Hunt ready for 'Cinderella Man' role

Inside Fights Scott Sawitz
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When it was announced Mark Hunt was making his UFC debut, one of the last obligations the UFC had after its purchase of the Pride promotion, it was one of the biggest head-scratching moments of the time.

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Hunt had been on a fairly unspectacular losing streak, and a loss to Sean McCorkle in his UFC debut at UFC 119 had cemented his status as a kickboxing star who had a moment of glory in Pride, but wasn’t an MMA-caliber heavyweight fighter.

His lack of a true defensive wrestling game to supplement his legendary chin and his equally intimidating striking was why he kept losing; as soon as the fight hit the ground, he was lost. And the McCorkle loss seemed to suggest a second fight in the organization would go the same way.

Then something interesting happened.

Hunt developed some submission defense to go with some brand new takedown defense, and in the process has gone on a three-fight winning streak against increasingly tough competition.

Going into Saturday night’s Cheick Kongo fight at UFC 144, Hunt’s streak was supposed to be snapped. Kongo would take him down and pound him out, of course, because he’s too good to want to stand and trade with the former K-1 Grand Prix champion. Unfortunately for Kongo, that’s exactly what he did, and Hunt caught him, stopping the Frenchman early in the first round.

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And while a late-career surge has happened to a rare handful of fighters over the years, none have gone from such depths that the New Zealander Hunt did to being on the cusp of a heavyweight title shot, as he is now. And his career resurgence is similar to one of the great heavyweight champions of boxing history: James J. Braddock.

Braddock, immortalized in the Ron Howard film “Cinderella Man,” famously made a late-career comeback after having his fortunes change dramatically following a loss to Tommy Loughran for the NYSAC light heavyweight title. Culminating in a title victory over Max Baer after being brought in to help cement Corn Griffin’s status as a contender and knocking him out in the third, Braddock is a footnote in history now as the man who lost the heavyweight championship of the world to Joe Louis. But his story was turned into a fairly successful film.

And Mark Hunt has followed a similar path.

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Opting to fight in the UFC instead of taking a payoff from the company, which inherited Hunt’s contract in the Pride purchase, Hunt now is perhaps the most intriguing story in the heavyweight division.

Losing to McCorkle, Hunt seemed to exist in the UFC to gut out the remaining number of fights they were legally obligated to give him and then be released back into the world of MMA outside of the Zuffa umbrella. Without K-1, Hunt would be limited to Japan, where he remains popular, and the occasional kickboxing fight.

Much like how Braddock was a dock worker who came back after working as a longshoreman strengthened his off hand, made famous in the film by Russell Crowe as the northeastern boxer and family man, Hunt now is a well-rounded fighter. That’s fairly remarkable considering he spent years fighting in MMA as a side job to supplement his income as one of the best kick-boxers on the planet.

Hunt has managed to turn his massive glaring shortcoming of being weak on the ground into something that resembles an area of strength now. Nearly getting a kimura submission against former dominant heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko is often seen as more of a fault of “The Last Emperor” than something that the “Super Samoan” could pull off if given the right amount of time, like it could be now. Years after that fight Hunt is perhaps another victory away from fighting the winner of Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem for the UFC heavyweight championship. Fedor, perhaps the best heavyweight of all time, is on the outside looking in hoping to get a fight against a non-UFC journeymen like Todd Duffee.

It’s a scenario that two years ago you’d have imagined a Hollywood studio trying to sell as a novel idea for an MMA movie. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case Mark Hunt could be fighting for the UFC heavyweight title by the end of 2012.

If that happens, then perhaps he needs to share a nickname 7with Braddock, if only because history is on his side.

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