Martial arts has been a life saver for Mark “Super Samoan" Hunt. Raised in South Auckland, New Zealand, Hunt says he was once a young man with a chip on his shoulder.
"When you grow up with poor surroundings, poor people get angry. They get pissed off that they haven't got anything that everyone else has got. That's why I've got that chip I was talking about, people who don't have much get real upset. And martial arts saved me; actually God helped me through martial arts, saved me from being an angry person. There are a lot of kids out there like that."
Fighting has instilled discipline in Hunt, who takes on Stefan Struve this Saturday on UFC on FUEL TV 8 at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan.
"It takes a lot of hard work to be a martial artist and train all the time, takes a lot of dedication. There are a lot of easier things I could've done in my life, but this is what I was supposed to be. It’s God's plan."
A father of five, the 38-year-old Australia-based Hunt says one of his children may yet follow him into fighting.
"My youngest son loves fighting. I'll support him in whatever he wants to do. He loves fighting because I'm doing it. He's only five years old."
Formerly a kickboxer and the 2001 K-1 Kickboxing World Grand Prix champion, then an MMA fighter in Japan's PRIDE FC, Hunt has seen spectacular highs and lows in the fight game, but he believes his long martial arts journey gives him a key advantage over Stefan Struve, who is aged just 25.
"I've been fighting longer than he's been born, 26 years of martial arts and he's only 24 or 25 so I've got a lot more experience than he does. He's just got his youth, that's all."
Standing at 7 feet tall, Struve is the tallest fighter on the UFC roster. Struve is 9-3 in the UFC and on a four fight win streak. But the 5-10 Hunt doesn't see many threats from the Dutch fighter aside from his formidable height and reach.
"He's a tall kid who's been blessed with being a big person. He's good at jiu-jitsu but that's all it is. I've got a lot more experience than he does."
In 2011, Hunt staged an impressive career turnaround. After a six fight losing streak, he scored a second round knockout over Chris Tuchscherer and a grueling decision victory over the favored Ben Rothwell. In 2012, Hunt earned another upset victory with a first round TKO over veteran Cheick Kongo. His comeback even inspired a spirited Twitter campaign from fans rallying to get him a championship fight. He didn't get a title shot, but with momentum on his side, he was scheduled to fight Struve in May of 2012. Misfortune struck as Hunt suffered a knee injury and was forced to withdraw from the bout. In his understated style, he admits being sidelined for so long has been difficult.
"I'm looking forward to it (fighting again). It didn't really help with this injury, it just happened and it was just a setback for a while and it's hard to train with a leg injured like that. We’ll see how it goes in a couple of weeks. Gonna party (laughs)."
While he has previously trained with American Top Team in Florida, this time he's prepared more locally.
"I started off in New Zealand doing modified strongman work; now I'm back here (in Australia) training with the local guys, so it's pretty good."
Hunt has worked with a 6-7 jiu-jitsu player to prepare for Struve. It's a wise move given that the rangy Dutch fighter holds four UFC wins by submission. Hunt, best known as a granite chinned knockout artist, has fallen prey to submissions in the past.
"I've trained with a tall guy for my jiu-jitsu, his name's Marco (Carlos Gracie black belt Marco Villela).”
But when asked if he's found any tall sparring partners for the standup, Hunt replies with more of the candid humility he's become known for.
"I had a little bit of training with a couple of boxers, a couple of kick fighters. It hasn't been too great at all, but I get what I can get."
This fight marks another return to Japan for Hunt, the country where he has fought for much of his career. And he recently enjoyed a stint on one of Japan's famously bizarre game shows, participating in a tug of war alongside Alistair Overeem and among other notable fighters. Novelty factor aside, Hunt displayed some impressive strength as he beat a sumo wrestler, gigantic MMA fighter Bob Sapp, and a professional strongman to be crowned champion.
"Yeah I loved doing that show; it's good for my popularity over there. Fighting is fighting, but it's all part of it, so it's great. They had a few other fighters there like Alistair (Overeem), Bob (Sapp), and it was great. I had a lot of fun."
While Hunt is once again the underdog against Struve, that's nothing new for the "Super Samoan," who was once the unheralded fighter from New Zealand who won the K-1 Grand Prix, then the PRIDE newcomer who beat legend Wanderlei Silva, and now the UFC fighter who is in the midst of an unlikely comeback. When asked about his status as underdog, Hunt cites a maxim from the standup game.
"It's good, I like it that way. What you don't see coming hurts the most. I don't mind being the underdog, it's fine."