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Mark Hunt: I want one chance for that title shot

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Unlike most people in MMA, Mark Hunt never wanted to be a fighter.  It's a point he makes abundantly clear several times even in a short conversation.

Being a fighter is something he believes he was put on this Earth to be, and he's fine with that, and having fun with that, but he makes it clear it was not his decision but simply his fate. He was born with a powerful punch and an inordinate amount of durability.

His punch, and ability to take a punch, allowed him to make up ground quickly both in kickboxing and later in MMA, beating far more skilled and experienced people. And it allows him to still be a main event fighter, and perhaps even a title contender, after he has passed his 40th birthday.

"I've had 23 years of fighting, and in that time, I've had two ACL reconstructions and a broken hand," he points out regarding an injury history remarkably short for a man who has been fighting the top level competition, and been in several notable wars, in three different sports (he briefly boxed as well) for so long. "I feel blessed by God. This is what I'm supposed to be doing in life. I never wanted to be a fighter. This is what God said I'm going to do, and I'm happy with that. The end is the same, if I win, lose or draw."

His philosophy is very Japanese-like, where it's about entertaining the spectators first and the result isn't as important. During both the K-1 and Pride heydays, nobody was concerned with win-loss records. It was all about getting the fans to like you.

Unlike many fighters who a few days out from a fight that could either be a ticket to a title run or the end of the line, Hunt seems remarkably calm and care-free. He's going into a five-round main event fight at his home away from home, the Saitama Super Arena, just outside of Tokyo. Hunt, whose 9-8-1 career record seems like a contradiction to his being ranked as the No. 6 contender for champion Cain Velasquez, faces Roy Nelson, who at 20-9, is the No. 8 contender.

The expected haymaker throw-down takes place on Saturday night in Japan, which is very early Saturday morning in the U.S., on a show that will air exclusively on Fight Pass. The show internally has been dubbed Fight Pass Mania, because it's considered the biggest event with the most name talent of any show on UFC's streaming service since its inception.

"I'm excited about the match-up," he said. "I'm not going to underestimate any fighter. I did that once, and I got knocked out. He's one of the top fighters in the world. We're kind of similar. I'm looking forward to Saturday night and having a great performance."

It's Hunt's first match back since a rare injury, the broken hand, coming from a unique draw against Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. That fight, on Dec. 7, in Brisbane Australia, was considered one of the best heavyweight fights in UFC history. Silva tested positive for an elevated level of testosterone that night, so the fight on Silva's record is considered a no-contest, but on Hunt's record, it's still a draw.

The Saitama Super Arena is part of Hunt's home away from home. For most of his career, he was two people. He was a relative unknown living in Australia, after growing up in New Zealand. When he flew to Japan, he became "The Super Samoan," a Japanese celebrity who was almost a comic book figure come to life.

But this trip was different, having been shaken up by the Tokyo earthquake as soon as he arrived on Tuesday.

"We just landed and it was the earthquake, damn," he said about his reaction. "When God says it's time for one of us to go, we're done."

But Hunt doesn't feel like he's done in any way.

"It's good for me to be doing what I'm doing at my age," he said. "I love doing what I'm doing. But when I'm finished, I'm not going to come back. I won't need the money. The only reason I'm still fighting is because I believe I'm still the best fighter in the world. I want to beat Roy on Saturday night, and then I want to fight a top-five guy. Then I want to challenge for the title once, whoever that may be against. That's all I'm interested in. I want one chance for that title shot."

It's been nearly 13 years since the two Mark Hunts were born. It was on Dec. 8, 2001, at the Tokyo Dome, before a sold out crowd of 55,000 fans, and with 23 million more watching on television. Hunt, who had only fought once prior in Japan, was thought to be out of his league in the K-1 World Grand Prix. He was a heavy underdog in all of his fights.

But he knocked out Jerome LeBanner, won via decision over Stefan Leko, and won an overtime decision over Francisco Filho to win the one-night eight-man tournament. The idea of a 5-foot-9 and 271-pound powerhouse, who had only debuted in Japan two months earlier, knocking off three major stars in one night with his main skill being a knockout punch, and a granite chin, made him an instant star in Japan. It's a status that he's largely maintained even though both the kickboxing and MMA era in that country is long over.

He was able to reach the top rung in kickboxing with little experience - his first pro fight came four days after he was seen by a bouncer at a night club knocking multiple people out in an Auckland, New Zealand bar. The next thing he knew, he was in the ring. But MMA proved to be a little tougher.

That career started in 2004, when the Pride Fighting Championships upped his pay greatly to lure him from K-1, largely as one of K-1's biggest superstars, during a promotional war. The idea was to find a big guy with a big name that the public knew was tough, but wasn't an MMA fighter, to feed to Hidehiko Yoshida, a Japanese gold medalist in judo that Pride was trying to build its company around. It was Hunt's first MMA fight, as well as his first fight at the Saitama Super Arena. He lasted only 5:25 before losing via armbar. But even with no ground training, his natural power allowed him to survive far longer than he should have.

"I had to learn a whole new sport," he said about the move to MMA at the age of 30. "It was difficult coming from a striking background, and I had to learn the hard way. I had only three or four weeks of training, and I got armbarred by a gold medalist. It was kind of tough to come from a standing striking background. I was like a fish out of water. It was a totally new and different challenge."

He learned fast, knocking out huge American wrestler Daniel Bobish, before competing in his first New Year's Eve event on Dec. 31, 2004, and winning a freak show fight over Wanderlei Silva, who he outweighed that night by 76 pounds. He fought several more times on New Year's Eve, the biggest fighting day of the year in Japan. In recent years, with fighting no longer popular, Tokyo has still been his New Year's Eve destination, as he's competed with athletes from a number of sports in arm wrestling and tug-of-wars, winning the championship once in the latter sport.

Still, even with wins over legends like Silva and Mirko Cro Cop in his early MMA fights, UFC wanted no part of him when his contract came to them in 2007 with the purchase of the assets of the Pride Fighting Championships. The feeling is he was lacking in ground skills. The UFC was willing to pay him off to just go away, but he wanted to fight MMA at the top level. After a legal battle which lasted three years, the UFC ended up on the losing side and Hunt debuted, losing via straight armbar to journeyman fighter Sean McCorkle. At that point, Hunt was considered past his prime, at 36 years old, but his contract, because it came from Pride, didn't allow UFC to cut him.

Then he started winning, going all the way to a title eliminator in 2013 where he lost via knockout to Junior Dos Santos.

"I've always thought i was the best fighter in the world," he said. "Coming from a standing background in striking, I couldn't catch up to the guys with 20 plus years of training on the ground. I had to learn submissions. I found out it wasn't an easy road. I had six losses in a row, but I still felt I was the best fighter in the world."

Saturday's fight will be his 11th at the Saitama Super Arena, with wins and losses against a who's who of heavyweights from the Pride generation, including Yoshida, Cro Cop, Fedor Emelianenko and Josh Barnett.

Nelson and Hunt have some obvious similarities. Both are short powerhouses with one-punch knockout power and both are difficult to stop. Both don't look anything like a classic striker, being short and thick, with more than ample weight around the middle. Hunt figures he's got the takedown defense to keep the fight standing. Nelson, a black belt in Jiu Jitsu, would figure to have a major edge on the ground, but Hunt doesn't seem concerned.

"If the fight goes to the ground, I don't care," Hunt said. "We'll see what Roy's got. We're just going to battle."

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