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Defining Matt Hughes

In a world where the words “great” or “legend” are thrown about much too freely, Matt Hughes has legitimately earned those accolades for his Hall of Fame fight career. And despite being 37 years old, the two-time UFC welterweight champ has had a career resurgence with consecutive wins over Matt Serra, Renzo Gracie, and Ricardo Almeida. At UFC 123, he looks to make it four in a row against BJ Penn in their intriguing rubber match. Will Hughes add this bout to his list of defining moments? 

Carlos Newton I – November 2, 2001 – UFC 34
Result – Hughes KO2

A charismatic and dynamic fighter who was fresh off a submission win over Pat Miletich that earned him the welterweight title, Carlos Newton was seen by many as someone who could carry the UFC’s welterweight division over the ensuing years. The UFC apparently agreed, as the UFC 34 event poster displayed main eventers Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo, along with Newton and a blurb that read “Carlos Newton Defends UFC Welterweight Title”. There was no mention of Hughes at all, so when the Illinois native knocked Newton out in the second round to take the belt, it was a huge upset.

But the bout, which was dominated by Hughes, was not without a dose of controversy. Hughes, like Newton 5-9 and 169 pounds, used his freakish strength to establish control from the outset. With slams, knees, and strikes, Hughes easily won the first round, and was dominating the second, when Newton was able to nab the Miletich team member in a triangle choke. The oohs and aahs could be heard throughout the MGM Grand when Hughes lifted Newton over his head and drove him into the fence.

The champion grabbed the top of the fence, but soon let go after being admonished by referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy. With Newton still over his head, and still sinking in the choke, Hughes took a step back and dropped his foe to the mat. Slamming his head on the canvas, Newton was out and McCarthy stopped the bout. Simple enough, but Hughes was dazed as well and needed to be told that he won the fight and the title. So who was out first? In Newton's post-fight interview, he stated that he believed he had choked Hughes out. The way I saw it that night, I believe that it was Newton who went out first because upon viewing different replay angles of the final slam, Hughes obviously had the presence of mind to take a step back, thus removing Newton from the cage and allowing him to fall. Regardless, the call stood, and Hughes erased the stigma of two early losses to Dennis Hallman by being crowned UFC welterweight champion.

Hayato Sakurai – March 22, 2002 – UFC 36
Result – Hughes TKO4

Back in the days of only a handful of UFC shows per year, there were rarely any opportunities to bring in an international star and build him into a UFC star over time. If a big name from overseas came into the organization, more often than not, he was tossed directly into the fire. That was the case with Japanese standout Hayato ‘Mach’ Sakurai, owner of a 19-1-2 record (his only loss came to Anderson Silva) that included wins over fighters like Frank Trigg, Jutaro Nakao, and Caol Uno. Sakurai was a certified threat to anyone he fought, but Hughes dominated the bout, using his size, strength, and the Octagon fence to control Sakurai from start to the fourth round finish. It may not have been the most heavily publicized bout of Hughes’ reign, but to the hardcore MMA community, Hughes established himself as one of the best in the world with the victory. As for Sakurai’s post-Hughes career, victories over Shinya Aoki, Jens Pulver, Joachim Hansen, and Mac Danzig show that he hasn’t done too bad for himself after his lone UFC appearance.

BJ Penn I – January 31, 2004 – UFC 46
Result – Penn Wsub1

After the win over Sakurai, Hughes went on a four fight tear that saw him defeat Newton (in a rematch), skilled grappler Gil Castillo, mirror image Sean Sherk, and trash-talking rival Frank Trigg. In the process, he became a legitimate star for the UFC, and one expected to roll over former lightweight title challenger BJ Penn in Penn’s welterweight debut. It didn’t quite go that way for Hughes.

From the opening bell, Penn dictated the action and even appeared to be bigger physically than the champion. Soon, Hughes found himself on the mat – a bad place to be against the skilled Jiu-Jitsu ace. To his credit, Hughes fought like a champion, striking Penn efficiently while avoiding any serious danger.

Yet as the final minute of the first round got underway, it was a strike by Penn that turned the tide of the fight. Stunned by a blow that bloodied his nose, Hughes instinctively turned to the side, giving Penn his back. With breakneck speed, Penn took his back and immediately sunk in a rear naked choke. The tap by Hughes seconds later was a mere formality, and a new champion had been crowned.

“I don’t even know what I did today,” exclaimed the emotional new champion. Hughes probably felt the same way, and when I asked him before their rematch if he had watched the first fight to prepare for the second one, he responded, “No I haven’t, and to be honest, I don’t even know that I watched it that once. I know what I did wrong. I remember that fight pretty well, so I don’t have to go back and watch the fight to tell anybody what I did wrong.”

Georges St-Pierre I – October 22, 2004 – UFC 50
Result – Hughes Wsub1

Hughes’ return to the Octagon less than five months after the loss to Penn was an uneventful but victorious one, as he decisioned Renato Verissimo. That propelled him into a bout for the vacant crown against unbeaten Canadian young gun Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre had already made a lot of noise with his Octagon victories over Karo Parisyan and Jay Hieron, but Hughes was not about to let another chance at the top spot slip away. It made for an intriguing matchup on paper, and despite only lasting one round, the fight delivered on its promise.

Using a good jab and some jarring kicks early on, St-Pierre was even able to score a takedown on Hughes, showing that despite his youth, the 23-year-old was able to hang with the elite at 170 pounds. But by the latter half of the round, Hughes had used his trademark slam on St-Pierre and was beginning to pound away on the Canadian from the guard. But practically everyone in the arena was surprised when Hughes beautifully transitioned into an armbar to end the match with a single second left in the first round.

Hughes was champion once again, and his greatest triumph was just around the corner.

Frank Trigg II – April 16, 2005 – UFC 52
Result – Hughes Wsub1

Despite losing to Hughes in their first bout in November of 2003, Frank Trigg was not about to concede that the champion was the better fighter. And after Trigg stopped Hughes’ early nemesis Dennis Hallman and the man he went the distance with, Renato Verissimo, it was time for a rematch. It was one Hughes didn’t particularly care for.

“I didn’t want to fight Trigg the second time because I didn’t feel like I had anything to win,” admitted Hughes. “I didn’t feel like I could beat him any better than I did the first time, so what would be the point of me fighting him again? Trigg had nothing to lose, and I had nothing to win in that fight.”

Hughes was wrong, as his second victory over Trigg packed more drama into four minutes and five seconds than most do in five five minute rounds, definitively putting it on the list of best UFC fights of All-Time.

After an opening staredown that saw Trigg bump Hughes and the champion respond with a shove, the two combatants met at the center of the cage and traded punches until a lock-up. While against the cage, Trigg caught Hughes with a low knee that was not caught by referee Mario Yamasaki. As Hughes retreated and tried to regain his bearings, Trigg pounced and sent Hughes to the canvas with a left to the jaw.

In serious trouble, Hughes caught a flurry of blows on the ground as Trigg worked his way into the mount position.

Hughes tried to escape the bottom, but wound up giving Trigg his back at the three minute mark, and the challenger quickly capitalized with a rear naked choke. Hughes’ face turned crimson, but amazingly he was able to escape and then follow up this good fortune by picking his foe up and carrying him across the cage before dropping him on his back with a trademark slam.

Now it was Hughes in control, and in the full mount he opened up on Trigg with both hands. With the packed house going wild, Trigg then turned and it was Hughes sinking in a rear naked choke, which produced a tap out at the 4:05 mark. Words just don’t do it justice. If you haven’t seen this fight, go now and watch it.

Royce Gracie – May 27, 2006 – UFC 60
Result – Hughes TKO1

Diehard followers of mixed martial arts weren’t too surprised with the final outcome, but for casual observers, the return of UFC legend Royce Gracie to the Octagon was truly a big deal, and in the great scheme of things it was an interesting meeting of the old school vs. the new school in the modern UFC. And though Hughes was respectful of Gracie, if you talked to him long enough before the fight, he made it clear that there was no way that he was going to lose this fight.

“A great ground guy,” said Hughes when asked his impressions of Gracie. “To be honest, I grew up watching the UFC before I was a competitor, and I always thought I could beat him. Before I was even training in fighting, I thought ‘I could beat that guy.’ I’ve got to respect his ground game, but besides that, he doesn’t have anything, I don’t think.”

“I think he’s really rolling the dice,” Hughes continued. “I think he’s gambling and he thinks he has a shot – and he does have a shot - at submitting me. But I’d have to make quite a few mistakes in a row for him to submit me. He’s not a quick submission artist.”

Once the bell rang, it was clear that Hughes had too much for the Hall of Famer, but Gracie’s heart kept him in the bout until the finish came at 4:39 of the first round.

BJ Penn II – September 23, 2006 – UFC 63
Result – Hughes TKO3

A rematch between Hughes and St-Pierre was scheduled for UFC 63’s main event, but when an injury shelved GSP, it was BJ Penn who stepped up for an even more anticipated return bout.

“This fight excites me,” said Hughes before the bout. “I get to face somebody who beat me before and the pressure’s really on BJ’s shoulders, and not mine. I’ve got nothing to lose – he’s already beaten me once. I get to go in there with a clean slate and try to do what I’ve got to do to win. He’s the one who’s got to defend that first win that he’s already got from me.”

Penn did a helluva job defending that first win in the opening two rounds as he completely dominated the action. It looked like the end was near to all but Hughes.

“I knew I had lost the first two rounds,” said Hughes. “That just meant I had three left.”

That champion’s attitude paid off in round three, and as Penn tired, Hughes pounced, stopping the Hawaiian with strikes to even their score at one win apiece.

On November 20th, he will face Penn for the third time. And while his legacy is already secure, expect Hughes to be at his best once again in his rubber match against “The Prodigy”.