On Writing Mark Hunt’s Book, ‘Born to Fight’
The author of Mark Hunt’s new biography, which details the sexual and physical abuse of his past, his criminal history, drug use, and gambling addiction, shares what it was like to get the 'Super Samoan' to tell his story for the first time.
I think there were two reasons that Mark Hunt baulked at the idea of Born to Fight. The first was that, as someone who left school early, and had never had a job that required much reading and writing, Hunt didn't think he'd be able to write a book (it wasn't until I gave him the first chapter that he realised that I would be the one writing the book, not him). The second and primary reason was that he knew how hard it was going to be to go backwards, to Auckland in the seventies and eighties.
The second reason was also why he did finally sign. Contracts had been ready for months before our publisher Vanessa called Mark and exhorted that getting all of his life experience on the page may help others who've been in a dark tunnel and couldn't see the light at the end of it. That spoke to Mark. Vanessa was referring to Mark's time in prison, but he was thinking about his childhood.
After we started working it still took some time for Hunt to warm to me and the process. We'd meet weekly at the food court of a shopping centre on the fringes of Western Sydney, and I'd interview Mark while he played speed chess against a friend. Many of my questions were about his family, his siblings and his father. He spoke sparingly, if at all. In a couple of instances, I got literally nothing to show for my three hours of train journey.
I could tell that Mark had something to say about his youth, but he was impeded somehow. I found later that not even his friends knew how hard things were for the Hunt children, so of course it was hard for him to talk freely to me.
"He was a bad guy," Mark would say to me about his dad. "He was just a bad guy."
Mark gave me a phone number for Victoria, his sister, and suggested I speak to her. After I did, Mark's story took form, and I started to understand the dangerously fearless man with the preternatural aptitude for fighting.
Most of the chapters of Born to Fight start with a quote from someone in Mark's life that I interviewed, and the first was this one from Victoria, which was farmed from our first conversation.
'Mark was still a baby when all hell broke loose. He'd be black and blue head-to-toe regularly. I'd have to wash away the blood, massage his bruises and put salt on his wounds, so Dad could give him another beating. At about five Mark started to become a thief, and a violent maniac, but how would he know any better? He didn't even understand what love was until he met Julie (Mark's wife). There were good parts of him but, that survived during the abuse, and those parts became the soul of my brother.'
The abuse in the Hunt house was horrific and relentless. For much of Mark's childhood his father Charles was raping Victoria, and torturing his boys—pitting them against each other, as well as beating, whipping, choking and starving them. Mark would later tell me that when he saw the Aussie horror movie Wolf Creek, the sadistic killer Mick Taylor, reminded him of his dad.
Much of what's in the first chapter of the book was only possible because of my sessions with Victoria, who had recently undergone counseling, and strongly believed in the redemptive nature of sharing her mental burdens. Mark too had undergone counseling- once informally, with Julie, and later formally, after a violent spiral that coincided with his losing streak in DREAM—and felt the same way about sharing, but still found it more difficult to go back to those early years.
Soon after speaking to Victoria, Mark moved over to Auckland for his fight camp, and I followed. On one of my first days in New Zealand, I went to visit Victoria and Steve, Mark's surviving brother, in the house that Mark had bought for his father after winning the K-1 GP. I had a working draft of the first chapter by then, and Victoria helped me fill in the details. Victoria was a stoic, never baulking about any of the horror of what had happened to her and her brothers. She cried once, but it wasn't crying as it was for me when I got back to my rental car, it was just silent tears across a face that never broke.
Before I left I asked if there was anything she wouldn't be comfortable seeing in the book. She said the same thing that Mark said when I asked him the same question a few days later.
"I just want the truth to be told."
My sessions with Mark became more and more productive, and he found it easier to speak about his father and mother (who herself wasn't abusive, but stood by and laughed as it happened) when prompted by stories that Victoria had told me. Perhaps it was the tacit approval from the person who suffered the worst abuse, or perhaps it was because those memories were present, but locked away, and needing the key of relateability.
While I read the finished first chapter to Mark, in his serviced apartment after a training session, I pondered what his response was going to be. It's one thing speaking privately to a person about the dark secrets of your childhood, it's another hearing a huge chunk of text that everyone close to you- and tens of thousands of strangers- will read.
When I finished, Mark simply said that I'd gotten it right, and later told me he was happy that the truth was being told.
The next day Mark and I went back to his parent's house (Mark's father has since died, and his mother is in care) in South Auckland. We stared at the fruit tree that volunteered branches for his father to use as weapons, and the shed where Mark used to be hung from a hook, the walls that the boys heads used to be slammed into, and the room that Charles used for his most sinful acts.
We also went to the school where Mark used to dump stolen cars and the park where he used to street fight, and the shopping strip where he used to rob people.
After that, Mark and I started having longer and longer sessions, some running four or five hours. Nothing was off the table- the gambling addiction, the drugs and crime, the involvement with the New Zealand gang scene, the backroom yakuza dealings while fighting for K-1 and Pride. We got it all out.
Towards the end of my time in New Zealand, Mark was so engaged with the process and how redemptive he thought it was, he started taking me to other people who he thought would benefit from having a book about their lives written (a couple of those people were fascinating subjects too- including Teina Pora, a man who was jailed with Mark in the nineties, and was only recently released when his murder conviction was overturned by a rare ruling in the Privy Council, and a prominent gang leader who worked as the bodyguard of drug-addicted Saudi prince).
Every couple of days I met significant people from Mark's life- people who got him out of crime, got him into fighting, sent him to Australia and then Japan- but no person was important as Victoria. The rest was interior decoration, but Victoria, Charles and his brothers, they were the foundation of Mark's life story, and also the bedrock of what makes him the preternaturally talented fighter.
When I got back to Sydney, I got to spend time with Julie and Mark's kids, and that's where I started to understand how he eventually managed to temper the volatility and violence that was borne of his youth. Redemption for Mark started when, for the first time in his life, he spoke about what his childhood was like. Julie was the unmaking of a cancer that his father had placed in all his children.
When I meet Mark now I see a man that's unrecognizable to me as the scared, violent boy he once was, nor the quiet, untrusting man I met at that Western Sydney food court. I think I'm now much closer to seeing the Mark Hunt that Julie and his kids see, which is a scared but unfailingly generous, honest and kind man, whose soul has been polished by adversity.
He's also now a good friend, and a friend who I'm immeasurably proud of.