Cool, calm, collected. Not only does the telephone demeanour of Californian heavyweight Michael Hunter embody the sunny disposition of his native state, but his relaxed manner is also reflective of the stoppage victory over previously unbeaten Martin Bakole just over a week ago, in London. If anything, 2012 Olympian Hunter seems marginally more flustered now, safely ensconced back in his Las Vegas home, than he did while outboxing, outworking and ultimately vanquishing Bakole, in a main event broadcast live in the UK on terrestrial television. That is testament only to our unreliable Whatsapp connection and the audible chattering of Hunter’s three-year-old-son, Michael Jr, in the background, and not any concerns regarding the future, now his deserved week on light duties has concluded. Indeed, the former cruiserweight and his close-knit team remain every bit as confident regarding his future prospects as they were in build-up to the Bakole showdown, one they approached as underdogs against a much larger man and on their rival’s promoter’s show.
“One factor was that he’s had a sum total of maybe 30 fights,” Hunter points out of the Congolese behemoth’s 17 amateur and 12 pro contests. “We knew he was big and strong, but I’ve had tonnes and tonnes of fights and I thought experience would win it for me; and it did.
“Your last fight is always your most important. Right now there are a lot of big guys with a lot of political power at the top in the heavyweight division. I think it will fizzle out in the next year-and-a-half as far as who is actually a dominant heavyweight and who’s not. We’ve got the big Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury fight, and people are always pushing for Deontay vs Anthony Joshua; the heavyweight division is starting to peak. I would love a title, or any big names that have credit in the top 10, I’m willing to fight them. By the end of 2019 I’m looking to get a title shot.”
The exciting York Hall 10-rounder was characterised beforehand as a duel between Bakole’s size and power and the speed and boxing ability of Hunter. As it transpired, the American flew out of the blocks, often backing up his taller, heavier opponent and regularly beating him to the punch. It was therefore somewhat perplexing, in light of Hunter’s impressive performance and final-round stoppage, that he was narrowly ahead on only one scorecard, with the other two even.
“It really did surprise me,” he muses. “Boxers usually have their own count in their head – it’s almost like a race, you’re counting punches, counting rounds. I felt like I was ahead on the scorecards and I didn’t think they could have it that close. My whole plan was to knock him out though, not go to a decision. I’ve been fighting big guys since I was young, sometimes that’s how you have to beat these guys, my main gameplan was to outwill him.
“I was a little more aggressive than I should have been but I knew I was going to set a pace he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with; that was part of my plan. But I started a little too fast, I should have used my feet a little more. In the ring I thought he was trying to stay relaxed but I knew he was fatigued. The body is a little different than someone having a good chin, and I planned to have early success there. He was a little difficult because of how strong he was and how long his arms were, he threw shots that were unorthodox. A few shots I got hit with pulling out, when I should have had my hands up and been more defensively minded.”
The closing stages of the fight were shrouded in controversy and even Hunter was not immune to the developments in Bakole’s corner. In the interval between the ninth and 10th sessions, Aidrie-based African Bakole appeared to want to withdraw, claiming a shoulder injury, but trainer Billy Nelson encouraged and cajoled – even begged, perhaps – his charge to continue. Nelson’s actions have drawn criticism but for Hunter, the private dispute merely confirmed something he already suspected: the end was nigh.
“I didn’t know exactly what was happening but I kinda sensed confusion and a lack of experience; from the trainer as well,” Hunter tells me now. It is early afternoon in Nevada and he sounds as fresh as the proverbial daisy. “My corner verified it to me, saying that they sensed weakness in the corner as far as him being hurt and wanting to quit. I knew it was gonna be a matter of time after the seventh round [when Bakole tried to finish things but fell short], I knew I had won by then pretty much.
“You really need to know your fighter and how serious he is about quitting. I think both the referee and his coach kind of extended the fight a little longer than they were supposed to, one of them should have stopped it before that, especially his coach. When you are the only person that wants to quit and no one else does, the game is really over. He started not using his arm and the way you go about the situation… I had a problem with my eye [he was cut], I couldn’t see for a round or two, but there are certain things when you’re ready to fight you are trying to mask. I had seen in the beginning he had a very good poker face so once he started giving me signs I knew he was giving up and it was all a façade.”
What is definitively not an illusion is Hunter’s heavyweight status. A decorated amateur career saw him compete in the top two divisions and a period as a professional cruiser ended with creditable points defeat to the imperious Oleksandr Usyk. Three wins deep during his latest foray into the land of the giants, Hunter has just scored his greatest victory, on away soil and in the same town as the pinnacle of his vested career. As Hunter looks ahead to a typically balmy evening in the home of the marquee casino, this 30-year-old’s future looks less and less of a gamble.