Mark Hunt has been around a long time, and we as fans are incredibly lucky to have him. Not only has he shown great career longevity, but he has looked like a better fighter in his last four fights than in the decade leading up to them.
Mark Hunt began his career as a kickboxer in the Japanese kickboxing organization K-1, and like many kickboxers, Hunt's record has a few names appearing more than once. The kickboxing world, at the elite level at least, is not a large one.
Everything about Hunt's kickboxing career was a little unusual, though. He won the K-1 Grand Prix in Fukuoka tournament by getting to the final despite losing his previous match, and despite his legendary fight with Ray Sefo, the two men only met once. Furthermore, Hunt's entire career (save his ill-fated return to K-1 in 2008 against Semmy Schilt) took place between 1998 and 2002. In that time, Hunt shoehorned in 43 bouts!
In just four years in kickboxing, Hunt had repeat bouts with Peter Graham and Stefan Leko, but by far the most frequently appearing name on Hunt's record was his greatest rival, Jerome Le Banner.
Mark Hunt met the colossal Frenchman four times over the course of his kickboxing career and dropped three fights to "Geronimo." Le Banner effectively highlighted some flaws in Hunt's early game and today I'd like to talk about the quartet and how Hunt has grown as a fighter.
The Hercules of K-1
Many in the MMA community may not be familiar with Jerome Le Banner. In fact, many who have followed kickboxing religiously for the last five years still won't get what the all the fuss is about. I watched from ringside as Le Banner wheezed his way through a bout with Koichi Watanabe and almost forgot how good Le Banner once was myself.
While not one of the taller fighters in the K-1 and Glory heavyweight ranks, Le Banner at 6'3" is almost as wide as he is tall. Even at 40 years old, he packs a walloping punch, and in his prime he looked like he could have been formed from granite.
Le Banner was also a pioneer of leading with the strong hand. He was kickboxing's highest-profile southpaw for quite some time despite being right handed. Le Banner's choice of stance meant that his power hand and leg were the closest to his opponent while his weaker hand and leg had the distance to travel to the target which would allow them to build force.
Le Banner's right low kick was his bread and butter. The power he could get in it over a short distance was incredible, and he specialized in catching opponents just as they punched or while they were recovering, ensuring that he buckled their leg. Just take a look at his quick knockout of Mike Bernardo.
A classic example of Le Banner 101 is his bout against Francisco Filho. Using low kicks with his lead leg (also his power leg) Le Banner was able to get Filho flinching, then as he stepped up to throw a lead-leg kick, he pushed through with an overhand left instead. The resulting one-punch knockout became known as the Millenium KO.
The Hunt-Le Banner Quartet
Like everything in Hunt's kickboxing career, this series of fights happened over a remarkably short period of time. The two fighters met for the first time in July of 2000, then in December of 2001, then in May of 2002 and finally in December of 2002.
In their first bout, Hunt was clearly concerned with kickboxing relatively cleanly. He stood at range with Le Banner for much of the bout and traded low kicks, which he inevitably did not get the better of. His lack of ringcraft also allowed Le Banner to corner him several times and simply tee off while Hunt looked to cover and get to the clinch.
Hunt had his moments, though. He succeeded in executing a cut kick on the vastly more experienced kickboxer. As Le Banner lifted his leg to check a low kick, Hunt ran through and kicked out Le Banner's standing leg, dropping his 120 kg frame to the mat.
Hunt repeatedly attempted to enter with a right straight, then look for a right uppercut or overhand from almost chest to chest with Le Banner, but he failed on every attempt to make anything happen. Le Banner took the decision and moved on in the Grand Prix. This was just Hunt's first fight outside of Australia, and it was by far the stiffest test of his career to that date.
Hunt improved rapidly with his mix of brawling and sharp punching technique, and when he qualified for the following year's K-1 Grand Prix, he opted to be matched against Le Banner in the quarterfinals. It was here that Hunt showed the intelligence for which he is so rarely credited.
Knowing that he wasn't going to out-strike Le Banner in a technical kickboxing match, when Hunt did get trapped on the ropes, he opted to swing back instead of simply covering and holding. Hunt's finest moment in the quadrology came when Le Banner cornered him two minutes into the second round.
Hunt had been swinging back each time Le Banner stepped in with punches, so he was naturally reluctant to do so here. Hunt played on this, stuck his chin out and called Le Banner on. Le Banner hesitated, and Hunt came in with the one-two he had been attempting all fight. Now just as in the previous fight, Hunt got close off of his right straight and looked to land another right hand from the new distance.
Le Banner wasn't quick enough to react and caught a right hook right on the dome. Hunt turned him onto the ropes and threw one of the most impressive flurries in K-1 history to finish the bout. Unlike their previous bout where Hunt had looked uncomfortable, Hunt was now able to find Le Banner. Through their next two fights, Le Banner would hit the mat off of punches in both.
Le Banner Rallies
The third fight of the series proved that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Since their previous meeting, Hunt had won the K-1 Grand Prix and appeared to be working a great deal on his boxing. Hunt was coming off a match against Mirko 'Cro Cop' Filipovic wherein his improved head movement had led him to duck directly into a high kick. The same attention to head movement would get him in trouble in this bout.
From the beginning, Hunt was struggling to get close to Le Banner on his own terms. Le Banner was naturally reluctant to charge Hunt, so he stayed on the outside, throwing one-twos into lead low kicks and waiting for Hunt to charge him.
When Hunt inevitably did, Le Banner found a home for his counter right hook. Remember that Le Banner's lead hand was also his power hand. Often he could get more power on this short, chopping counter punch than he could on his rear-handed power punches.
Throughout the entire fight, Hunt threw himself off balance with power punches, ducked into high kicks and ran onto right hooks. It was Le Banner's most aggressive showing of the four bouts and undoubtedly Hunt's worst. Throughout the bout, Hunt's corner could be heard yelling "stay inside" every time the two came together, but Le Banner made sure to push Hunt away from him each time they came close.
Hunt's hands looked fast and crisp, but he simply couldn't get close enough to make use of his flurries. At the start of the second round, Hunt came out and immediately looked to get in close, eating another counter right hook and being sent to the canvas. Hunt's chin is well known to be one of the best in combat sports history—to see him dropped with a short counter was a shock to many.
Hunt took a beating throughout the second round but came back from that position in which he did so well in the second bout. As Le Banner teed off with Hunt against the ropes, Hunt absorbed the shots and came back with a flurry, putting Le Banner on wobbly legs and catching him with an uppercut, which sent him face-first to the mat.
At the end of the second, Hunt got in close again, and as Le Banner pushed Hunt away, he threw a high kick. This is a classic technique, heavily utilized by Peter Aerts. If you forcibly push an opponent backward, their hands are more than likely to drop away from the kind of solid guard needed to absorb a high kick. Hunt took the kick across the chin and was sent to the canvas again.
The round ended before the count, but Hunt was unable to come out for the final round. In their most entertaining bout, Hunt had shown that he simply couldn't close the distance well on his own terms. Le Banner, meanwhile, had won by the skin of his teeth. As one-sided as the bout was, he engaged with Hunt on the inside far too frequently for his own good.
The Final Match and How Hunt Has Changed
Just a few months later, the two men met for their final match, and it was as though they had come full circle. Le Banner stayed outside and landed brutal right low kicks. Hunt did little to force the action.
Hunt was hurt with a right low kick which it looked as though he checked early in the fight, and it was downhill from there. Le Banner was able to drop Hunt with low kicks and pick up a convincing decision.
Looking at these four matches, it is hard to believe that we're watching the same Mark Hunt who has appeared in his previous five UFC dates. Where the Hunt who fought Le Banner was about bull-rushing his opponents and throwing relatively inaccurate flurries in hopes of knocking his opponent out, the Hunt of today is far more of a technician.
Hunt has realized that backward movement, especially for strikers in MMA, is incredibly important. Now he glides around the Octagon looking for accurate, heavy counters as his opponents timidly look to close the distance without giving him chase to smash them with his cinder block hands.
A quick look at his bouts with Ben Rothwell and Cheick Kongo confirm an older, wiser Hunt. He could have run in and swarmed on them in hopes of a knockout, but he sat back and let them stress about the action. Rothwell could get nothing going and got bludgeoned for three rounds. Kongo, meanwhile, came in behind his hands and gave Hunt the opportunity to drop him with a perfect left hook.
I've spoken at length on the technical changes in Hunt before, but watching his four bouts with Jerome Le Banner it is as if we're watching two different people. Where Hunt was an inaccurate, right-handed swinger, he is now a counter-puncher with dynamite in both hands but preferring to use his left. Where he won his K-1 bouts in rushes, he wins his UFC bouts on the back foot with patience.
Few men get the chance to fight for more than a decade, and Hunt is one of the extremely rare ones who keeps looking better.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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