Mark Hunt’s impact on Oceania MMA cannot be denied. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
He stands five feet, 10 inches tall.
Yes, Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Mark Hunt, a world kickboxing champion, K-1 World Grand Prix winner and mixed martial arts legend, stands only five feet, 10 inches tall. To put that into perspective, in comparison to the rest of the heavyweight division, Hunt has given up an average of seven inches in height to his UFC opponents. Yet the shadow he casts across Polynesian martial arts defines an entire generation of fighters.
Hunt is not the first of his kind. Oceania is fertile ground for fighters. The Polynesian people in the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean that exists beyond the United States -- the Maori, the Samoans, the Tongans and all the rest -- have a long history of excellence in boxing and kickboxing. Think Herbert Slade, Emerio Fainuulua, Jason Suttie, Jimmy Thunder, David Tua, Ray Sefo and many, many more.
However, in MMA, it was always about Mark “The Super Samoan” Hunt. He has been a fixture in the martial arts world for some 15 years, having made his K-1 debut in 2000. He has an entire catalog of videos, gifs and memes crisscrossing the Internet, from lowering his hands to eat punches from Sefo in the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix and shrugging off a head kick from Mirko Filipovic in Pride Fighting Championships to his walk-off knockout against Stefan Struve and the entire Antonio Silva fight in the UFC.
Now 40, Hunt has risen to cult hero status with an MMA record that stands barely above .500. He has never won a major mixed martial arts title. He was finished in each of his eight losses. His takedown defense has been described as non-existent, his submission game as lacking and his conditioning as on par with a journeyman first baseman. Hunt endured a six-fight losing streak, going nearly five years -- five years -- without a win, mainly because of his inability to defend against submissions from his back. While his best days may be behind him, somehow his star burns as bright as ever in MMA circles.
“The Super Samoan” will forever be a fan favorite for his willingness to brawl, his devastating power, the iron in his chin, the lead in his guts and, perhaps most of all, the laconic grace with which he unleashes his rampages of destruction. It seems as if only the lure of the cage and the roar of the fans can rouse him from his boredom of normalcy. When it ends, he returns to the malaise of a mundane world. The man was born to fight. These are the qualities fans love, the hallmarks of a legitimate badass.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship will make its debut in Hunt’s homeland with UFC Fight Night “Te Huna vs. Marquardt” on Saturday at the Vector Arena in Auckland, New Zealand. Loaded with regional fighters, the card, in a way, pays homage to Hunt’s legacy in Oceania. It seems as if every Polynesian fighter that slips on the gloves embodies the fighting spirit of a people, a spirit Hunt has long displayed.
James Te Huna headlines the main event as a headhunter with massive power, a penchant for slugfests and a weakness for submissions. Sound familiar? He started his UFC run with five wins in his first seven bouts, but his eagerness to brawl cost him against an aging but ever dangerous Mauricio Rua. Now, Te Huna’s grappling skills could be put to the test against former Middleweight King of Pancrase Nate Marquardt. Five of Te Huna’s seven losses have come by submission, and Marquardt’s style has been proven kryptonite against Polynesian fighters.
Before Te Huna hits the cage, the spotlight will shine on Soa Palelei, who has stopped his last 11 opponents with strikes, nine of them in the first round. Palelei is big and strong, with anvils for hands. Seventeen of his 24 fights have ended inside one round. Sound familiar? On paper, Palelei might appear to be an heir apparent to Hunt and on the fast track to UFC stardom. In reality, he is a 36-year-old who has looked ghastly under-conditioned at times. On the few occasions in which his fights have reached the later rounds, they have had the look and feel of slumber parties. UFC President Dana White has never so sharply criticized a fighter on an 11-fight winning streak. Palelei will face off against Jared Rosholt in a not-so-favorable matchup. Rosholt was a three-time NCAA All-American at wrestling powerhouse Oklahoma State University.
Robert Whittaker is the other Polynesian fighter on the main card and one of the more diverse martial artists coming out of Oceania. His takedown defense was on point against Colton Smith at UFC 160. Do not be fooled by his five submissions; Whittaker loves to mix it up. In “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” final against Brad Scott, he unleashed multiple karate charges with right-left flurries en route to a lopsided decision win. Whittaker will enter his bout with Roufusport’s Mike Rhodes as close to a 3-to-1 favorite.
While not included on the UFC Fight Night “Te Huna vs. Marquardt” lineup, Dylan Andrews has also gained a following. More than any other Polynesian fighter in the UFC, Andrews appears to possess Hunt’s adamantium-laced skull. Watching him wade through punches to qualify for Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter” was entertaining. Seeing him turn into something of a berserker god in the sudden-victory round of his semifinal pairing with first overall pick Luke Barnatt was downright inspiring. He has a Diego Sanchez-, Chris Leben-, Chan Sung Jung-type of crazy quality about him. Punch him in the face at your own peril. Andrews’ run of six consecutive victories was derailed by a shoulder dislocation he sustained against Clint Hester at UFC Fight Night “Hunt vs. Bigfoot” in December.
All these fighters have traits common to Hunt: power, grit and fearlessness; and they all have the same fundamental weaknesses -- weaknesses that could limit the next generation of Polynesian strikers just as they have limited Hunt. Fans will adore them, but they may never know the thrill of holding major MMA gold.
There is hope, though. Hunt has gradually and painstakingly improved his takedown defense. Against a Dutch submission specialist in Struve and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in Silva, Hunt kept it standing. At times against, he looked surprisingly comfortable working from guard and half guard.
Te Huna, 32, Palelei, 36, and Andrews, 34, have all reached a staged in their careers where the ability to evolve can be limited. However, as Hunt has shown, they can fine tune and refine their games. Whittaker, on the other hand, is just 23 and represents a new breed of fighter coming out of Australia and New Zealand, where MMA has exploded in popularity. Whittaker grew up in the dedicated disciplines of karate and hapkido but transitioned to a pure MMA gym early in his teens. His ground game has grown sound and strong.
If Polynesian fighters can add takedown and submission defense to their arsenals -- and Whittaker has shown the transition has already begun -- then Oceania could conceivably become an assembly line for Chuck Liddell types: fearless strikers with power in both hands who can keep fights standing. Consider the string of fighters who have come out of Hawaii: B.J. Penn, Travis Browne, Max Holloway, Kendall Grove, K.J. Noons, Brad Tavares and Yancy Medeiros, just to name a few. Then consider there are only 1.4 million people in Hawaii. In the Oceania region, MMA can draw from 40 million. As the UFC continues to expand its global reach, more and more athletes figure to turn to cage fighting. How fast is MMA growing in popularity Down Under? UFC 127 sold out 18,000 tickets in half an hour.
For now, simply appreciate the steady stream of highlights and memorable fights being produced by Polynesians. They may not become contenders and they may not win titles, but they fight with a unique passion. Slugfests, brawls and knockouts will follow, and when you see a Maori, Samoan or any other Polynesian bite down on a mouthpiece and wade into the fray, be sure to give a little tip of the cap to the man who started it all.