When the UFC brought former K-1 Grand Prix champion and Pride veteran Mark Hunt to the Octagon at UFC 119 to fulfill an existing contractual obligation, there weren’t many expectations for the New Zealand heavyweight. After all, the “Super Samoan” entered the bout on a five-fight skid, with four out of five losses coming by submission.

To almost no one’s surprise, Hunt fell by submission once again, and with a career MMA record of 5-7 at the time, many assumed that Hunt would be released from the UFC roster.

But that’s when everything changed for the striking stalwart. He was given another fight by the promotion and made the most of the opportunity, earning “Knockout of the Night” honors with a walk-off finish of Chris Tuchscherer at UFC 127.

With his losing streak a thing of the past, Hunt was given a main card match-up with Ben Rothwell at UFC 135. While the sluggish fight was largely a product of the Denver altitude, Hunt exhibited new wrinkles to his attack—takedowns and submission attempts—on his way to the decision win. Even after more than 40 kickboxing contests, the veteran proved that an old dog can learn new tricks.

The win propelled Hunt to a UFC 144 bout with chiseled Frenchman Cheick Kongo in his old stomping grounds of Tokyo, Japan. In just two minutes, Hunt reminded the rest of the heavyweight division that his left hook might be the most devastating strike in the division, earning yet another walk-off knockout win.

A knee injury would force the soon-to-be 39-year-old out of action for almost a year, but his planned fight from UFC 146 with towering Dutchman Stefan Struve was still on the table when he returned at UFC on Fuel TV 8 on March 2.

On paper, the fight was borderline comical. Struve’s 7-foot frame towered over Hunt’s compact 5-foot-10 build. And if the 14-inch height difference wasn’t enough, Struve’s 12-inch reach advantage appeared to stack the deck against Hunt.

Yet, when the cage door shut, Hunt was not deterred. Not only did he demonstrate his usual striking prowess, the fighter showcased vastly improved submission defense. His training with American Top Team in recent years shined brightly as he was able to avoid multiple submission attempts from his lengthy opponent.

Hunt scored what is quickly becoming his signature move—the walk-off left hook knockout—but more importantly, Hunt’s ability to avoid the dangerous guard of Struve long enough to inflict damage on the feet proved that Hunt is ready to contend in 2013.

Some might question if he can truly challenge the division’s elite, but with four straight wins—three by highlight-reel knockout—it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t belong. His striking credentials are equal or better than anyone in the division, including former champion Junior dos Santos and fellow K-1 champ Alistair Overeem. And with hard evidence that he will no longer wilt when the fight hits the mat, Hunt may have a storybook title run left in him.

Hunt may not be ready to handle current champion Cain Velasquez just yet, but fights with fellow iron-chinned fighter Roy Nelson or submission ace Frank Mir—following his fight with Daniel Cormier—would gauge how far Hunt’s evolution as a fighter has come. If he can get around either fighter without a seventh career submission defeat, the UFC would have a hard time denying him a crack at the belt.

Photo: Mark Hunt (L) (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

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