Roy Nelson was facing the canvas when the punch landed. So he got to see where he was about to land.
Buy boy, what an early preview it was. When Mark Hunt’s short uppercut found a home in the enchanted forest of Nelson’s big beard, Roy’s big belly and the rest of his fleshy torso began the slowest of slow descents toward eternity. Nelson hovered lifelessly there in Saitama Super Arena like a hot air balloon lolling above the Tokyo skyline. Hovered. Hovered. Then crashed.
Hunt had just done what no one ever managed to do in the UFC. He had knocked out Nelson, the end coming at 3:00 of the second round to end Saturday’s UFC Fight Night before most folks back home had even seen Saturday’s daylight.
Fabricio Werdum, who in November will challenge Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight championship, could not knock out Roy Nelson. Junior dos Santos, who once wore the UFC’s big-boy belt after a KO of Velasquez, battered Nelson all over the cage but could not knock him out. Daniel Cormier, who in January will try to take the light heavyweight strap away from Jon Jones, couldn’t KO Nelson when they met during his heavyweight days.
Former champion Frank Mir. Undefeated Top 5 contender Stipe Miocic. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the onetime Pride and K-1 knockout artist. None of them, or any of Nelson’s 11 UFC opponents, could knock out Roy. He’d been put to sleep only once in his 29 previous professional bout.
But Hunt packs a punch and knows how to throw it. He’d been looking for the uppercut the whole fight, every time Nelson ducked his head following a jab. Hunt might look like just a big lug, but he has the dangerous knowledge of a high-level striker.
During his 30-13 run as a kickboxer, Hunt was in with the crème de la crème. MMA has been not as kind to him, though, with smart opponents understanding that rather than swimming with this New Zealand-bred shark, they’d be wiser to take the fight to the mat, akin to taking a fish out of water. As a result, “The Supar Samoan” was 6-7 when, at age 35, his contract was acquired by the UFC in 2010 as part of the purchase of the Pride Fighting Championship. When he dropped his debut with the behemoth promotion, Hunt’s losing streak hit six in a row. He was a nowhere man.
That has changed. The eye-opening knockout of Nelson was Hunt’s fifth win in his last seven fights, with his other outings being a loss to the second-best heavyweight on the planet, Dos Santos, and a draw with “Bigfoot” Silva in a bout that was among the most exhilarating ever in the division. Mark Hunt is 40 years old now, his record is a modest 10-8-1, and he’s a contender for the UFC belt.
It was a strange day all around for the UFC. Just over an hour after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went before the press with his mea culpa for the league’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the other scandalous family dramas that have followed, the UFC released Thiago Silva. The promotion had taken much heat for its ill-advised decision two weeks earlier to bring back the fighter a day after the domestic violence case against him was dropped. Now the UFC, which had released Silva following his February arrest, was reversing course again. But at least getting it right.
At around the same time, the promotion announced that it was suspending fellow light heavyweight Anthony Johnson for an indefinite period after the mother of his children reportedly took out a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence and threats. More righteousness by the UFC.
Then, within minutes, a video surfaced on YouTube in which Wanderlei Silva announced his retirement from fighting with an angry 13-minute rant that essentially blamed the UFC for robbing him of his will to compete. Never mind that the 38-year-old was facing a Nevada Athletic Commission hearing this coming week to answer for running away from a random drug test back in May, weeks before a scheduled bout. There surely are valid fighter concerns over the UFC’s dealings with its personnel, but Silva does not have the credibility to give them voice.
Against that backdrop, the UFC conducted a fight card on the other side of the world. It was televised only on the promotion’s subscription-based streaming service, UFC Fight Pass. The main card began at what in America was the middle of the night.
And out of the darkness emerged Mark Hunt, who plods fearlessly forward in his fights and will continue to do so in the heavyweight title chase. He knows not where that leads. We know not where that leads, either. But the man will keep on going, and we will keep on watching.