LAS VEGAS -- The chip on his shoulder never falls far away. When Mark Hunt was a child, growing up poor in New Zealand, it first surfaced. He would look at some of the other kids, the well-off ones, and wonder why he couldn't have what they had. It continued on as he grew, and was constantly the odd man out. Told he wasn't good enough, Hunt would do what came naturally. He fought.
As it turned out, that was his gift. Things began to change when he found martial arts. Suddenly, he had purpose, and at least to the rest of the world, he had value. He was an instrument of destruction, capable of crushing knockouts. By the end of 2005, by all accounts he was one of the scariest men on the planet, and Hunt was sure he was the best fighter in the world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to proving it. He lost. And lost. And lost some more. So much so that by the time the UFC bought PRIDE and acquired his contractual rights, they told him they didn't want him or his losing record, and that they were willing to pay him to go away. Hunt declined the offer, saying he would rather earn his money the hard way. Finally, they acquiesced, and he lost one more time. By the time his skid was over, Hunt had lost seven straight fights overall -- six MMA matches and one kickboxing bout. At the time, he was 36 years old, and it appeared, he was broken.
But that chip was now squarely back on his shoulder, and all the people talking up his demise became his rocket fuel.
"I've always been a fighter," he told MMA Fighting. "Even after losing six fights in a row, to still think inside my head that I'd be the best fighter in this world is kind of ridiculous. But even when I was declined from the UFC, saying, 'We don't want you,' do you know how that feels to be not wanted by any employer? You don’t want me? Wait a minute, I’m the best fighter in the world. It felt really disheartening but I had a lot to prove. It's really hard to sit there and think you’re not wanted because you’re not good enough. And not just fighting, at anything. If someone says you're not good enough in your whole life, you feel upset. It makes me angry. What do you mean I'm not good enough?"
Since that time, Hunt has been on fire. He crushed Chris Tuchscherer, beat up Ben Rothwell and then smashed Cheick Kongo and Stefan Struve.
Along the way, he has become a cult hero. After beating Kongo last February, an online movement began to get Hunt in UFC 146 as the title challenger to Junior dos Santos after Alistair Overeem failed a drug test and was ruled out of the match. Though the "Rally for Hunt" fell short, Hunt's bandwagon has grown exponentially.
It's not quite clear what caused the phenomenon. Perhaps it's an appealing combination of a quiet, unassuming personality combined with his savage in-cage skills, or perhaps it was just a case of right place, right time.
"It feels good, man," he said. "I feel I get appreciation from the 'Army of Doom. And like I said, no one wants to be told they’re not good enough. No one."
Of course, those good feelings about a stunning career comeback only go so far. Hunt is still a sizable underdog by most estimates. Dos Santos is around a 4-to-1 favorite. According to betting lines, it marks the fifth straight fight he's expected to lose.
Hunt wouldn't have it any other way, saying that if he ever gets to a point where he's the consistent favorite, he wouldn't want to fight anymore. Those are the kinds of endearing things he says. On Thursday, he also told the media he hadn't heard of TRT (testosterone replacement therapy), which is one of the sport's most controversial topics, and admitted that he feels nerves about the enormity of the fight.
dos Santos' hand speed has been frequently cited as a possible deciding factor between the two. Hunt admitted it was impressive, but said that, "when someone gets hit really hard on the head a few times, a lot of the time their speed as well as fitness goes out the door."
In giving his thoughts on his opponent, Hunt also mentioned that he's only watched two of dos Santos' fights. That's several less fights than Dana White watched the other night, when he decided to log on to Youtube for a minute to view something, but ended up staying on for four hours, checking out several of Hunt's PRIDE and K-1 bouts.
"I think it’s one of the great stories in sports right now. I really do," he said. "It’s unbelievable."
The UFC president may have been won over, but the chip on Hunt's shoulder remains. Even when he had a losing record, he felt he was the best heavyweight in the world. With one more win, he'll have the chance to prove it. If he can only get past Saturday. If he can only get past the former champion, the heavy favorite. dos Santos is the natural, the vaunted talent. In some ways, he is the embodiment of those kids in his youth who had what he wanted, and of all those people who told him he wasn't good enough. For him, those have always been fighting words.
"I’m here to war," he said. "I'm here to take what’s mine. Whatever I want here, I have to go and get it. Ain't no one going to give it to me on a platter. Can I have this? I'm not going to put my hand out. If I want that, I'm going to go take that."