Mark Hunt is no stranger to entertaining Japanese audiences, and tonight he did it again. "The Super Samoan" scored a brutal, walk-off TKO victory over Stefan Struve, finally toppling the surging contender in a back-and-forth affair at UFC on Fuel TV 8.
Both fighters had their moments in the first two rounds, but Hunt's power made all the difference in the final frame as the 38-year-old dug in to get the victory. The win over the "Skyscraper" makes it four in a row for the the former K-1 champion and should vault him up into the top 10 of a heavyweight division that has become more competitive than ever before.
Exactly what the next step will be for Hunt remains to be seen. But his derailing of Struve in Japan, and having several important divisional tilts slated for the coming months, has the potential to bring a few new faces into the conversation of title contention in the heavyweight division.
A Strange Time for Veterans in the Heavyweight Division
With Hunt's lackluster Octagon debut at UFC 119, the idea of the New Zealand-native moving into a contender's position seemed far fetched. Nevertheless, Hunt has put on an impressive run where he's collected a string of quality wins over solid competition.
The victory over Struve will guarantee his next showing comes against one of the division's best. How the chips fall over the next few months will determine just how far up the ladder Hunt will step for his next bout.
Two years ago it would be easy to forecast how things were going to play out in a thin division, but with a handful of the best fighters in the weight class experiencing setbacks, the picture becomes a bit blurry.
Recent losses by former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos and former Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem have left room for other fighters to make their way up the heavyweight ladder. When their upcoming showdown at UFC 160 is factored into the equation, it is inevitable that one fighter will keep his place in the title picture while the other is ultimately shuffled back into the deck.
The hovering circumstances will undoubtedly add a unique element of pressure, but "Cigano" and "The Reem" aren't the only veterans facing harsh realities in the divisional picture.
The same can be said for two-time champion Frank Mir. While the Las Vegas-native has hovered around the contender's tier of the heavyweight division for years, there is a bit of heat bearing down on Mir these days, which may seem a bit strange seeing that he's won three of his last four outings. On the other hand, over the past three years Mir has competed for the UFC title on three occasions (one interim) and come out on the business end of each effort.
Rebounding from his most recent loss to dos Santos at UFC 146 will be no easy task as he's drawn former Olympian Daniel Cormier at UFC on Fox 7 in April. A loss to the former Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Winner would push Mir to the boundaries of the top 10 in the heavyweight division, making another title run all but non-existent in the near future. Yet, should he find a way to hand Cormier his first professional loss, staying in the hunt would be a certainty.
With the current situations of Mir, dos Santos and Overeem in perspective, this makes two heavyweight scraps all the more important. At UFC 159 in April, former IFL champion Roy Nelson squares off with Cheick Kongo. Both fighters are two of the UFC's most seasoned veterans. With the divisional race heating up, the winner will take a solid step up, while the loser could see any hopes of competing for a UFC title dashed for good.
Nelson and Kongo have each won three of their last four showings. "Big Country" has collected back-to-back first-round knockout victories. Kongo recently rebounded from a drubbing at the hands of Mark Hunt at UFC 144 to defeat prospect Shawn Jordan last June in Calgary.
Their bout at UFC 159 will come with the added pressure of the circumstances at hand, but neither are strangers to competing when the heat is on.
Another fight with title implications will come later this summer. Fabricio Werdum will lock up with fellow Brazilian Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in June at the finale of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.
It is a rematch seven years in the making as the two submission specialists originally squared-off under the now defunct Pride banner back in 2006. "Big Nog" earned the unanimous decision in their first go-around. Both men are at different stages of their respective careers coming into this matchup.
Werdum has won five his last six outings, and this run includes victories over Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and Roy Nelson. If "Cavalo" is able to even the score with "Minotauro" in Fortaleza this summer, he could very well be tapped for the next title shot in the heavyweight division.
While things haven't been as smooth for Nogueira, the 36-year-old is still hanging onto his status in the upper tier of the weight class. The MMA legend has been in a "win one, lose one" pattern since 2008, but a recent victory over Dave Herman at UFC 153 extended his career for the time being. The matchup with Werdum will be a great gauge to determine how much fight Nogueira still has in him. A victory in their rematch would certainly solidify a resurgence in his career.
Prospects Go Down, But Who Comes Back Up?
Once Struve shakes off the lingering pain of a broken jaw from the left hand of Hunt, he will have to deal with the heartbreak of once again having his run to the top of the division turned back. The Dutchman was riding a four-fight win streak before getting blasted in Japan. He'll once again find himself standing on the outside of the division's top 10.
At 25 years old there is still plenty of time for Struve to fight his way back up the ladder. That being said, he's been on the verge of trading his "prospect" label in for "contender" on multiple occasions. Each time Struve appears to be getting closer to fulfilling the potential and expectation that's been attached to his career since coming to the UFC, he falls and goes back to the drawing board.
With his loss to Hunt at UFC on Fuel TV 8, Struve now joins a batch of prospects who are all looking to rebound back into the win column, most of which he is very familiar with.
There are few heavyweights considered to have a brighter future than Hawaiian-born Travis Browne. "Hapa" was in the process of making huge strides up the divisional ladder until a stunning, first-round knockout at the hands of Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva stopped his momentum cold. The bout came in Browne's first main event showing under the UFC banner, and the setback was the first of his professional career.
While the loss to Silva certainly knocked him down a few notches on the ladder, Browne will have a tremendous opportunity to make up ground when he faces veteran Gabriel Gonzaga next month at the TUF 17 Finale in Las Vegas.
"Napao" has won back-to-back fights since returning to the UFC and has faced the very best in the heavyweight division for years. That being said, Gonzaga has a unique stigma attached to him. He defeats those who truly aren't ready to stand in the upper tier of the weight class, and comes up short against those who are proven talents.
The term "gatekeeper" is thrown around a lot in mixed martial arts, but there are few better examples of this label than Gonzaga. It makes it a fairly simple equation for Browne heading into their April bout. A win over the former No. 1 contender means the 30-year-old Greg Jackson-trained fighter is ready to carve out his place among the best heavyweight fighters on the planet. A loss will show there is still much work for Browne to do.
Another fighter looking to bounce back from the first loss of his professional career will be Stipe Miocic. After collecting nine consecutive victories, including three under the UFC banner, the former Cleveland State wrestling standout was bested by Struve in their scrap this past September in London.
Leading up to his main event tilt with Struve at UFC on Fuel TV 5, the Ohio native appeared to be poised for big things in the heavyweight division. But a second-round stoppage defeat at the end of Stuve's power slowed his momentum for the time being. While his next bout is yet to be announced, Miocic will need to bounce back in a big way to keep the expectation level high on his future.
With the weight class becoming increasingly competitive, one loss doesn't seal a fighter's fate nowadays. But back-to-back setbacks in the current race for the top spots in the division could certainly make the climb more difficult in the stages before the road truly gets tough. Miocic is competing with the best heavyweights in the world.
Then again, the rally for Mark Hunt could reach a new level and a title shot could appear. While it seems far-fetched, stranger things have happened in the realm of UFC title shots.
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