In the fast-growing global business of the Ultimate Fighting Championship Mark Hunt remains New Zealand's most recognisable homegrown talent.

The former K-1 kickboxing world champion was the first Kiwi to step foot into the Octagon, as well as the only one to fight for a UFC world title - an unsuccessful bid against Fabricio Werdum in Mexico City in 2014.

Hunt's drawing power as a star athlete in this region will be on full display this weekend, as he headlines UFC Brisbane opposite former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir.

Hunt is confident that a win over Mir will propel him back into the title picture, as he looks to make one final bid to hold UFC gold before he's forced to hang up the gloves - a day which isn't far away for the soon to be 42-year-old Kiwi fight game star.


Tom Wright, UFC director of operations for Australia, Canada and New Zealand, says 2015 was a transformational year for the sport within Australia and New Zealand.

"You can really sense the change in conversation down here as it relates to our sport, the recognition and acceptance of our athletes, plus the buzz around upcoming events," he says.

After a successful first outing in New Zealand last year, the UFC expressed a strong desire to return to Auckland in the near future. Although Wright confirmed that the UFC has "dates held" for Vector Arena in the second half of this year, he remained non-committal on the prospect of New Zealand hosting an event this year.

"We're still working on the back half of our schedule for 2016 and we're trying to figure out exactly where we're going to have our second event in the region," said Wright. "We've got dates held at Vector Arena and if it doesn't happen in the back half of this year, it will probably happen in 2017."

Set to assume the mantle from Hunt is 24-year-old Robert Whittaker, currently the beneficiary of a big push from the UFC marketing machine. The Auckland-born, Sydney native has risen up the ranks of the middleweight division since moving up from welterweight - stringing together four consecutive victories inside 18 months - and seeing him ascend to the number-8 ranking in the division.

Whittaker is next set to feature as the curtain raiser on UFC 197 - one of the biggest events on the 2016 calendar - featuring a pair of highly anticipated title bouts. He will take on Brazilian Rafael Natal, the number-13 ranked middleweight, fighting for the second straight outing on the pay-per-view portion of a card which will see him again gain massive international exposure.

Since the UFC went international in 2006, Australia and New Zealand have both been privy to a strong push from the promotion's marketing machine to popularise the sport Downunder.

Lorenzo Fertitta, chief executive of the UFC, said: "When we first started going to Australia and New Zealand, we'd do an event and then maybe we wouldn't come back for a year or two.

"The idea now is to slowly build into having a constant presence - so we're doing events consistently and holding them during prime-time for local markets. That's what will allow us to become a top-tier international sport, not just a fringe sport."