LAS VEGAS -- By now you know that Mark Hunt was basically a sort of side effect of the Zuffa/Pride deal back in 2007. Riding a two-fight losing streak at the time, he was an unwanted property that couldn’t be easily disposed of.
But even back then, he wasn’t done losing. There were all those losses in Japanese promotion Dream. First it was Alistair Overeem. Then it was Melvin Manhoef at Dynamite!! 2008. Then to Gegard Mousasi. All five of his losses were first-round finishes, either by knockout or armbar. He was 5-6 when the UFC, having failed to buy him out of the inherited contract, finally relented and threw him in the Octagon.
Know what he did then? He lost again. This time in 63 seconds to Sean McCorkle, now late of the UFC. To say his UFC beginnings were inauspicious would be an understatement. And that makes what’s going on with Hunt right now nothing short of remarkable. To be in title contention two years after sporting a 5-7 record in an organization where people generally have career winnings around 75 percent just doesn’t happen.
Yet here were are. Hunt faces Junior dos Santos Saturday night for the chance to fight for a title.
“I think it’s one of the coolest stories in sports right now,” Dana White told ESPN.com. “We didn’t want to bring him into the UFC. He was older, he was on a losing streak, so we just said, ‘We’ll buy your contract out. You don’t have to fight, we’ll just pay you.’ He said, ‘no, I want to fight in the UFC and earn my money.’ And we said no. So he got his lawyer involved, and we went back and forth, and we said, ‘Fine, OK. Let’s do it.’ Now the guy goes on this tear and he’s fighting the in the co-main event against the former heavyweight champion in the UFC.”
Good thing Hunt had legal representation out there in New Zealand. His resurgence is a story that involves brute power, heart, exhaustion, dual visas, cake, public outcry, cosmological eyes and, in all fairness, a dose of luck. For instance, he’s filling in for Alistair Overeem at UFC 160 this weekend. A timely win over dos Santos takes him one step closer to becoming the most unlikely contender the heavyweight division has ever known.
“It would make sense that the winner of this fight gets the next shot,” White said. “It’s a fun fight, and it’s an interesting fight. If you break this fight down, Mark Hunt probably has the bigger punch and the better chin. But, Junior decides to take this fight to the ground, he definitely has the better wrestling and jiu-jitsu.”
In any case, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t write off Hunt. Can he continue to buck the odds and fell dos Santos as he did Stefan Struve and Cheick Kongo? Hey, that’s why they take off their shoes. So that we can find out.
Barnett back in White’s good graces
“I just want to keep killing and keep killing and wading in pools of blood and guts until there’s nobody left to kill anymore,” he told MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani on that final Strikeforce card. When pressed about which promotion that sort of pillaging could fall under, he said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m a mercenary. Something will come up. Somebody will need somebody’s head taken off and they’ll call me up. In a perfect world, I’d fight everywhere.”
That obviously didn’t pan out to specification. The UFC, which has been contentious with Barnett going back many years, offered him a contract a couple of months ago that Barnett turned down. On Wednesday, upon realizing the market for marauders of Barnett’s stripe (and price tag) was tremulously weak, Barnett signed a multifight contract with Zuffa.
Now it’s a case of bygones being bygones. The last time Barnett fought in the Octagon was in 2002, at UFC 36, when he beat Randy Couture for the heavyweight title. That’s when things got ugly. He was subsequently stripped of the title when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.
“Josh and I have had a very interesting past,” White told ESPN.com. “He’s one of these guys who doesn’t really care about much. He’ll fight over here, he’ll fight over there. But we made an offer to him. He didn’t take the offer and went around and shopped for a while, then came back and said, ‘I want to sign with you guys.'"
Wrote Barnett on his Twitter account, “The enemy has returned. I’ve signed w/ the UFC & no heavyweight is safe. They’re all due a lesson in violence from the Warmaster.”
A perfect first opponent for Barnett is Frank Mir, and there are indications that this is the direction the UFC is headed.
Grant granted a second life (and making most of it)
Usually when Gray Maynard steps in to fight as a lightweight, he’s the massive 155-pounder in the cage. That was especially true in his series with Frankie Edgar. It won’t be that way against TJ Grant, a former welterweight who has reinvented himself in the lower weight classes, going a perfect 4-0 heading into Saturday’s tilt.
Just as he was heading into his fights with Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman, Grant is understated in how he has turned things around, but he does make one key distinction. “I’m getting to fight guys my own size,” he says.
And realistically, when you look back at Grant’s opponents at 170 pounds and where they are now, that’s a big factor. Guys such as Dong Hyun Kim and the UFC’s No. 1 contender at welterweight right now, Johny Hendricks. Remember -- Grant gave Hendricks all he could handle at UFC 113 before Hendricks earned the majority decision.
“I’m glad to see Johny Hendricks doing so well,” he told ESPN.com. “We had a close fight, and it was a good fight, very entertaining. I got a lot of experience fighting at 170, and win or lose -- we all learn from losses, right? Blah blah blah. But it’s true. And if you stay humble and you have the right people talking to you and have a good mind for it, you should learn more from losses than wins, and that’s what I always try to do. Every fight is a learning experience.”
As for fighting Maynard in a title eliminator, Grant says that he has toiled a long, long time to end up in this spot.
“At this point in my career, Gray’s the toughest,” he says. “He’s tough. He’s polished and he’s a veteran. He’s not raw in any way -- he’s definitely the most talented fighter I’ve fought at this time in my career. I’m ready for it. I’ve got 25 fights to get me to this point. I’ve got all the experience I need, and all the skills I need to be successful. I’m ready to rock and roll Saturday.”
WAR, what is it good for?
Nick Diaz has plans to start up his own Stockton-based fight promotion -- the ominously titled WAR -- which has drawn anything from smirks and raised eyebrows to genuine curiosity and support over the past week.
So, what does one of the game’s more notorious promoters, Dana White, have to say about Diaz and his latest foray?
“Good luck Nick,” White says. “Obviously it looks very fun from the outside, and it looks easy like you’re printing money. It’s anything but. The fight business is a very tough business that you have to be married to 24/7, and it’s not as fun and easy as it looks.”
Though White was fairly withheld in how he addressed WAR, he did say that the door is open for Diaz if he elects to keep fighting. Diaz, of course, is right now sort of conditionally retired -- meaning he’ll only fight again if it’s against somebody that piques his interest enough, somebody like Anderson Silva or a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.
It’s not likely he’ll get either of those, but ...
“If Nick wants to fight all he’s got to do is pick up the phone and call,” White says. “He’s under contract. If the promotion thing doesn’t work out he can come back and fight.”