Critics have alleged, with much evidence, that mixed martial arts is increasingly becoming more about money and spectacle than it is about the purity of competition.
More evidence to back that point came on Wednesday when word leaked that 43-year-old UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes is contemplating a comeback.
Should Hughes go through with it and decide to return to competition for the first time since Sept. 24, 2011, when he was stopped by Josh Koscheck in the first round at UFC 135, who is his most likely opponent?
It appears it would be none other than 50-year Royce Gracie, whom Hughes mauled at UFC 60 in Los Angeles on May 27, 2006.
“If I could find an opponent that I think I can beat, I would go again,” Hughes told Joe Buck for an upcoming episode of AT&T Audience Network’s ‘Undeniable with Joe Buck.’ The episode will air in late summer/early fall.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about it all is that if there is a Hughes-Gracie II, it’s likely to be in Bellator, not the UFC. Hughes has long had a close relationship with UFC president Dana White, who on Jan. 24, 2013 named him a vice president of athlete development and government relations when the former welterweight champion formally announced his retirement.
Hughes was part of a large group of employees, including ex-light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who were laid off in December by new owners WME/IMG.
MMAFighting.com reported Hughes and Bellator have had some discussions about a rematch with Gracie.
“I’m not saying I am [going to fight again],” Hughes said to Buck. “The guy I am talking about fighting might have been in this chair.”
The only MMA fighter to appear on the show is Gracie, who was interviewed by Buck two weeks ago.
It’s not difficult to understand Hughes’ position. In the last year, numerous 40-plus fighters have competed, and Hughes sees an opening where he could make a nice payday against an opponent he believes he’d defeat easily.
The flip side, of course, is that fighting is a young man’s game. Fighters like Hughes and Gracie have already taken plenty of abuse, and declining reflexes make it more likely they’ll be hit at a higher rate the previously.
Bellator president Scott Coker has taken advantage of the big names in their 40s who built their reputations in the UFC such as Hughes, Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz in what he calls “tentpole fights.”
The thought process behind them is that the recognizable names will bring viewers in to watch the Bellator shows on Spike TV, and that will provide Coker the opportunity to expose the talented young fighters he’s signed to a big audience.
It reached a crescendo at Bellator 149 in Houston on Feb. 19, 2016 when Gracie, then 49, faced Shamrock, who was 52.
A large segment of the MMA fan base enjoys watching the recognizable names fight, regardless of their age.
Whether promotions will admit it or not, they bring these fighters in purely for financial reasons.
The Gracie-Shamrock match at Bellator 149 wasn’t competitive in the least. But it drew 2.4 million viewers to Spike and attracted an attendance of 14,209 to the Toyota Center, the largest in the history of the promotion.
The trend is clearly moving toward these kinds of fights, which makes a spectacle out of it. But as long as fans will watch, it’s not going to stop.
And that’s why Hughes, a 43-year-old who was knocked out in the first round in each of his last two fights and who hasn’t won since UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010, is thinking of a return.
It’s not enticing to those who want to see the best in the world go head to head, but it is reality.
Get used to it. You’re going to see it more often.