UFC star Mark Hunt's long road to redemption
Mark Hunt is laughing. It comes on fast, and almost frightening to the listener.
Long, deep breathless chuckles, erupting from a deep, but very true, place.
Right at this moment, Hunt is not a 39-year-old veteran of a life of hard knocks; he is a child.
A child revelling in the true delight in his achievements; in simple recognition of what he has just done, and, perhaps, what has passed in the years preceding.
"It was just … a dogfight," Hunt tells says down the phone line from Sydney. "Just a down right dirty dogfight." To an outsider, Hunt's assessment of last weekend's brutal UFC heavyweight fight against Antonio ‘Big Foot' Silva in Brisbane seems almost barbaric.
The five-round draw at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, already being described as one of the best in UFC heavyweight history, had as much gore as a Cormac McCarthy novel - and has caused mixed martial arts critics to throw typical fuel on the sport's fire.
It's animalistic, they say. There's no skill or art to it, they say. How is that even a sport?
Does the laughter suggest Hunt takes complete delight in that brutality? No way.
Hunt is simply taking pride in his work, in the details that make up the scrap - and the bigger picture; his life as a fighter.
A life that has taken an astonishing upward arc over the previous two years, after occupying dark realms before it.
THE FIGHT against Silva, a one-time world heavyweight contender, was a bloody river, born of two sources. One in South Auckland; the other in Brazil.
For five rounds, Hunt and Silva battered each other like two Roman gladiators. Claret flowed, and bones broke. With each of the 184 significant strikes - the most in UFC history - the crowd roared in approval.
Hunt and Silva became poets in true brutality; their lyrics savage hooks, their verses stinging combinations of elbows and jabs.
Like that river flowing, there were momentum shifts. Oxbows and rapids and cool deep pools of sheer human exhaustion.
At the end of the third round, Hunt looked like the victor. At the end of the fourth, the giant Brazilian had the Kiwi on the ropes. At the end of the fifth, nothing remained in either gas tank, but fumes, and the hope that it would be their arm raised by the referee in the moments after the bell.
Neither arm was - but the majority draw was a totally fitting result.
UFC president Dana White, arguably the most powerful man in world MMA, watched the fight from a ballroom in San Diego - and could hardly contain himself.
"I was literally jumping around the room, like a maniac," White told American sports website SB Nation last week. "The sickest heavyweight fight I have ever seen. For four days after that, every morning when I opened my eyes to wake, the first thing I thought of was Mark Hunt and Big Foot Silva.
"When you're a fight fan, like I am, you'll see fights and moments and go ‘oh my God.' "But if you're a true fight fan, that is one of those fights where you are lucky if you are able to see three of those sort of fights in your life time.
"That was one of those fights when you talk about not just fighting, but sports. Talk about that dogged determination and heart, the will to win and toughness. Just about everything you can think about that a sport, or fighting, is about; that fight right there sums it all up." White's words are heavy in typical American exaggeration, but the truth is, when your boss is talking about you in such gushing terms, your work prospects are definitely on the up-and-up.
"It was a tough fight," Hunt, who broke bones in both hands and will serve a six-month medicial suspension, said.
"I wasn't expecting it to go that long. Big Foot is number four in the world. Most of the shots both of us threw were heavy, loaded, shots. That takes a lot of energy.
"The opportunity was there for me - but it is what it is.
"The way it ended up, both of us get to go home to our families which is the most important thing." Hunt's fight has gone far longer than those five rounds in Brisbane.
It extends back to a tough upbringing in South Auckland, teenage years spent scrapping outside bars on K Rd, and MMA talents that looked wasted after he reached the giddying heights of K-1 world champion in Japan in 2001.
His story is well-known. There were bad people in his life back then, and bad decisions were made.
The years up until his entry into UFC in 2011 were mostly tough ones. He still fought, but where he was eventually heading wasn't clear.
Since his re-birth in MMA's top organistion, Hunt's story, which looked like a cautionary tale for aspiring combat sport athletes, started heading in the right direction again.
His change in training approach over the last year has helped. Hunt, who now has a 4-1-1 UFC record, has trained in Auckland ahead of his last two UFC fights. He has received US$50,000 Fight of the Night bonuses for each, and credits his Kiwi team for how they have helped change his approach to things.
"Everything I can contribute to that camp," he said. "We did a lot of hard work and the guys I worked with are the best.
"Alex Flynn, Steve Oliver and all the guys I had around me. Just being part of a team like that and coming over here and doing what I did - it just makes it all feel that much better. We can show the world what we can do - what hard-working Kiwis can do. "Until the end of my career, I'm going to do the rest of my camps in New Zealand." His passion for the sport is evident in his approach to Sky TV last month and successful request that his fight was on free view for subscribers to ensure his fans got to see it.
DESPITE THE popularity of the fight against Silva, Hunt has ruled out a re-match.
Nothing the two do in the octagon again will come as close, he reasons, so why try?
Hunt and White have been exchanging messages on Twitter over the last week, with the UFC supremo relaying his awe of the Kiwi's abilities.
"It's like I'm a 12-year-old schoolgirl and he's Justin Bieber," White said.
A match against American heavyweight Roy ‘Big Country' Nelson looms as a fight that would send fans clamouring for their pay-per-views, but Hunt is relaxed about the next step forward.
At the end of the month, he'll head back to Japan to film a game show where he'll compete against "monsterous men" in arm wrestling competitions. The bills have gotta get paid, after all.
"There's no rest for the wicked," Hunt said.
He'll be back in New Zealand in February to continue his fight journey; one that Hunt is carrying no baggage in these days.
"I'm feeling really good," he said. It's the last shot at this sort of thing for me, and I want to finish fighting the top guys in the UFC.
"At the end of the day, man, as a fighter I go in there and batter it out with the best of them. I've been doing it for such a long time.
"I'm glad the fans are starting to appreciate everything, and people are showing me a bit of love." They say the brighter the star, the darker the shadow. But it seems like Hunt has emerged from his.
Watch that in the passion he brings to the octagon, and see that in the passion he has for his sport.
Hear that in his laughter. Know that the Mark Hunt story isn't finished yet - and that the final round is going be incredibly entertaining.