Strike while the iron is hot.
It’s a common saying, and one that should be heeded more often in the sport of MMA.
The UFC’s dilemma of casting a challenger to replace Alistair Overeem against Junior dos Santos is one example of where this saying fits the bill.
A number of foes have been suggested for JDS in place of Overeem, who recently failed a drug test that confirmed that the Pride veteran’s physique had not come by purely natural means. We’ve heard the argument from the Frank Mir camp. We’ve heard the insane idea of inserting fading legend Fedor Emelianenko into the title fight (Sure, he’s won two in a row, but those wins don’t really build a strong argument for a title bid following three straight defeats.). And we even have the dark horse, Dan Henderson, a man who has spent the majority of his fight career at middleweight and light heavyweight but can still pose a significant threat to the heavyweight champion.
Although I cannot argue with my esteemed colleague Jake Martin on the potential of placing Junior dos Santos and Dan Henderson across from one another inside the Octagon and letting the fists fly, I see a different opportunity here. Yes, I’m talking about Mark Hunt.
Do I believe he can be an elite champion? No. Hell, if his name had been brought up prior to February, I would have laughed at the notion that anyone could see the former K-1 champion as a legitimate option for a UFC title bout.
But now the big man has momentum on his side. He’s won three straight, demolishing perennial contender gatekeeper Cheick Kongo in his last outing.
What’s more significant though is that “hot iron.” Enthusiasm for a Hunt title shot has reached a surprising high. Even UFC commentator Joe Rogan is on board for the match-up.
Though Rogan suggests that it would be a good fight even if it should happen later down the road, the time for the fight is right now. Hunt is only one win above the .500 mark thanks to his knockout of Kongo. He’s riding a wave of momentum and a win streak that tops anything he’s done in over six years. And he has the support and energy of MMA fans behind him.
If anything, a fight with Henderson can wait. Henderson’s name is already one of legend, one that fans respect, and seeing his name next to dos Santos’ in a headlining bout would draw the same later as it would now. The same can’t be said for Hunt.
After starting off his career at 5-1, Hunt did take on some elite competition, dropping bouts to Emelianenko, Overeem and Josh Barnett. But then he lost to the much smaller Melvin Manhoef and Gegard Mousasi before dropping his UFC debut to Sean McCorkle. There’s no shame in those first three defeats, but the last three shows a fighter who has had a rocky career. Where would the enthusiasm go for JDS vs. Hunt if Hunt loses to the next mid-card fighter he faces?
But right now, Hunt is on fire in the eyes of diehard fans. He has an exciting fighting style and a background that could draw the mainstream crowd as well. The UG calls him a “Rocky,” referencing the iconic fictional underdog boxer portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the movie franchise of the same name. It wouldn’t be a stretch for the UFC to put together a promotional push based on Hunt’s recent wins, his K-1 championship and the underdog “Rocky” concept. The promotional machine could legitimize him in the eyes of casual fans, while the diehards largely need no convincing.
In the wake of Overeem’s failed drug test, this seems like a gift handed to UFC president Dana White and the promotion’s matchmaker, Joe Silva. Silva can’t go wrong in putting any of the rumored names into the cage with dos Santos, but capitalizing on Hunt’s current surge might be a one-time opportunity that makes the most sense from both a business standpoint and for giving fans what they want.
Anytime a fighter gathers this sort of steam, lighting up internet message boards, Twitter, Facebook or the like, the UFC should take a minute and consider that little saying. The iron won’t stay hot forever.
Photo: Mark Hunt (Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog)