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Michael Schiavello
Posted: 2002-02-27 18:59:39
Full Length Feature Story: THE HUNT IS ON


By Michael Schiavello

YET ANOTHER clear sky in a crisp Tokyo winter’s morning and Mark Hunt is sitting on his bed.
He’s wearing what he always seems to wear: a loose-fitting t-shirt that says something about coconuts, a pair of board shorts and bare feet. There’s nothing elegant about the way he sits, legs wipe open, leaning back on the bed-head, looking like a Samoan blow-up doll. And his room is a mess, clothes scattered from the doorway to the balcony, bags of snack food and bottles of spring water wedged between the furniture.
Sitting next to an open suitcase is a green box like a modern day treasure chest. On top of the box sits a pair of tattered brown sandals and a couple of reggae CDs. In any other K-1 fighter’s hotel room this green box would have pride of place and be opened for visitors to behold the Holy Grail within. But not in Mark Hunt’s room. In here the box a makeshift side table, not the resting place of the K-1 Champion’s Trophy.
I ask The Champ if I can open the treasure chest. He’s not fussed, and waves for me to “move the shit” off of it. I open the chest with a held breath. The sunlight through the window catches the base of the trophy and makes the hugeness of its solid gold glisten.
“Phoa,” I say, lifting it out of the box with both hands. “It’s enormous… and heavy.”
“Yeah,” The Champ agrees, “I don’t know how I’m going to lug it on the plane.”


Jerome LeBanner is a massive SOB built like the Colossus of Rhodes. His chest is the size of a Mini-Moke and his biceps look like someone has shoved a bowling ball beneath the skin just above the elbow in each arm.
He walks through the lobby of the New Prince Tanakawa Hotel with a typical French air of arrogance. A holier-than-thou demeanour that suggests one thing: mess with him and he’ll beat the living shit out of you.
LeBanner is drawn to fight Hunt in tomorrow’s first round of the K-1 Grand Prix 2001. In fact, Hunt deliberately drew LeBanner, choosing to face the hulking Frenchman over the considerably easier and smaller Dane Nicholas Pettas. It was a decision that shocked the K-1 public and media alike. Who did Hunt think he was? Heck, he was lucky to be in the Grand Prix at all after getting two lives at the K-1 Repechage tourney in Fukuoka in October.
LeBanner grinned with pleasure at the draw. He had defeated Hunt with ease a year ago in Osaka, outpointing the slow Samoan and emerging unblemished from Hunt’s supposedly ferocious punching power. In a K-1 Grand Prix line-up that officials and fans were tipping in LeBanner’s favour, the Frenchman couldn’t have chosen a better opponent to destroy first up.
At the pre-tournament press conference a large contingent of Japanese journalists eagerly await LeBanner’s arrival. Triple K-1 champion Ernesto Hoost, giant Russian Alexey Ignashov and model German Stefan Leko have already given their interviews, but the media bays for LeBanner.
When he finally arrives at the bottom of the staircase, LeBanner and his entourage are swamped. He is shuffled into the conference room, the doors are closed and the predictable battery of questions begins.
There is one question in particular that begs to be asked, and the Japanese manage to ask it at least six times, rephrasing it differently each time.
“How will you go against Mark Hunt?”
A smile as big as a croissant creeps across LeBanner’s face. His beady eyes light up like an eagle anticipating a swoop on its prey.
“I beat Mark once before, I will beat him again.”
The Japanese media go into a feverish spin. Twenty minutes earlier they fired questions at Hunt regarding LeBanner’s incredible power and asked Hunt if LeBanner hits hard.
Hunt responded: “Jerome can hit, yes, but I have been hit harder.”
“By who?” quizzed the journalists.
“I have been hit by a truck and that didn’t knock me out,” Hunt responded cheekily. “I don’t think Jerome can hit harder than a truck.”


It’s one o’clock on Saturday December 8. Mark Hunt and his five-man entourage squeeze into a stretch limousine bound for the Tokyo Dome.
Hunt surrounds himself with an unorthodox blend of people. His trainer, Hape Ngaronoa, is as laid back as Hunt himself. Ngaronoa’s not regarded as one of the world’s finest technical trainers like Hoost’s trainer Johan Vos or Aerts’ former trainer Thom Harinck, but he has his own way of doing things. He knows that you can’t train Mark Hunt to be a technician. That Hunt’s low centre of gravity, hard head, stubborn disposition and 124 kilograms means that he will only ever be a slugger. But dammit if Ngaronoa hasn’t made Hunt one of the K-1’s best sluggers over the past year.
Managing Hunt’s commercial side is Dixon McIver, the only one in the entourage not dressed in a tracksuit. As he shuffles into the limousine McIver looks every inch the part of the slick manager. His creaseless suit matches his creaseless demeanour, and the afternoon sun glistens off his ruddy cheeks. A pair of dark sunglasses tries to hide McIver’s excitement. He knows that if Hunt can perform at the Dome today, he will have two of the world’s hottest heavyweight properties under his management, as he also pulls the strings on Ray Sefo’s decorated career.
The three remaining members of Hunt’s entourage provide a much needed distraction from the hoopla of the K-1. There’s childhood friend Tooks – a dead-ringer for John Leguizimo – who bunks in with Hunt by way of a mattress thrown on the floor of Hunt’s hotel room. There’s Dave, soft-spoken, down-to-earth and oblivious to any bullshit. And then there is Feri, the friend who was handed the responsibility of lugging the Fukuoka Repecharge Tournament trophy home for Hunt last time.


It’s now 4.30 on Saturday afternoon. The Tokyo Dome, built like a giant UFO landed in the centre of the city, is almost full to its 70,000 capacity.
Dixon McIver emerges from backstage where Ngaronoa is preparing Hunt without fanfare.
Beads of sweat trickle down McIver’s forehead. He’s not relaxed.
“Mark’s looking a little nervous,” he says, surveying the increasing crowd. His eyes stop on a portrait of Hunt, the size of a tennis court and framed with lights, hanging high from the wall on the far side of the Dome.
“He freaked a little when we arrived, just nerves, you know. It’s to be expected. But he’ll be okay once he steps in the ring. Tonight is his night to be great.”

It’s about 6.00pm now. The world’s premier ring announcer, Michael Buffer, steps into centre ring and the crowd go nuts. Buffer is loved in Japan. Heck, he even has his own K-1 trading card.
Buffer looks resplendent in his tuxedo, silver hair alight under the Dome’s hundreds of moving lights.
He lifts the microphone to his mouth, fills his powerful lungs with air, and lets rip with the introductions.
“Mark, the doctorrrrrrrrrrrrrr Huuuuuuuuuuunt!”
Hunt waddles down the carpeted aisle to centre ring. There is frenzied applause from sections of the crowd who are anticipating one of the K-1’s all-time greatest slugfests.
“Jeroooooooooooome LeBaaaaaaannnneeerrr!”
LeBanner thuds his way to the ring with a titan’s confident strides as the music to Conan The Barbarian shakes the Dome.
The crowd erupts and LeBanner lifts his head, soaking up the goodwill that is being showered upon him.
Hunt looks at him momentarily, watching the European monolith who cuts air with his stare, then turns his back to LeBanner and concentrates on Ngaronoa.


It’s about 6.15pm now. The fight is over.
LeBanner is sprawled on the canvas, eyes rolling about in his head, legs shaking.
Hunt’s arms are being lifted above his head.
The roar of the crowd rises to a hysterical pitch. It is perhaps the loudest cheer in K-1 history for the most devastating knockout the K-1 has ever seen.
With fifteen unanswered punches to the Frenchman’s chin, cheeks, nose, temple and jaw, Mark Hunt sent LeBanner astral traveling and sealed himself a place in the semi finals.


It’s somewhere between late night and early morning. Mark Hunt is standing outside a nightclub in Auckland. He’s a short, overweight Samoan whose not looking for trouble, though trouble finds him.
Before he knows it, he’s in a scrap, slugging it out on the street while the nightclub’s bouncers look on.
The fight doesn’t last long.
Hunt knocks his adversary out cold.
One of the bouncers on the door is impressed by the young man’s knockout punch. So impressed in fact that he asks him if he has ever fought in the ring before.
“Nup,” comes Hunt’s reply.
“Well, would you like to?” the bouncer asks.
Hunt shrugs. “Yeah, why not.”
A couple of weeks later Hunt is in the ring and his opponent is on the canvas, having been knocked out in the second round.
This is fun, Hunt thinks, though he has never thrown a punch or a kick in competition before in his life. Maybe I can train to do this more often and make some pocket money.
A few years later Hunt is still overweight, he’s still a slugger, but now he uses his right hand to knock out the world’s best heavyweight fighters. He’s no longer a champion of the streets but is now the undisputed K-1 heavyweight champion of the world.
Not long ago he was fighting for a few bucks that he’d spend on food and grog. On December 8 he took home a cheques for US$400,000 and lives a life more comfortable.

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