March 1, 2017

UFC 209: Mark Hunt: A War on Two Fronts (Part 2)

By Schwan Humes

In Part one of this series we discussed the biggest and most dangerous opponent Mark Hunt will be facing, which is none other than his employer the Ultimate Fighting Championship; this battle is taking place outside the cage and is a matter of intangible things such as legal maneuvers and technicalities. Today we discuss the physical fight, the one that will take place this Saturday night at UFC 209. This battle isn’t a matter of principle, it’s a matter of necessity. Hunt would prefer to sit out or to walk away from the UFC, but he has a family to support and a career he is trying to make the most of as he heads into the twilight of it. So he must enter the Octagon to face world-class striker and multiple-time world champion Alistair Overeem.

Alistair Overeem is experiencing a bit of a renaissance as a mixed martial artist, after a career defined by his larger-than-life physique, overwhelming physicality, power, accuracy, athleticism, and devastating striking. Overeem was a destroyer, walking guys down then running them over with a series of life-changing power shots and an overwhelmingly damaging clinch game. He combined this with a dominating ground game that was equal parts technical (wrestling and grappling) and damaging (ground and pound). He came into the UFC to much acclaim, fanfare, and huge paydays, which unfortunately didn’t pan out with the results he had come to expect of himself, nor that the fans and the organization hoped for when he signed. After a dominant one-sided win against Brock Lesnar, Overeem’s performance and position in the division fell dramatically, as he lost three out of four fights via KO, to Travis Browne, Antonio Silva, and Ben Rothwell. A win over Frank Mir in the midst of this slump did nothing to quell thoughts that maybe Overeem had been found out and exposed as a overhyped, fragile, mentally weak fighter.

But as he had done before, Overeem came back, realizing the limitations of his style -- or better yet, realized that the style that had long been his calling card exposed his own physical limitations (i.e. cardio and durability). So “The Reem” did what many fighters can’t do or refuse to do, he changed his approach, redefined his game, and instead of destroying opponents, he began to out-slick them. Instead of running them over or blasting them out, he began out-maneuvering them and taking them down, paying attention to efficiency, defensive responsibility, and a multifaceted attack in order to outclass, not just outfight his opponents. This led to a four-fight winning streak and an eventual title shot (albeit an unsuccessful one). Now he is on his way back, trying to keep his hat in the ring regarding title talks, and he has to get through Mark Hunt to achieve this.

Hunt is similar to Overeem in that much of his reputation has been built around the more obvious aspects of his physical and technical skills. Mark Hunt is known as a durable, gritty fighter, one gifted with world-altering power. Unlike Overeem, Hunt has remained true to that identity, laying waste to a number of big-name heavyweight fighters -- Antonio Silva, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Stefan Struve, and Cheick Kongo. But what haven’t been overlooked are the improvements; submission defense, takedown defense, reversals, and escapes are the most noticeable. The man who was notorious for his inability to stay off the ground, get up off the ground, or defend himself on the ground (three submission losses in a row at one point) hasn’t been submitted or clearly out-grappled to a loss in almost six years. Not just that, but Hunt has developed a competent grappling/wrestling game, where he can get takedowns, maintain top position, and control guys enough to punish them with strikes. Hunt is no Demian Maia, but he is no longer a grappling dummy on the ground, incapable of defending himself, and less effective on the feet because a lack of applicable skill on the ground.

Those are the obvious improvements, very much worthy of acknowledgement and praise, but what is being overlooked is Hunt’s improvement in regards to the craft of striking. The toughness, the power, and the physicality overshadow the increasingly masterful use of timing, distance management, and accuracy. Hunt, while still a power puncher and finisher at heart, has taken advantage of his extensive time in combat sports, striking specifically. He uses a measuring jab to set up and gauge the distance of his strikes, employs a dedicated body attack, and possesses enough versatility to force opponents into his most dangerous weapons (his hands). Hunt is no Anderson Silva, no Alistair Overeem, but he is no one’s punching bag, no one-dimensional brawler who can only fight in an obvious manner. He is a seasoned, savvy, and cagey fighter who has many layers to what seems like a very obvious striking game.

The simple way to describe this fight is to make it a matter of brawler vs. technician, unstoppable juggernaut vs. measured, multifaceted, and layered fighter. But it’s not that simple. Overeem is no longer in his prime; while still one of the better athletes in the division, he is not as quick or explosive as he once was. While the power is still there, the explosiveness and physicality is not near the factor as it was early. In a similar manner Hunt too has changed -- his chin isn’t as impenetrable and his ability to recuperate isn’t what it used to be. The fight now isn’t a simplistic one, but a strategic and deliberate one between two guys who have the power and finishing character to end the fight at any time, due in large part to the fact that neither opponent has the athleticism to avoid the shots nor the durability to soak up endless amounts of punishment. This fight will be decided by who can best navigate distance safely and create opportunities to set up and land strikes through feints, positioning, and footwork.

The question will be: Can Hunt be defensive enough, efficient enough, minimize the abuse he absorbs, and maximize the abuse he hands out? He doesn’t have to be untouchable, as he has enough durability to survive a certain amount of punishment, enough to put him into position to attack the body, slow Overeem, and hopefully force him to wilt under accurate well-timed power shots. For Overeem, the question becomes: Can he maintain the distance and out-position Hunt in a manner that keeps him safe from the still-formidable power of Hunt? While both fighters’ chins have deteriorated, Overeem’s chin has never been an attribute that works in his favor, either defensively or as an offensive tool that allows him to assert himself when he attacks. Overeem has to stick and move, lead and counter, strike and grapple -- whatever limits Hunt’s ability to open up and his willingness to put shots together at all (or with any real consistency). This fight would have been a shootout at one point, but has now become a measured contest of controlled violence between two veteran fighters, and more importantly veteran strikers -- guys who have been there, done that. Guys who don’t have many more opportunities for greatness, much less championships.

Saturday night at UFC 209, Mark Hunt will finish one fight; win or lose, one battle will be decided. But looming over this fight and the impending fight result is the oncoming battle with the UFC, a fight that won’t be decided in three rounds, three days, three weeks, or three months. That fight may very well change how Mark Hunt is remembered, as well as how many and what kind of opportunities he will have in the last few years of his storied career. But it remains to be seen whether Hunt will end up 2-0, 1-1, or 0-2; if he wins on Saturday night, he’ll at least salvage a split.

UFC 209: Woodley vs. Thompson 2 takes place March 4, 2017 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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