Mark Hunt fought his way from the streets of South Auckland to the top of the world stage in a career spanning almost 20 years. Don Rowe speaks to co-author Ben Mckelvey about writing a book with the Super Samoan.
Are fighters born or made? In Mark Hunt’s case the answer appears to be both. Perhaps the hardest puncher to ever compete in martial arts, Hunt believes he was blessed by God with the power to send any man to sleep. Combined with an inhuman pain tolerance and a total lack of fear, this power has carried Hunt to somewhere near the top of two of the toughest sports on earth, raking in millions of dollars in prize money over 15 years of competition.
But his autobiography Born to Fight, written with journalist Ben Mckelvey, reveals the horrific conditions which pressure-blasted pain and fear from his body as a child, leaving a short-fused, fearless pariah with a grudge, traits that would dog his career from bar fights on K’ Rd to the Saitama Super Arena and back.
Beaten daily by his father Charles, a sexual criminal who would wash himself with Dettol after raping Hunt’s sister, Mark came to know nothing but hunger or fear for the early part of his childhood. Hunt recalls crying with his siblings when they smelt KFC on their parents, who had been eating outside in the car – it meant there would be no dinner for the kids.
It’s a stark and disturbing look at an isolated Polynesian household at the mercy of a sadistic patriarch in ’90s South Auckland. It stops short of being gratuitous however, providing the necessary backdrop and context for the rest of Hunt’s life. Born to Fight is, at it’s heart, a tale of redemption – albeit a violent, chaotic, occasionally P-fuelled one.
Hunt discovered his talent for fighting in a primary school altercation. “Throwing that little smart-ass across the room felt good,” he writes. “This was probably the first time in my life I’d felt empowered.” Before long he would be fighting every week across South Auckland as the enforcer of his crew, regularly leaving grown men unconscious in pools of their own blood.
There were street fights, gang fights, bar fights and muggings. Hunt would twice end up in prison, stints that would, down the track, make getting into the US as a professional fighter very difficult. Compared to what came before and after, prison seemed like a minor footnote in Born to Fight, indicative of its significance in Hunt’s life.
Like anyone who comes into wealth overnight, Hunt had his share of financial troubles. The familiar spectre of dodgy management played a part, but more detrimental perhaps was Hunt’s addiction to gambling. He describes putting hundreds of thousands of dollars through the pokies, drinking beer and blowing cash late into the night, even on the eve of competition. The tone is unapologetic.
With the help of Mckelvey, Hunt neither looks for nor expects sympathy in Born to Fight. There are no excuses made, no grand conclusions drawn and no pontifications on the ‘state of things’. All Hunt asks of the reader is that they get in touch with anyone, even himself, if they need help.
The book starts with some seriously heavy material – the sexual abuse of Mark’s sister, the constant beatings from his dad. That can’t have been an easy process.
At the end of the day, it was Mark’s project, he had the final say over everything, and he would have been well within his rights to turn around and say ‘Hang on, you need to change that first chapter in the book.’ He really does believe in sharing it though, and helping other people. He felt at the time like it was never going to end. He felt it was his normal experience and this was what life was all about. But his life turned around, and he knows other people’s lives can turn around. It was a very interesting experience.
How important to the rest of the project was working on this first section with Mark?
After I sat down and we read the first chapter and we figured out how it was gonna be, everything was easier, because that’s really the key to understanding what Mark’s life was all about; the things that happened to him as a child. That’s why he’s such a fantastic fighter, but it’s also why he made a lot of regrettable decisions in life, deciding that he thought maybe he was gonna sell crystal meth for a living and all that sort of stuff. That all just feeds back to what it was like in his childhood, but it also makes him the admirable character that I think he is. The fact that he’s managed to break that cycle, and the fact that he’s a good bloke and a good family guy is really impressive.
You weren’t pulling any punches.
Well it’s funny you say that, because afterwards Mark was shocked, but he also said that that’s what it was like. He said ‘What about another chapter, just me as a child and the experience of it?’ And I kind of thought no, I think we’ve got it. We could have done two, three, four chapters of just horrible instances – how Mark was treated, how his sister was treated and how his brothers were treated, but I sort of felt we’d done it.
How did his involvement change during the duration of the project?
I think he just trusted me more, and trusted the process more. Like I said, he’s somebody who left school pretty early, he’s not a big reader. I’m pretty sure the two instances of him reading a book front cover to back cover were reading this book. I don’t know what he thought it was going to be, but as I gave him more chapters, and as we spent more time together, he was more enamored with the outcome, and more involved and engaged in what we were going to be doing. And that’s why it’s all out there – all the Japan stuff, all the drug stuff – because he’s a believer in the truth. Despite the fact that he’s not a big reader, he and I both believe in transparency. He thinks that it had helped him and helped Victoria in her lives.
I read your piece on Fightland where you described crying in your car after an interview with Victoria. As someone who’s reported from several war zones, why did this in particular affect you so strongly?
It was the immediacy and the intimacy of it. A lot of the reporting that I’ve done, you might talk to someone for 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s emblematic of something else that’s happening. But I had spent a lot of time thinking about that house and spent a lot of time thinking about that family, and I think it was just being face to face with Victoria. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone like that before, you know? I was touched by the bravery of her, and Mark as well, because they have managed to turn their lives around. There were two siblings that didn’t fare so well, but Victoria was welcoming, she was happy for me to relate her story as well, which was an awful one. I also kind of felt the pressure of getting it right. I wanted to make sure that her and Mark’s story was told truthfully, and she actually sent me a message a couple of days ago – she’d just finished the book – and she said that she was honored and that made me feel fantastic, that she and Mark felt that it was correct and the book had got into what it was like, and what they were like.
Victoria is the background to this story. Her presence seems to fill the whole thing. Did you anticipate that?
I certainly didn’t anticipate it. I didn’t know who she was. But her involvement is interesting because it’s a reflection of how Mark feels, but he doesn’t spend any time with her. They barely know each other. They care for each other, but they just don’t have that sort of familial feeling because they never had it as children. I think a lot of his compassion comes from her, because he really feels for what life was like for her, and I also think that unconsciously – and this isn’t something he’s necessarily articulated to me – the thing that damaged him and his brothers’ lives was the fact that they couldn’t help her. They couldn’t even really conceive to help her, because they didn’t have a normal morality. By the time they’d developed their own morality, it was too late, and she’d already gone through all the abuse, and I think that’s part of why things were so bad for John and Steve. They were a little bit older at the time, and they couldn’t help, and they never did help except for once which is mentioned in the book.
It seems Mark has a lot more compassion for her than for his own struggle. It’s a lot easier to throw off the physical burden than the mental.
He doesn’t care what happens to him.
He was certainly short fused, dropping people outside night clubs and that sort of thing, jeopardizing his entire career fairly regularly. What put a stop to all that?
Well, the reason you and I don’t go and drop people is because A) we’re scared of getting hit back, B) we understand there’s a legal sanction and C) we’ll be hurting someone else. But none of those three things really applied to Mark for much of his life. I don’t think he understood early on that he was hurting people, because he had been hurt so much, and I think we established in the book that he doesn’t really feel pain like other people. Pain doesn’t mean anything to him. I was with Mark in May, when he fought Stipe Miocic, and obviously in that fight he was beaten very badly. We had lunch a couple days afterwards, and he’s not a dramatic bloke, but he did say after that fight “I go into the ring and I’m ready to go out on my shield.” And that’s him. He would, one hundred percent, do that. He’s a unique bloke. And that’s why the book’s so interesting. He’s so far from anyone I’ve ever met. He’s managed to build his own morality, his own understanding of what the world is, but the thing that’s so impressive is that it’s a good morality, despite the fact it came from such terrible circumstances.
I think that pervades the book. He’s talking about knocking people out, really putting the hurt on them, but there’s an underlying sense of goodness about him.
Empathy came late. But when it came, he understood and recognised it.
There were some crazy stories of yakuza and tables covered in money and death threats and that sort of thing, how much digging did that require?
Most of it is public record, but everything I’d find, I’d go to Mark with and say ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that!’ It wasn’t that he didn’t want to divulge it, he just didn’t think it was that interesting. I’d come up with something about cash payments, how Fedor got paid with bags of money, stuff like that, and Mark would be like ‘Yep’ and I would say ‘You have to tell me stuff like that!’ The other thing he didn’t think was strange was that, a lot of the Samoan guys he fought in street fights in South Auckland, he’d end up fighting them in the K1. I’d say ‘Don’t you think it’s strange that all of these world class Samoan fighters came out of the same neighborhood?’ and he’d say ‘Na, never really thought about it.’ New Zealand is tiny, Auckland is small, South Auckland is tiny, just the Samoan guys in South Auckland is even smaller, and the instance of them all being world class fighters is just crazy.
Do you think his relationship with media will have changed after this book?
Na, I don’t think so. We’re going to be doing press in the lead-up to his next fight, and I think a lot of people will ask him about the book. I think he’s going to just tell them, ‘read the book.’ But the first time I interviewed him, I got a good vibe. Especially when we started, I expected that it was going to be difficult. I expected that there were gonna be things that were gonna be out of bounds, we were gonna have to try to weedle things out, I thought there might be times where he’d completely shut down with the process, but as soon as we got over that big hurdle together, he was so on board. He was so keen. When we were in New Zealand, he’d be calling me up all the time, sending me texts saying ‘ come to this place.’ we probably met up two or three times a day. I’m very proud of the book, and I don’t think it would have been what it is without Mark’s incredible efforts. It’s not something that’s easy for him, to sit down and talk about himself. He’s not that sort of bloke. He was doing an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald recently, talking about his prayer group which Jarryd Hayne is in, and he described him as ‘a bloke living in America’ or something like that. He doesn’t sell his story.
Maybe that has something to do with his lack of recognition in the media. He never got his dues for the K1.
I knew it was one of the great unknown New Zealand and Australian sporting stories. It’s one of those things that people just don’t know. They don’t know that he came out of nowhere and just tore his way through that tournament, and they don’t understand how big it was in Japan at the time. That ‘big in Japan’ thing is overblown, but with Mark, he did McDonald’s ads, they were pestering him to do a line of coffee. He won that K1 in front of 80,000 people, with 25 million more watching on TV, and then he came back to Australia and New Zealand, and no one gave a shit. No one knew.
How has that changed during his current UFC run?
He was approached a lot when we were in New Zealand. And it was very often Pacific Islanders, dads with their kids and stuff like that. And I think he liked that. He’s getting to that age now, he’s a bit of a statesman, he’s had a journey and he’s someone you can look up to. I don’t think he saw himself in that mold for such a long time.
I think that’s the real power of the book. I came out of it feeling a lot more sympathetic and compassionate towards Mark, really hoping for a happy ending.
A happy ending means different things to Mark. If you ask him what a happy ending is, he’ll say ‘Aw, me winning the UFC title.’ But I know that’s not his only happy ending. Him ending up 210 kilos smiling with his family and stuff, that’s not the worst ending in the world for him. He’s a happy bloke. The happy ending might almost be here.