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Matt Hughes' Late Career Joyride

"It depends on which BJ shows up - the guy that’s gonna come in with a sound gameplan and some good training, or the guy that’s gonna come in and just think his natural tools are gonna win."

Fun. It’s been the buzzword for UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes thus far in 2010, and if you go by the results that have seen him follow up his 2009 win over heated rival Matt Serra with finishes of Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida, you might just start seeing every fighter throw off the baggage that comes with the fighting life and just embrace the joy of competition.

Nah, it can’t be that easy. Not in a game where you’re dealing with the pressure to perform, the pressure to win and keep your job, and the pressure of keeping up with your peers in the race towards a title shot. But therein lies Hughes’ secret. At 37, the Hillsboro family man has done all there is to do in this sport. He’s won the welterweight title twice, he’s beaten the best fighters of his era, he’s already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and as far as job security, you get the feeling that he will have a place in the UFC for as long as he wants one.

In other words, he could have lost to Gracie and Almeida, or lose to BJ Penn in their UFC 123 rubber match this Saturday, and it wouldn’t erase what he has already accomplished. That’s got to be a feeling of freedom few fighters have the luxury of experiencing. It can make fight week and the fight itself downright, well, fun.

“Maybe subconsciously that is what’s going on, but I don’t think about that stuff,” said Hughes when asked whether not worrying about his legacy has freed him up to enjoy each moment he still has in the Octagon. “I’m just really looking at having a good time with my training partners, having a good time in the Octagon with my opponent, and that’s what’s keeping me in the game and what keeps a smile on my face when I wake up in the morning. I’m really having a lot of fun, no matter if I’m training, traveling or competing.”

Yet beyond all this ‘feel good’ stuff, the fact remains that quietly and under the radar, Hughes has just put together a three fight winning streak against quality opposition, something many didn’t expect to see after he lost three out of four fights from late 2006 through 2008. And though he expected to take the rest of the year off after he submitted Almeida at UFC 117 in August, the phone soon rang with an old friend on the other end of the line.

“(UFC President) Dana White came to me and proposed this matchup (with Penn),” said Hughes. “I’ve always wanted to have the rubber match with BJ, so I was able to move my schedule around and take the fight. It’s good because I want the matchup, I know BJ wants it, and I actually think that it’s actually a fight that the public wants to see as well.”

They do, and the buzz around the UFC 123 co-main event has been getting louder and louder this week, as fans get ready to see whether Hughes’ late-career hot streak continues or if Penn can right his ship after losing two in a row. And at the core of it all is that this fight will break the 1-1 tie that saw Penn win their first bout in 2004 and Hughes even the score two years later in 2006. Four years is a long time in the fight game, and despite winning the rematch in emphatic fashion via third round TKO, Hughes believes that he can better his performance the third time around.

“I think there’s a lot of improvement I can do,” he said. “At the end of the second round, he had me in a bad choke, and he did very well in the first round, so there’s improvement I can make, and everybody wants that rubber match because if I win the rubber match, it’s like winning all three matches, but if I lose, it’s like I lost all three. That’s the way I look at it.”

Plus, winning big in the rubber match eliminates any questions about the second win, which saw Penn claim that a second round rib injury left him at less than one hundred percent in the third frame.

“I never really listen to fighters after a loss and what they say,” said Hughes. “But if BJ had some hurt ribs after the last fight, then I definitely want to beat him when he’s a hundred percent, and not let him have a reason for losing the fight.”

And really, that’s as far as it gets when it comes to any pre-fight verbal jousting. Both have shown an enormous amount of respect for each other. In fact, when speaking with Penn before the bout and asking him for his thoughts on Hughes, ‘The Prodigy’ simply responded, “I like Matt Hughes. He’s all right.” Maybe it’s being older and wiser or just figuring that at this point, the matchup alone sells itself without any additional trash talk.

Me, I think that in some ways, Hughes and Penn see a lot of themselves in each other. They’re both high-level athletes, both intense competitors, and both have weathered the ups and downs of the sport. Hughes has even been where Penn is right now, looking to bounce back from two losses in a row. If you didn’t know that they will be trying to punch each other in the face this Saturday, you could call them kindred spirits.

“Oh sure, twice in my career I’ve lost two in a row and it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to know that you can get through it and get that next win, and turn things around,” said Hughes. “And that can be at any time. It could have been two months ago when BJ took this fight that he revamped his mind and got mentally tough out there and put his winning gameplan together. So that’s why I’ve got to prepare for the best BJ Penn out there.”

Hughes has seen Penn at his best, but he also knows that there’s another Penn out there.

“BJ’s come in with great gameplans and in great shape against people like Kenny Florian and Sean Sherk and he’s looked really, really good,” said Hughes. “And then there are the other matchups, and the first one that comes to mind is Frankie Edgar. He (Edgar) was able to use a lot of motion and kinda dance around him a little bit. It depends on which BJ shows up - the guy that’s gonna come in with a sound gameplan and some good training, or the guy that’s gonna come in and just think his natural tools are gonna win. It will be interesting to see when this match is over which BJ Penn I got.”

Regardless, we know which Matt Hughes we’re going to get. Rejuvenated, sharp, well-trained, and yeah, you know it’s coming – a guy just looking to have some fun.