Monday, February 26, 2007

The ‘Old’ Hughes Comes Back Saturday against Lytle

By Thomas Gerbasi

Matt Hughes was going to win. No question about it, on November 18, 2006, the most dominant welterweight in mixed martial arts history was going to repeat his 2004 victory over number one contender Georges St. Pierre, and when it was over, there would be one key ingredient that enabled him to score his 43rd professional victory.


“I remember being in the staging area, right before I walked out to the Octagon, and I just had so much faith that God was gonna have me win that fight,” said Hughes, a two-time UFC welterweight champion. “It was the same faith I had before I fought BJ (Penn) and before I fought Frank Trigg the second time. And I think if you watched those two fights, you could say that I had an angel helping me there. I was in bad trouble in both those fights and I ended up victorious.”

In the September 2006 rematch against Penn, who handed Hughes his first defeat in three years in January of 2004, Hughes lost the first two rounds and was perilously close to a submission defeat late in the second before turning the tables and stopping ‘The Prodigy’ in the third. Against Trigg, Hughes was drilled with an inadvertent low blow and subsequently almost stopped before escaping another seemingly certain defeat to slam his foe and choke him out moments later. So as he paced behind the curtain, waiting for his call to battle against the fresh-faced Canadian, Hughes figured that whatever he would do in the Octagon that night, it would eventually turn out all right for him.

It didn’t. St. Pierre, focused, ready, and a different fighter from the first time the two elite welterweights met, controlled the bout from the outset. He picked Hughes apart from long-range with strikes, shucked off the rare takedown attempt from the champion, and ended matters in the second round with a ground attack brought on by a swift kick to the head. In 6:25 seconds, Matt Hughes was an ex-champion.

“It was just one of those things that it just wasn’t in God’s plan that I win that fight, and if that’s the way it is, then I can live with that,” said Hughes graciously. “God’s will is by far greater.”

The Hillsboro, Illinois native had been in this situation before after being upset by Penn at UFC 46 in 2004. After that defeat, Hughes actually felt relieved at the prospect of not having to bear the pressure of being champion, as well as the ‘win, win, win’ culture that had engulfed him. Soon after, Hughes found Christianity and also found his love for competition again, which led to him regaining his title and putting together a six fight win streak leading up to the loss to St. Pierre. So there was no relief this time around, just frustration with his performance on fight night.

“It wasn’t like the BJ fight,” said Hughes of the aftermath of the loss to St. Pierre. “There was a lot more disappointment with this fight. I don’t think I had the best game plan in the world. I went away from my strengths, so to speak, so I was a lot more disappointed with myself with the way I fought.”

What most observers saw with Hughes was that as his standup game improved in the gym with MFS Elite boxing coach Matt Pena, he wanted to use it more in the Octagon. It almost cost him against the hard-hitting Penn, and it definitely spelled a short night for him against the accurate striking of St. Pierre. To his credit, Hughes admits that his desire to test his striking extensively in competition may have been a mistake.

“I just caught up in the dilemma that I’ve got with standup and I shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’m never gonna be a top notch standup striker. My specialty lies on the ground.”

With that statement, it’s made clear that Hughes - who returns to the Octagon this Saturday night against Chris Lytle at UFC 68 in Ohio – is bringing his old game back.

“I think one of the only ways Chris can beat me is on my feet, so you’re gonna see me going back to my slams and beating people up on the ground,” said the 33-year old Hughes, who made his name with his otherworldly strength and ground and pound. Sure, he’s added an underrated submission game to his arsenal as well, but when you think of prime Hughes, you think of him planting someone on the mat and pounding them out. That’s a pleasant picture for Hughes fans, and for the former champ himself.

“It’s very comfortable,” he said. “It’s something I’ve done my whole life, taking people down. It should be no transition whatsoever – it’s like going back home.”

This Saturday, Hughes will have to go back to basics, because if he wants to trade blows standing with ‘Lights Out’ - who is also 13-1 as a pro boxer – it wouldn’t be the wisest course of action, and will definitely be what Lytle will be looking to do.

“He’s definitely got some hands, and that’s what I need to watch out for,” said Hughes. “Anybody can get submitted, but my submission knowledge is greater than his, and I don’t think he’s gonna catch me there. What I need to worry about is getting him off his feet, putting him on the ground, putting him up against the cage, and throwing punches.”

And if he does that and gets past Lytle, the next order of business will be getting some payback against St. Pierre, who Hughes says is “by far the number one guy and should stay champion his next fight – I can’t see Matt Serra beating him.”

At least that’s what Hughes hopes, because then he can put that trilogy to rest – hopefully with a win – and then see what the world of mixed martial arts has to offer him. Is there anything outside of St. Pierre left to motivate Hughes, who could walk away from the sport tomorrow and still have a spot in the Hall of Fame waiting for him?

“My number one motivation is that I still love to compete,” he said. “I still love the one on one, me against my opponent, with the referee in the Octagon, and that’s it. I don’t have to rely on four other basketball teammates – it’s just me and him, and pretty much, the victories are mine and the defeats are all mine too. It’s one on one and I love it.”

So can anything replace that?

“I don’t know,” Hughes admits. “When I get done here I can take over a wrestling program at a high school in my hometown, I could do this or that, but I really don’t know. The fact that when I leave this sport I’m gonna be able to raise my kids and be with my family, that’s more important to me than my competition needs.”

But for now, there’s still plenty of fight left in Matt Hughes.

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