The Matt Hughes train is headed to the UFC Hall of Fame. The question is, is Las Vegas on Saturday night the final stop before enshrinement?
Hughes is near the top of most UFC all-time lists. The two-time welterweight champion is tied with Randy Couture for most wins in championship matches with nine. He’s tied with Tito Ortiz and Anderson Silva for most consecutive successful title defenses with five. He’s second to Randy Couture for most total time as champion at 52 months. And he’s tied with Tito Ortiz for second place behind Chuck Liddell for most UFC victories, with 17.
During what most would consider his peak, from 2001 to the end of 2006, when he dropped the title for a final time to Georges St. Pierre, he went on a 19-1 (including two wins outside the UFC) tear.
When UFC president Dana White pushed him as "the greatest welterweight of all-time," during the build for his most famous match, a UFC 60 win over Royce Gracie, there was virtually nobody who tried to pick apart the statement because it was almost impossible to argue.
Hughes has repeatedly said that he’s not the kind of fighter who wants to be the former champion who becomes the stepping stone for young fighters to make themselves stars, and the subject of retirement has been broached by him a few times.
For the last year, all he’s committed to is that he was going to come back for a match with Matt Serra, a match whose seeds were sown in when both appeared as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 6.
A loss, which would be Hughes’ third in a row, would probably eliminate him from the main event scene. He’s coming off 11 months out of action after suffering a torn MCL and partially torn PCL in being hammered by Thiago Alves in his last fight, on June 7, in which he lost by stoppage at 1:02 of the second round.
Hughes, 35, is in his 12th year as a pro in a sport that is not kind to people with that kind of mileage, with 40 pro fights. He was the original powerhouse welterweight wrestler, a two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois University from tiny Hillsborough, Ill., with farm boy strength, whose takedown nobody could stop.
But he couldn’t take down St. Pierre in either their second or third fight, nor Alves, and was hammered standing. Still, he’s a 13-to-5 favorite over Serra, who he’s continually denigrated, saying that in future years, when people look back at the history books of welterweight champions and see the name Matt Serra, they’ll go, "Who?," labeling him UFC’s version of a one-hit wonder.
"I wouldn’t rank him in the top 10 in the world at the weight," said Hughes. "He’d be barely in the top 20."
Hughes was so talented in his prime he was able to run over people with a minimum of training. But clearly, he realizes those days are over. He went to a number of different camps and trained with new people, and said he switched his training methods up a lot.
Still, most see this match as pretty simple. Serra is probably more dangerous standing because of his knockout power. Hughes, who labeled Serra a poor wrestler, said if need be, he could take him down at will.
Serra, in theory as an elite jiu-jitsu competitor, should be able to handle himself on the bottom. But the fly in the ointment is that Hughes has underrated jiu-jitsu skills, and Serra did nothing from his back against St. Pierre.
A win over Serra would be another clip in a lengthy highlight reel. He was on the winning end of several memorable moments, including his first title win, over Carlos Newton, the man who took the belt from his then-coach, Pat Miletich. His UFC 52 win over Frank Trigg, in which he recovered from a low blow and delived a running slam all the way across the cage before finishing with a choke, is still played in arenas before UFC events.
Hughes' popularity and fame exploded with that of the company. He gained face time in his first stint as coach The Ultimate Fighter, during season two. His over Gracie was one of the best promoted matches in company history. His thrilling UFC 63 win over B.J. Penn, the only man to defeat him during his 19-1 run, elevated his popularity even further.
Hughes was so well respected that when St. Pierre won the title from him, it was considered such a huge win that St. Pierre instantly became one of the sport’s major superstars.
But he’s also a polarizing figure, unafraid to express his opinions and not caring about how he comes off. The personal animosity between Hughes and Serra has caused fans to take sides, and nobody really knows what the reaction will be on Saturday night.
Hughes is nonchalant about it, saying, "If I’ve lost fans because of TUF 6, then they weren’t fans to begin with. If I beat him up in 30 seconds, I won’t be disappointed, but it won’t be as satisfying as going all three rounds and just beating the guy up."
After that? The only hint Hughes has given about his future beyond Saturday night's fight is that he wants another shot at Alves. Hughes took that fight on short notice as a favor to UFC, which saw the card in London nearly fall apart due to one injury after another to headliners. Worse, Alves came in four pounds overweight.
"I wish that fight would have gone three rounds," he said about the Alves fight. "I got injured. I got hit with a good knee, so that’s a rematch I would look forward to."