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On Mark Hunt, Redemption, and the Tricky Business of Reshaping a Legacy

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Mark Hunt, Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Mark Hunt, Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If you read Mark Hunt’s Wikipedia page -- and it’s Friday, so why wouldn’t you? -- you’ll quickly learn that he is "known for his raw strength, iron chin and knockout power." In case you’re confused about what it means to have an iron chin, Wikipedia will even provide you with a link to a helpful page that explains the concept with the aid of a Rocky reference.

Ah, so that’s Mark Hunt’s deal
, you’ll think to yourself as you navigate away to a YouTube video of unlikely animal friends (again, it’s Friday). He’s a big strong dude who doesn’t mind getting hit in the head a bunch. Got it.

What you won’t learn this way is that, honestly, Hunt kind of hates that characterization. He also kind of hates the idea that MMA fans might regard him as just another hard-headed kickboxer who entertains with his ability to absorb and return punishment. As he told me when I talked to him before his UFC 144 bout with Cheick Kongo: "I was K-1 world champion. I’m one of the best fighters in the world. I don’t want to be remembered as just some tough guy who could take punches."

Which, of course, makes sense. Even if it seems completely counter-intuitive to anyone who’s followed his career in MMA, where he’s often cast as precisely the kind of character he doesn’t want to be.

If you ask the 37-year-old New Zealander about the rough times and the six-fight losing streak he endured between July of 2006 through September of 2010, don’t expect much of a conversation. Hunt doesn’t like to talk about it -- not that he seems to enjoy talking about very much of anything, at least with reporters -- so he brushes it off by admitting that it’s "been hard, but I’m still here."

"It’s always discouraging to lose," Hunt said, after some prodding. "You look at it and think, man, what’s going on? It’s always discouraging. But I’m a fighter. I don’t like to quit. I just thought, I’m going to get back on and keep riding until it’s time to quit."

Described by his friend and training partner Steve Oliver as "a very private person," but also, at least among his friends, as a "very funny guy," Hunt will admit that he’s not a fan of public speaking. He keeps to himself. He doesn’t do a ton of interviews. The current state of his fighting career might be a great story of redemption and determination, but he’d rather not talk about it if it means being reminded of all the times he’s failed.

For instance, when UFC president Dana White launched into a monologue at a recent post-fight press conference about Hunt’s refusal to take a payoff after the UFC bought PRIDE (and with it Hunt’s contract), it was "sort of embarrassing" for him, Hunt said.

"I didn’t really want to talk about it. I don’t feel like talking about it now, to be honest."

In a way, it’s hard to blame him. If your employer started telling everyone how, at first, he thought he’d be better off just paying you to leave him alone rather than paying you to actually work, you might not like it much either. That Hunt had refused the easy money and insisted on fighting for his cash impressed White, he explained, especially in light of Hunt’s recent turnaround and current two-fight winning streak in the UFC.

"When we bought Pride, he came as part of the Pride deal," White said at the UFC 135 post-fight press conference. "It was back and forth and basically I was just like...we'll just pay you off. We know you're in the Pride deal. And Mark Hunt said 'No, I want to come. I want to fight.' ...The guy's got a ton of heart and I have a lot of respect for him."

Even then, Hunt sat nearby looking like he just wanted someone to change the subject, to recall that he was a K-1 champion once, that he’s more than just a big guy who can take a punch.

"That’s not really the idea of fighting," he said of his legendary chin. "The idea is to hit people and not get hit."

It’s the same with his misunderstood ground game, he explained, which too many people assume he simply doesn’t have.

"I’ve been training jiu-jitsu for a while. It just didn’t really click in my brain. Maybe sometimes I get a bit lazy. By the time I realize I’m in trouble I’m already caught. You can’t really think about it. You’ve got to just react as it happens. But I don’t think my ground game is too bad, you know?"

And when he lost all that weight prior to his UFC debut? It wasn't a sign that he had only recently decided to take his training seriously, he said, even if that's how some people chose to interpret it.

"It was never a big problem for me to lose the weight...I just didn’t have to before."

According to Oliver, "a lot of people think he’s sitting around not training, but he has been doing it properly." What many fans see as a sudden reversal of fortunes is really, to Hunt and those who know him best, the natural consequence of hard work combined with great talent.

But that’s the thing about legacy. You don’t necessarily get to decide how people remember you. Hunt might wish that more fans would acknowledge his skill rather than his chin and his successes rather than just his recent rise from failure, but it’s not really up to him.

Or rather, it is, but not in the way he might like it to be. He can keep winning fights and put more distance between himself and the dark days of his career, but it won’t make those days disappear. Fans will still remember him more for walking through a Cro Cop head kick more than they remember him for shutting down a Ben Rothwell takedown attempt. Instead of thinking of him as the technician and the professional he sees when he looks in the mirror, they might instead remember him as the guy who hit Chris Tuchscherer with a walk-off knockout punch after refusing the UFC's offer of easy walk-away money.

That’s fine for fans and promoters, who love a good redemption story. Then again, they both also love a guy who can take a beating. Hunt doesn’t really want to be either. Maybe there’s still time left on the clock to change some of that. Hunt hopes so. Not that he particularly wants to talk about it.