Through writing on the strategy of fights and my critical attitude toward hype and gift matchups, I have developed something of a reputation for at least being an honest writer.
I do not like to pretend that all main events are main-event worthy or that all dominating performances show improvement in the winner—you only need to look at how little I wrote about Cain Velasquez vs. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva to see that I don't have time to hype gift fights or waffle about matches which don't interest me.
What I can say with all honesty is that Mark Hunt vs. Junior dos Santos was, in my mind, the best fight in UFC heavyweight history—only matched in technical nuance and excitement at heavyweight by Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's trilolgy of fights in PRIDE FC.
I can already tell that many are getting their angry comments ready, so I shall move right on to the technical and strategic nuances of this war. Rarely does a fight move through so many strategic stanzas. Often, fighters will just hammer away with their first strategy and either win or lose by it.
The fact that this fight culminated with a beautiful wheel kick in response to Hunt's active parrying hand shows just how far each man was going into his bag of tricks to find something which matched his opponent, rather than just throwing their A-game at him, taking a breather and trying again.
Let's have a good look at how the fight progressed.
Hunt's Counter Left Hook
I spoke before the fight about how Hunt's striking strategy has evolved from his K-1 days, where he was a right-hand centric banger, to the point where his left hook is in fact his best weapon.
Hunt makes the most of his reach disadvantage by carrying his right hand open and forward of his chin (this is important for later!) in order to parry jabs over his lead shoulder so that he can step in, crumple the pocket of space between himself and his opponent and throw his punches.
Against men such as Cheick Kongo, Ben Rothwell and Chris Tuchscherer, this worked well when they jabbed, because they aren't very skilled boxers, but equally, they didn't jab that often, so it was almost as if Hunt couldn't utilize his counter game to its full potential. Stefan Struve jabbed a little more often, but was very bad at it and allowed Hunt to tee off on him.
What was exciting about this matchup was that dos Santos jabs both frequently and very competently. He would at the same time be testing Hunt's counter game and giving Hunt the opportunity to work his best techniques.
The first part of the bout was a case of dos Santos lunging it with his rapier-like jabs and body jabs and often being clipped with Hunt's counter left hook. Hunt would parry dos Santos' attack and retaliate before the taller man could get in and out. Dos Santos' quick feet saved him from serious damage, but the smack on Hunt's counters was audible.
Dos Santos' Cross Counter
What dos Santos did to take advantage of Hunt's active counterpunching game was to bait Hunt into reaching across himself with counterpunches. You will remember this from the Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez bout as dos Santos went to the body with straight punch, changed his level and brought his head toward Velasquez's right side, but a good enough distance from his opponent's right hand to encourage jabs.
What Velasquez did was attempt to retaliate with jabs at a time when jabbing served more to open him up and to hurt or counter dos Santos (something which got JDS dropped in their rematch as he tried to jab while running backward).
Where Velasquez jabbed, Hunt was hooking. JDS' moving of his head toward Hunt's right took the sting off the left hook and allowed him to arc his right hand over the top of Hunt's lead shoulder.
Hunt fights with his lead hand low, and he normally uses his feet, his head movement and his lead shoulder to avoid right-handed punches—watch his cracking counter of Cheick Kongo's right hand lead to see that in action—but those are reactions.
It's hard to react when in the middle of counterpunching. Hunt was reacting to dos Santos' lead and not realising that as Cigano's head placement took the power off Hunt's hook, it also placed him in line to hurt Hunt with a mortar-like right hand.
After dos Santos had dropped the iron-jawed Samoan, he found a respite from Hunt's counterpunching game as Hunt was understandably slowed and more cautious. Cigano's right hand found its mark a couple more times in this way, but Hunt was more measured in his counter attempts after this.
Hunt's Cage Rush
Mark Hunt had great success in backing dos Santos up right to the fence and catching him as he attempted to circle along it. You will remember this strategy from the Struve bout—most notably the start of the second round, as he ran Struve to the fence and then hit him with a left hook as the Dutchman circled straight into it.
Hunt used exactly the same strategy against dos Santos and was able to land a good salvo after stopping dos Santos' lateral movement with his left hook.
Dos Santos swung back with his feet close together along the fence in exactly the sort of ill-thought-out exchange which got him dropped by Velasquez. Dos Santos soon recovered his composure, however, and moved more effectively to stay off the fence.
Hunt also uses his right hand well along the fence and landed a good body shot or two to prevent dos Santos from simply circling out in the other direction when they reached the fence.
The Wheel Kick
The way that you can tell this fight was a brilliant match of wits and skills is that dos Santos, despite having success early with one tactic, was forced to dig deep into his bag of tricks to stop this one in the last minutes of the fight.
The wheel kick is something we are seeing more of. But where Vitor Belfort recently knocked a numb, flatfooted and defensively absent Luke Rockhold with it, Belfort could have used any other technique in his arsenal because Rockhold had done nothing but allow each punches and wave Belfort on.
What was wonderful about dos Santos' wheel kick was that it perfectly exploited a hole in an otherwise technically sound and savvy opponent.
I mentioned prior to the bout that carrying the rear hand forward of the jaw is excellent for parrying jabs, but it does leave one vulnerable to long attacks around the side such as leaping left hooks, though those can be dealt with through good reactions because they are far slower than the jab which is being eliminated.
My example was the left hook because, frankly, who could have seen that wheel kick coming? The wheel kick, however, serves exactly the same purpose when used well.
Just watch Badr Hari knock out Stefan Leko with it. Just as dos Santos did, he gets Leko parrying and spins while his lead arm is still in the process of drawing Leko's parry. Leko's rear hand is kept away from his head, and he can't hope to get it back in time to place his full forearm in front of the force of the kick.
Here is dos Santos' rendition: He jabs, and as Hunt reaches to parry, Cigano spins and connects the kick.
A back-and-forth battle of technical and strategic experimentation, and while the fighters were exhausted by the end, neither seemed to have the traditional "heavyweight cardio" where they gas out four minutes into the bout. Dos Santos proved he had the heart and savvy to stop a kickboxing legend, while Hunt proved that he could hang with the No. 2 heavyweight in the world.
Because of the nature of the knockout, this bout may be misremembered as a one-sided beatdown, but that would be a tragedy as either man, if he retrained to specifically counter his opponent's tendencies better, could come out as the winner in a rematch.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.