Sydney combat sports veteran Mark Hunt will move within striking distance of a UFC heavyweight title shot if he gets past former teammate Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in Brisbane tomorrow.
Just three months shy of 40, Hunt told thewest.com.au yesterday this was his last run at an MMA world championship.
A former K1 kickboxing grand prix winner, the New Zealand-born father-of-three has been in the fight game for over 20 years.
After a long and illustrious kickboxing career, he turned his attention to MMA in the early 2000s as it exploded in Japan and the US.
The last time he featured in a headline fight was in front of nearly 50,000 people in Japan in 2006, when he fell just short against Russian great and then Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.
Now, seven years later, he finds himself in the main event of a UFC card in Australia pitted against the number four heavyweight in the world.
“Fighting in my home country is a blessing for me. I’ve always wanted to fight here and now I’m headlining,” he said.
“I’m looking to put Bigfoot away and put him to sleep. My game plan is to knock him out. If I can get a win this weekend then I shouldn’t be that far away from a world title shot.”
Hunt and Silva, 34, have trained together at American Top Team and they initially declined to fight each other because of their friendship.
But the lure of beating a big name fighter in a main event, coupled with some pressure from UFC matchmakers, forced them to reconsider.
The end result is a main event between two hulking heavyweights who have a fair idea of just how dangerous the other man is.
“We trained together at American Top Team. It’s just my job. I declined at the start but then I had no option so here we are,” Hunt said.
“I admire Bigfoot, I have a lot of respect for Bigfoot and he’s the number four fighter on the planet.
“Bigfoot’s a big dude and he’s got some big hands. If he catches me, I’m going out - and vice versa.”
Silva, who has earned black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo and karate, is predominantly a grappler, while Hunt is one of the sport’s most feared knockout artists.
Two decades of high-level kickboxing and MMA appear to have taken a surprisingly small toll on Hunt, who has enjoyed a renaissance in the UFC since 2011.
His army of fans point to this resurgence as proof their man still has years left in the sport, but the truth is different.
“It’s harder to recover, things are a lot slower,” he said.
“My passion for fighting is still there and it’s come back stronger. I love fighting. I love trying to get to the title and trying to be the best fighter on the planet - and not just in one sport.
“This is my last run at the top level in the UFC. This is my last run.
“If I lose this one I go back to the toilet and I don’t think I have the age on my side to climb back up.”
Tomorrow’s card in Brisbane is stacked with home-grown talent.
Five of the six fights on the main card feature an Australian or New Zealand competitor – a clear indication of how far the countries have come in the sport in recent years.
In his second fight back in the UFC, Perth heavyweight Soa Palelei, 36, will clash with US professional kickboxer Pat Barry, 34.
Barry might be substantially smaller than “The Hulk,” but he packs serious knockout power in his kicks.
The key for Palelei will be dragging the fight to the ground and using his strength and grappling skills to lock in a submission.
Light heavyweight James Te Huna, who fights out of Sydney, will face MMA legend Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Shogun is on a two-fight losing streak and will be desperate to beat Te Huna, but years of wear and tear have softened his famed Muay Thai attack.
Both fighters are 32 years old, however Te Huna has taken far less damage over the course of his career.
It’s a card of great opportunity for Australia’s best MMA fighters and arguably a missed opportunity for Perth.
As revealed in The West Australian in February, this was the December 7 event the UFC had planned to hold at Perth Arena before the State Government banned the use of the Octagon in WA.
Sports Minister Terry Waldron yesterday reiterated that the government’s decision was based on perceptions surrounding the Octagon or “cage.”
He said the UFC was free hold to events in WA, just not in an Octagon, because he believed it sent the wrong message to the community.
UFC operations director for Australia, New Zealand and Canada Tom Wright said the UFC would never compromise the safety of its athletes by holding an MMA event in a modified boxing ring.
He said Perth had missed out on international exposure and an estimated economic impact of $10 million.
“WA’s loss is Queensland’s gain,” he said.
Heavyweight - Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva
Light Heavyweight - Maurício Rua vs. James Te Huna
Light Heavyweight - Ryan Bader vs. Anthony Perosh
Heavyweight - Pat Barry vs. Soa Palelei
Middleweight - Dylan Andrews vs. Clint Hester
Women's Bantamweight - Julie Kedzie vs. Bethe Correia
Bantamweight - Takeya Mizugaki vs. Nam Phan
Middleweight - Nick Ring vs. Caio Magalhaes
Flyweight - Richie Vaculik vs. Justin Scoggins
Middleweight - Bruno Santos vs. Krzysztof Jotko
Preliminary card (Online)
Welterweight - Ben Wall vs. Alex Garcia