When Hunter Azure won his fourth State wrestling title for Poplar High School, he didn’t know if he would ever hit the emotional heights he reached that day.
A decade later, he did.
“It’s hard to describe and explain the feeling you get,” said Azure, who earned a UFC contract last month after a win over Christian Ocon on Dana White’s Contender Series. “People see your fights, but they don’t see all the hard work or sacrifices and moving to new gyms and stuff. When I won my fourth State wrestling title I thought I would never get a feeling like that again. But that Tuesday night beat that for sure.”
You might not have known that, given Azure’s near stoic demeanor following the biggest win of his MMA career. But a week after the July 9 victory, the 27-year-old Montana native was in better spirits.
“I’m a little happier now, that’s for sure,” laughed Azure, who explained the subdued reaction following the Ocon fight.
“Each fight I feel like I could have done more and should have done more,” he said. “I keep learning and growing each time, so that’s the main thing. I’m hard on myself, and I guess it’s just gonna keep bringing me back better.”
It’s not hard to appreciate Azure’s attitude, and that attitude – along with talent and hard work – has led him to a perfect 7-0 pro record. But while he’s always looking forward, he doesn’t forget what it took to get here in the first place, a long road that he never thought he would be on after injuries ended his wrestling career at Montana State University-Northern.
“There were times I thought I was just gonna be working forever, working construction or some type of job and spending my weekends fishing and hunting,” he said. “But I’m glad I just kept pushing towards my dream and just believing in myself. There’s days it’s raining, snowing or you’re sore and you don’t want to work out, but those are the days you crawl out of bed and keep going.”
Turning pro in 2017, Azure eventually found himself in Arizona with the MMA Lab squad, and while he knew he had the goods to compete in the UFC, he thought he needed a little more seasoning when he got the call for the Contender Series. So he took that seasoning, risking his spot on the show but making the most of it with a win over LJ Schulz in May. Then it was off to Las Vegas and his date with destiny, another risk which paid off.
Now, Azure is a UFC fighter. There will be no construction jobs in his immediate future.
“It takes a lot of weight off you and some pressure,” he said. “I don’t know why I had pressure because no one was putting it on me and nobody told me I had to fight. (Laughs) It was just my own pressure, knowing that I wanted it as my lifestyle and my career. This is what I want as my job and my life, so it’s crazy to think about, knowing that it is my life now. I just gotta keep learning each day so I can make it 10-13 more years.”
That’s a long time, ain’t it?
“I feel young, and I want to keep feeling young, so I feel like treating my body is going to be the key,” said Azure, who credits his team at the Lab for showing him that taking care of your equipment is as important – if not more so – than knowing how to use it.
“I came in just working hard, but at the same time you have to listen to your body, train right and eat the right things if you want a long career. That was a big adjustment for me when I first moved, but I felt like it definitely helped me, just by being a smarter fighter and treating my body like a professional athlete now.”
And he is a professional athlete, a job description he’s been chasing for a long time. And like that feeling when he got his UFC contract, reaching the first part of his goal is just as satisfying.
“From when I started training, I wasn’t training to be on the Contender Series; I was training to be in the UFC and fight the top guys,” he said. “I train like I’m fighting a top five guy every time and that’s where I want to be after the next year or so. But I’m not trying to rush anything.”
Hey, he’s got 10-13 more years, right?