be honest with you.’ So I got everything worked out and now he’s ecstatic and I’m happy I could do it.
“We have so many guys and as you’re doing the daily grind, you don’t think about things like this and this happens sometimes. We deal with different personalities, and there’s always an issue with guys one way or another, whether it’s their professional and personal life, that have to be dealt with. I’m glad we got it straightened out.”
Hunt’s turnaround has been one of the more remarkable in the heavyweight division, especially given his 5-foot-10 stature. But as White said about the chances of a Hunt title shot, if he goes in and stops Dos Santos, there’s no way he could be denied the chance to fight for a belt.
For the latest on UFC 160, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.