When the UFC returns to its birthplace of Denver on Saturday night, one of its pioneers might enter the Octagon for the last time.
Matt Hughes’ career doesn’t quite date back to November 12, 1993, when UFC 1 was held at McNichols Arena, but this fight Saturday will mark, to the day, the 12th anniversary of his debut with the organization at UFC 22 on September 24, 1999.
On that night, he won an easy decision over Valeri Ignatov. Today he finds himself holding the record for most wins in UFC competition with 17.
Hughes, who will turns 38 in a few weeks, has casually tossed around the word “retirement” for a few years. The word came up again this week when noting this will be Saturday is the final fight of his UFC contract.
But Hughes said what happens in the cage against Josh Koscheck on Saturday is not going to have any bearing on that decision. "This is my last fight on the contract," said Hughes (46-8) about his UFC 135 co-main event at the Pepsi Center. "The outcome of the fight won’t matter. After this fight, win or lose, I’ll talk to UFC. My wife has said I’m done fighting. She wanted me to quit after [his 21-second KO loss to B.J. Penn on Nov. 20, his most recent fight]). We’ll see what happens and make the decision with UFC."
The UFC Hall of Famer and two-time former welterweight champion still talks like he’s having fun.
"It’s competition,” he said. “That’s what drives your top athletes in the UFC, getting in with one person and mixing it up. I don’t have to rely on four other teammates. It’s me and another person competing, that’s my big drive. I’m a lucky man. I love to go to the gym every day, twice a day. I enjoy traveling with my buddies. Overall it’s a great lifestyle."
In his time off since November, Hughes trained at gyms all over North America, including with former rival Penn in Hawaii. The bulk of his recent training was in Salt Lake City, to get ready for the Denver altitude and to sharpen his ground game at the gym of former gym teammate Jeremy Horn.
"I picked up a lot from B.J.," he said. "He’s got a lot to offer. He’s a very intelligent fighter and grappler. I obviously made a couple of mistakes in my fight with him and he was able to recognize them and capitalize on them. "My footwork was one mistake. I picked up on my footwork. Boxing footwork is a lot different than wrestling footwork, and it hasn’t been the easiest thing to me as far as throwing punches."
While Denver was where the UFC began, it was also the place where the controversy that nearly put UFC down for the count started.
Spurred on by negative media stories about the UFC’s alleged barbaric nature, Denver city officials attempted to get return engagement in December. 1995 canceled or moved out of town. UFC, under different ownership at the time, threatened to sue, noting it they had been approved in the city before and signed a valid contract.
While the show went on in the end, it was clear that old version of the UFC would not be welcomed back.
This week, there has been no negative talk from city officials, who for the most part embrace the UFC due to the economic benefit of fans coming from all over the country to big events. The Pepsi Center is expected to be full and advance ticket sales are in the $2 million range for a show headlined by Jon Jones vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson for the light heavyweight title.
"I think it’s pretty cool to be fighting where UFC started," said Hughes, who began started in the sport on smaller Midwest shows four years in 1997. "I wasn’t in the UFC when they were in Denver. I was just a fan of the sport watching on tape. As far as any recollections of what was happening in UFC in that day, I don’t have any."
When Hughes entered the sport, fighter skill was primitive compared to today. Hughes started almost purely as a powerhouse wrestler. A two-time Division 2 All-American wreslterwrestler, nobody his size could counter his strength nor stop his takedowns. When they were put on their back, few could get up. Hughes won 24 of his first 25 fights while slowly picking up the other aspects of the game like the striking and jiu-jitsu.
Hughes still has two of the longest title reigns in company history. He was welterweight champion for most of the period from 2001-06 as the predecessor to Georges St. Pierre.
But it’s a different world now. The days of walking into the cage and just taking down and beating on everyone on the other side are long over. Every top fighter studies wrestling and avoiding takedowns. He can no longer grab a body lock and with his power and send victims into orbit almost at will with the famed Hughes running slams. But he’s remained competitive, winning three in a row before his loss to Penn.
Hughes had said in the past he had no interest in fighting Koscheck, who called him out specifically a few years ago back in the ring. In fact, Hughes has never faced anyone from the American Kickboxing Academy, even though both Koscheck and Jon Fitch, along with Hughes, have been among the top names in the division for years.
Koscheck (15-5) is a late replacement for Diego Sanchez, who suffered a broken hand . When the first fell through on Sept. 5, Hughes at first wasn’t even sure if all his training had gone to waste.
"The first thing that can came to my mind is I’ve been training quite a little while, and I was thinking it wasn’t going to happen," he recalled. "It was kind of confusion. [Dana White] called me and on the message he said, well he said originally Fitch, but he was injured and then he said Koscheck. It’s Dana’s call, not my call."
Koscheck also has had a long layoff. He's himself has been out of action since December, when he suffered a broken right orbital bone which required two surgeries, during his losing title challenge to St. Pierre in December. He was originally not scheduled to fight until November, but insists taking the fight on 19 days notice isn’t a problem.
Oddsmakers don’t believe it is either, listing Koscheck as a five-to-one favorite, numbers the likes of which Hughes has never been on the wrong side of his entire career.
On paper, Koscheck was a better college wrestler than Hughes as an NCAA Division 1 champion, not to mention being four years younger. Koscheck’s wrestling ability should be able to keep the fight standing. Koscheck has quicker hands, better kicks and more power.
But he also fights with a more reckless style, and has been caught in the past because of it. Hughes knocked Ricardo Almeida silly three fights back, and his wins over Matt Serra and Renzo Gracie were largely fought standing.
"I’ve been in with a lot of good guys who hit hard, '“King'” Mo [Lawal], Luke Rockhold, I could have fought a while ago," Koscheck said. "I wanted to take some personal time off. It was great having time off."
Hughes said he also feels refreshed after a layoff.
"I enjoyed my time off, no doubt about it," he said. "Ten months off is fine for me. It gives me a chance to do more training, lifting weights, working on technique, not worrying about getting in shape."
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