As dust kicks up from the searing hot tarmac, gamblers and drinkers soak in the ‘City of Second Chances’. It’s a haven of regret and gorging vices, but often Las Vegas is dismissed as ‘home’. Raising children, going to school or working a regular job in Vegas all seemed a far cry from loosely throwing casino chips or recklessly emerging espoused from an Elvis-themed establishment.
Boxing and Nevada have always been romantically linked. Those big nights at Caesars Palace or the MGM had thrown up some of the sport’s most iconic moments, forever locked in the memory. It seemed odd then, that former US Olympian and glistening heavyweight Michael Hunter (16-1, 11KOs), would find himself on British soil battling a man from the Congo, who was based in Airdrie, Scotland.
After suffering his sole defeat when challenging undisputed cruiserweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk, the man dubbed ‘The Bounty Hunter’ had decided to return to his comfort zone. His campaign at heavyweight had resulted in two impressive stoppage victories last year, setting him up for a fascinating season in boxing’s glamour division.
As we spoke, exclusively for Boxing Social, he detailed early life in Sin City.
“I’m from Vegas. East Las Vegas is my home, I did all my schooling out there, my friends and family are all in Las Vegas. As I started to grow up, I started to see that Vegas was a different place to grow up in… It’s a very small place. You can drive all around Vegas in like, forty-five minutes, but it brings millions and millions of people, day in and day out. It’s a different kind of lifestyle, I’d say.
“The good thing was, I came from boxing. My father was a boxer and I was there because of boxing. My mum’s side, her dad was a matchmaker, manager and adviser to a lot of the heavyweights; Joe Frazier, Razor Ruddock. Boxing was a part of my family for a long time and that’s exactly the reason I was in Vegas. There’s ups and downs, you know? It’s like a small fish in a giant pond, but Vegas is my home.”
Michael was the son of former cruiserweight and heavyweight face, also named Mike Hunter. Boxing was in his blood. Although his father passed away thirteen years ago, shot by undercover police officers on a hotel rooftop, the younger fighter credited his mentor for introducing him to the sport. Sadly, he never got to see his son fight, something that stays with Michael to this day.
Mike Sr had conquered former heavyweight champions, Oliver McCall and Pinklon Thomas during a chequered career, never quite capturing a recognised version of the world title himself. He was known for his defensive ability, only suffering one stoppage defeat throughout his thirty-six fights. It was this durability that had led the Hunters to Vegas, when the biggest name in sport came calling.
“My dad was Mike Tyson’s sparring partner for like four or five years straight, so I was around at that time. Fortunately I got to see my dad box and spar with the best of these guys and as we’re growing up, all these guys know who I am and find out my name. They always gave me a lot of respect and they had plenty of stories about sparring dad, how crazy he was and how good he was for the sport. [Godfather star] James Caan was his manager, too.”
He continued, “I’d have to give him a lot of the credit. I was such a daddy’s boy. He actually kept me away from boxing but I just wanted to be like him and to make him proud of me. Boxing was something I was naturally good at. I didn’t really like team sports, because I didn’t like to blame anybody or point fingers or stuff like that. When you’re in the fight, it’s you against yourself and the opponent that’s put in front of you. I enjoy that. It helps me with a lot of stuff, as far as getting what you want, knowing that you have to work for it and nothing is given to you. It lets you see those things and it also helps you outside of the ring. Learning how to move around in the world.”
Emerging from the London 2012 Olympics, Hunter had moved himself around the globe effectively enough. He’d travelled to Monte Carlo for his last contest, beating Alexander Ustinov and before that had truly announced himself on the heavyweight scene after bludgeoning the far bigger, Martin Bakole, a key sparring partner of heavyweight kingpin, Anthony Joshua. He’d been drafted in to face Congo’s Bakole in London on a Cyclone Promotions show and had completely derailed the home fighter’s progress.
Michael put on a show that evening in York Hall, catching the eye of promoters and turning the heads of heavyweight matchmakers – potentially the opposite direction. His career before turning over had been prosperous as he eased himself into the US amateur set-up whilst just a ‘chubby kid’ starting to lose weight. The contest with Bakole was a showcase outing, but even the division’s biggest names had fallen victim to his schooling.
“I knew that my movement was gonna be a problem with him [Bakole], and my speed”, Michael revealed when asked about his confidence moving into the bout. “Those were my two things, basically. I used those to my advantage. He was willing to try different things and he took some chances trying them, so that was a big thing for me in that fight. I think that started it off [my time as a heavyweight prospect], as far as professional fighting.”
“A lot of these guys; Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury, I fought these guys in the amateurs. They all know me as a heavyweight. I dunno about these guy saying I’m a cruiserweight. These guys, Tyson Fury, Charles Martin, Deontay Wilder, Dominic Breazeale… I can go on and on, they know me as a fully-fledged heavyweight. Martin Bakole didn’t know me a heavyweight. He saw me as a small cruiserweight. I’m very comfortable fighting big guys and that was another surprise tactic that went in my favour during the Bakole fight.
“I enjoy it [being written off]. I’m just a small guy beating up a big guy. As a heavyweight, I’ve never lost to anybody in the United States. Overseas, I haven’t lost many either. Nobody that is in America can tell you they had a win over me. Tyson Fury can, as an amateur, but Tyson didn’t really win that fight and he knows it! There’s nobody out there right now hat has beaten me who has a win over me or would have the edge over me [as a heavyweight]. I look at these guys, Wilder or Fury, these guys wouldn’t be able to play these silly games when they look me in the eye. They see me. We know each other. It’s gonna be hard for them to tell me anything or to get anything over on me.”
As we spoke, he revealed he’d been to watch Kubrat Pulev fighting Bogdan Dinu in one of the year’s less exhilarating pairings. The Bulgarian, IBF mandatory challenger was another name on the radar of the Bounty Hunter, desperate to stretch himself at the highest level. It seemed unlikely that Top Rank/ESPN would risk a fight with Hunter whilst Pulev held the mandatory position, but he remained hopeful.
As talented as Michael was, he was in the hands of boxing politics with only a small term remaining on his Matchroom contract. Although he hoped to renew his deal or sign with one of the bigger, competitor platforms, he revealed he would ‘have to take fights with anybody until I get what I deserve’. He doesn’t have a head trainer, instead working between various coaches and longtime friends. His easy going nature was evident as we strolled freely through our subject matter, but I worried that Hunter could fall foul to the darker side of the sport, left on the sidelines and dragged into the ring at the behest of the promoters.
“You know what this game is like, I don’t have anyone backing me other than myself. I never really know where I’m gonna be at. I just try and take whatever fight is available and whatever they try to give me, I’ll accept if it makes sense. It’s very hard for me to tell the future, cos I’m in such a rebel position, I guess you’d say. Any of those top names, I would fight. I don’t think I’m gonna get the Povetkin fight. I was supposed to fight Alexander Povetkin at heavyweight, I was praying for that fight but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen. It’s nothing to do with me. I hope to fight any of the real big names, real soon and then I can burst onto the scene. Then I can get my respect back.
He followed up, “More of the business aspect [of boxing is hard]. The worst thing you can do to a fighter is keep him inactive. I’ve been professional for almost seven years now, I got sixteen fights or seventeen fights. That’s almost two fights per year, that’s not too much. That’s the most difficult thing, actually trying to get the fights and get people to see that you’re worthy. When we were in the amateurs, you got in the tournament and you fought the best. You didn’t know who you were gonna fight or when, I like it that way. You learn on the job. This is all business and there are so much politics involved, you’ll never get to see the best fights when you’re supposed to. It’s so much business and political stuff. They make it very hard for fighters to make a living out here.”
With the Alexander Povetkin fight drifting out of his rearview, it was all Hunter could do to remain focused. His promoter, Eddie Hearn, tweeted him on February 23rd stating, ‘Fight sorted this week’ – yet still, we wait. Those early morning runs and sessions in the gym drain the muscles in their fight for relevance. Michael finds himself an awkward member of the ‘Who needs them?’ club, presenting a real danger for fringe contenders such as Dillian Whyte. He would continue, undeterred, as his father had throughout his own career.
One face that was present as he sauntered through London, was that of battle-worn former heavyweight world champion, Hasim Rahman. The man who shocked the globe when knocking out Lennox Lewis was now an advisor to Hunter, positioning him for his own assault on the title as an underdog. Their careers seemingly mirrored one another, with Rahman doing things the hard way in a division of commercially more appealing fighters. The pair had been thrown together whilst Hunter was an amateur, striking up a bond which would extend itself to the former champion’s sons.
“Right before my dad passed away, when I had started fighting, I was boxing as an amateur and his [Hasim Rahman’s] sons were also boxing as amateurs. I have a little brother. Me, his sons and my brother, we grew up close. We were training as amateurs together and formed a decent bond growing up. I was a little more advanced, as far as boxing and stuff, but I got to show little Rahman Jr [boxing] and take him under my wing. He [Hasim] took a liking to me because I kinda looked out for his sons, like a big brother. I was just there for em’.
“As far as business, he’s been around. I’ve been to his house, he’s been to my house, he knows all of my family and stuff like that, so there’s a lot of love from the Rahmans. I appreciate it all. I used to spar him before I went to the Olympics and before his sons were boxing. He’s definitely a character! We’re serious about things and he’s very intellectual about boxing. He has had a lot of experience in the business.”
Marching on towards whatever awaits him this year, Michael Hunter was prepared to get his hands dirty. He controlled fear as the son of a warrior who chose to spend his time fighting Mike Tyson, it just wasn’t in his blood. His gentle nature had led to admiration from British fans over the last twelve months, but watching him pound the defenceless giant, Martin Bakole, silenced those who may have thought he was too nice for the hurt business.
Calm in the face of pressure, but determined to get the job done at all costs.
“If I wasn’t a boxer, I’d be a spiritualist. I’m very big into spirituality, doing yoga and meditating. I’m trying to teach my friends and family the same stuff, too. You’re the only person that’s ever asked me that question, so you’re the only person to get that answer!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209