Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

UFC: Kiwis set to headline UFC return

Robert Whittaker (left) fought in the first UFC promotion in New Zealand and may well feature in the second. Photo / Dean Purcell
Robert Whittaker (left) fought in the first UFC promotion in New Zealand and may well feature in the second. Photo / Dean Purcell

The UFC is returning to Auckland on June 11 for an event which could be headlined by Kiwis Mark Hunt or Robert Whittaker.

It is news which will delight the growing number of mixed martial arts fans in this part of the world, and UFC organisers are confident of another full house at Vector Arena following the successful 2014 event there.

"The first event was a great night for us," Joe Carr, UFC's vice-president and head of international and content, told the Herald on Sunday. "It sold out - attendance over 8000, a full house - the response was massive there from the fans.

And to be honest, we've seen a meaningful pick-up in our business from New Zealand. Our market share from a global pay per view perspective has grown.

"Our commercial pay per view - which is pubs and clubs - has grown ... we've seen growth of interest in the sport and it obviously helps that over the last few years, we've had some meaningful Kiwi talent in Rob Whittaker and Mark Hunt."

Sydney-based heavyweight Hunt, who fights Alistair Overeem today in UFC 209 in Las Vegas, has expressed his enthusiasm about fighting again in the country of his birth, but much will depend on his return to the cage against UK-born Dutchman Overeem.

A win will give Hunt's career a big boost following his disappointment at losing to American Brock Lesnar and Lesnar's subsequent drugs test failure last June. Hunt hasn't fought since and complained of being "ostracised" by the UFC despite not doing anything wrong.

Hunt, 42, is back in the fold now, though, and a victory would push his case to headline the Auckland card.

Whittaker, a New Zealand-born middleweight also based in Sydney, could also make a good case. The 26-year-old has lost only four times in 22 fights, and scored an important victory against Derek Brunson in November, a first-round TKO win which earned him a performance-of-the-night bonus.

Hunt told the Herald on Sunday: "Of course it would be good to fight where I grew up and where I was born. And there are a lot of people there who helped me along this journey of fighting - for myself, being one of the best fighters coming from a negative [background] to a positive, I think it's great news.

"It goes to show that regardless of your upbringing, you can always turn things around through hard work."

Hunt's traumatic upbringing in South Auckland is well-documented in his book Born to Fight. His resilience in the face of his father's regular beatings combined with Hunt's durability and punching power in the octagon have made him a favourite in New Zealand and Australia, and a return to Auckland would be extremely popular.

Kiwi middleweight James Te Huna headlined the 2014 card at Vector Arena, a loss to American Nate Marquardt.

Carr said: "We've always felt that our live events are our best marketing tool in terms of acquiring new fans and growing interest in the sport. When we bring the show to town for the full week, you can't recreate that media and PR buzz that we generate with all the fighters in town."

Carr said the UFC were expecting big demand for tickets, which will probably go on sale next month.

A pre-registration website - www.ufc.co.nz/auckland - will be launched today.

- Herald on Sunday

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