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Hughes fights the good fight

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Matt Hughes stretched his arms and smiled broadly.

He'd had a terrific training camp in preparation for his bout against Renzo Gracie on the main card of UFC 112 on Saturday at Ferrari World, but things are still a bit different than they were in his heyday.

When Hughes awakens each morning, the aches and pains are all too real to him. The toll of more than a decade as one of the elite mixed martial arts fighters in the world is readily apparent.

"I like the fact that he's a little older than me," the 36-year-old Hughes said of his 43-year-old opponent. "I'm feeling my age and I'm sure hoping he's feeling his age. I like that."

It will be a different Matt Hughes who walks into the cage on Saturday than the one who so dominated the welterweight division that he's a lock for induction into the Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Fame.

He's still extraordinarily competitive, but he's no longer motivated by championships and by the thrill of pounding someone into submission.

In his early days before he got to the UFC, Hughes fought on small shows throughout the Midwest, where he was renowned for his amazing physical strength. His opponents were routinely paid more than he was because few were willing to take a beating on the cheap.

"They knew going in that they were going to take a whipping, so in order to get me fights, my manager, Monte Cox, [who was promoting those shows] had to pay them good money to get them to take those fights," Hughes said. "It was not like I was going to go in there and submit them easily.

"I was going to pound on them and beat on them and hurt them, but I'm not that guy any more. I am who I am and I love who I am. My priorities are different."

Hughes became a Christian five years ago. He was married and settled down after a wild life spent largely on the road as a well-to-do and carefree bachelor. He's got two daughters, Hanna Grace, 3½ and Katelyn Mae, 3 months, and enjoys taking care of them much more than he does training or mapping out a game plan.

All of a sudden for Hughes, things have changed. He's not determined to make another title run. If one came, he'd accept the opportunity, but winning a championship and reveling in its glory isn't the be all, end all to him any more.

And as a fighter, he doesn't have the same nasty attitude he once had, where he not only wanted to win, but to inflict pain and punishment along the way.

"I've had a lot of changes in my life the last five years," Hughes said. "I became a Christian. I got married five years ago. Three-and-a-half years ago, I watched my daughter be born. Three months ago, I watched another daughter be born. When you see that in real life, and you're around kids all day – I'm around my kids, because I love my kids and I love nothing more than being around them – I'm not the same fighter. I can't possibly be.

"It used to be, when I walked into the ring, that person across the ring was lucky I didn't rip his arm off and start beating him with it. That's the way I felt. I'm just not that aggressive any more where I want to tear somebody's head off. I'm 36 years old now. I would say I've turned into a more technical fighter than a nasty fighter."

That nastiness is what made him great and whether he can reclaim his position at the top of the welterweight heap is a question open for serious debate.

He is coming off a close win over arch rival Matt Serra at UFC 98, but has nonetheless lost two of his last three and three of his last five. He was dominated by both Georges St. Pierre and Thiago Alves, though he'd love to have the Alves fight back.

Hughes' policy has always been to fight whoever the UFC asks him to fight, though he might deviate from it soon and ask if a match with Alves might be made.

Alves dominated Hughes at UFC 85 in London and stopped him in the second round. There were calls for Hughes' retirement after that fight, though Hughes said he can explain that one away.

He wasn't properly prepared, as he said he accepted the bout on short notice, and didn't get into the kind of shape he needed to be in to deal with a massive welterweight like Alves.

"I would look at the [Alves] fight and say you're wrong to write me off based on that fight because of this, this and this," Hughes said. "I took it on short notice. I hadn't been training before that fight like I was. In previous years, I could take a fight on short notice and it wasn't a big deal because I always trained. There are several reasons that I could tell you why I maybe didn't perform like I should have. I'm not saying I would have won, but there are reasons.

"He would be one of those guys where I would probably say to Dana, 'Hey, I'd like to rematch Thiago.' I'm not happy with the way I performed."

He's refreshed and relaxed and looking forward to performing far better on Saturday. The bout is essentially a home fight for Gracie, who has a second home in Abu Dhabi and likely will be the crowd favorite.

Hughes, who has been one of the most popular fighters in the sport's history, said he's content with that.

"There's a lot less pressure when you go to someone else's home town and everyone is expecting him to win and I'm just the opponent walking in," Hughes said. "I am really looking forward to being kind of the underdog in the environment of the fight."

Whatever happens, Hughes is justifiably proud of his career. He has a chance for his record 17th UFC win on Saturday, which would break him out of a tie with Chuck Liddell. He also shares the record for most consecutive successful title defenses, with five, with Anderson Silva and Tito Ortiz, though Silva could break that mark on Saturday with a win in his middleweight title fight in the main event with Demian Maia.

The evolution of his life has made Hughes a different man and if another title shot fails to materialize, you won't hear him complain.

"I would say the title is not a huge motivation for me at this stage of my life and my career," Hughes said. "I don't know if it's because I've already been there and done that. Right now, I'm still loving to compete, walking in and facing one other guy, just me and him. I love it. The title is not huge for me. Would I like to get it again? Sure. What fighter wouldn't like to have the title? I've had it more than anybody else and I'd still like to get it. But it's not a huge motivation for me.

"In a way, I expect I might be a better fighter because I'm relaxed and I'm happy with my life and where I am and there's not a lot that's worrying me."