BILLINGS — Hunter Azure’s “roller coaster” of a year continued last Saturday, when he defeated Cole Smith by unanimous decision at UFC Vegas 9.
Azure, a Poplar native, improved to 2-1 in his UFC career and 9-1 as a professional MMA fighter. That one loss came via knockout from Brian Kelleher in May.
Days after the Las Vegas fight, Azure spoke with The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com over the phone about the win, his loss to Kelleher, his future and life during the coronavirus pandemic. Azure, who won four Class B state individual wrestling titles at Poplar High, has spent most of his non-MMA time with his 5-month-old son, Wilder, and his fiancé, Sage Pearce, at their home outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
This story has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: How have the last few days gone for you?
Answer: “It’s been good. Just getting back to being back home and getting a few days off. Let the body heal and enjoy some of the food I had to give up for the past few weeks. Just enjoying it, for sure. It’s always good to celebrate a win.”
Q: What kind of food?
A: “Oh man, I’ve been eating everything (laughs). Sushi, pizza, burgers, a lot of sweets. I’ve been stuck on some pie lately.”
Q: In your post-fight interview Saturday night, you said wrestling and throwing your hands were keys to the win. Can you explain that strategy a little more?
A: “My background’s not really boxing or stand-up. A lot of wrestlers want to use their wrestling more because it keeps you on defense and levels out the boxing of the other guy. I actually have wrestling to let my hands be better, be able to open up more punches. Wrestling is super tiring, especially if you haven’t wrestled much in your life. It tires out your body and hands a lot more, and arms. It just makes it a whole different pace for people that are better at striking.”
Q: What are some parts of your game you’d like to improve?
A: “I want to improve everywhere, for sure. The main thing was getting the win, getting some more experience in there. I’ve just got to get back and get better. That was the first time I fought a super tall bantamweight. They’re a little more awkward to fight, so work on some things there, work on where he had a body lock on me, and just some positions I was in in the third round.”
Q: Your next fight has not been scheduled yet, right?
A: “Yeah, there’s nothing planned yet. I’m going to have to figure out that with my manager and see how soon, but I’m definitely going to push hard and talk to them to get one in by the end of the year.”
Q: Explain the process of getting your next fight. How did you get the last couple scheduled?
A: “My sports manager sets up fights for me. He stays in contact with the UFC. Without the COVID time, we usually get a minimum six-week fight camp to get ready for an opponent. But with all this testing and people falling off fight cards so quick, I just kind of want to stay ready and just keep my weight down and be ready if something pops up. People are just filling in cards left and right right now. No one’s really getting the full six-, 10-week notice on a fight, so everyone just kind of has to stay ready.”
Q: Each of your last two cards had other bouts that were canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests, right?
A: “There have been quite a few. It’s crazy. We get tested three times while we’re out there. One positive test and you’re off the card.”
Q: Have you worried that one of your fights would get canceled because your opponent or someone in his camp tested positive?
A: “I definitely worry about it, but it’s something I can’t really control. I just try to go each day as it’s planned and just prepare for the best.”
Q: Are you avoiding crowds and doing other things to lessen the chance that you’ll get COVID-19?
A: “Yeah. I’m trying to be as safe as I can. Stay home and stay out of the public, especially with my new baby son. Just got to stay safe for him. But also going to the gym and training. There are other guys who are training for fights, so we all just have to be safe and careful and thinking about being out in public and bringing stuff into the gym.”
Q: Has that level of caution been tough on you, or are you used to it by now?
A: “I usually like going out and eating, hanging out with friends, being out in public. I guess you’d rather be safe and be working than not, so it makes it easy just to be at home, just go train. We all get tested quite a bit, so we know we stay pretty safe. So we’ll hang out with each other at the gym, or we’ll go on little hikes, still interact. Just mainly in small little groups of our friends and training partners.”
Q: How much has your son lifted your spirits during the pandemic?
A: “I like hanging out with him during the day. When I’m not at the gym, I’m hanging out with him, letting his mom work. We’ll both go on walks, do a little hike, so he definitely gives me some company. It makes things a lot easier.”
Q: Your son was born about a month before your fight against Kelleher. What was your head space like after that loss?
A: “That was just a crazy time, with all of the COVID stuff going on and places shutting down. I was scheduled for a fight in April 18 in Brooklyn. Two weeks before that, my son was born, and then my fight was canceled. Three weeks before me and Kelleher fought, that’s when we found out we were fighting. It was just wild. It was like a roller coaster. Having a son, just getting used to being a dad and being at home and taking care of him, plus training.
“Coming home after that fight, you always envision a win, but came home with a loss. The first time. I just had to stay clear in my head. I’m still happy with the performance. I mean, I lost, but things happen in this sport. I knew I just had to get back out there and get another victory and just keep getting better every day. It was the same mindset if I would’ve won — I would’ve come home and still would’ve prepared the same and got ready for the next fight. I was just happy to be working and doing the sport that I love.”
Q: What did you learn most from that loss?
A: “I just needed experience. When I look back at it, I was undefeated at 8-0… you just want to fight, and you feel like you can beat everyone. It just made me more experienced, and I had to be more calm, more relaxed. I can’t just go out there and throw hands with someone. I came in from wrestling. I’ve got to use wrestling. You’ve got to be well-rounded everywhere. Kelleher, he was at like 31 professional fights, and I was going in with nine. There was just a big difference in experience, and when I look back at the fight, you can see that.”
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