Hughes: Back to His Roots

By Mike Sloan Dec 27, 2007
Virtually every elite fighter has had to endure the heartache and anguish of defeat.

World champions lose their prized titles. Some drop a few consecutive fights. Others just falter off the beaten path of dominance to the point where walking away from the fight game is the only option.

It could be a steady decline of hunger or deterioration of skills or merely a lack of focus -- sometimes even the greatest plunge into mediocrity.

Or sometimes -- a bit too often it seems -- overconfidence is the Achilles heel of the champion. In this case, it takes a loss or two and a dose of humility to jar the senses back into him.

For Matt Hughes (Pictures), it seems like the latter circumvented his sheer dominance within the UFC welterweight division.

For a while it seemed as though Hughes, once the most feared man in the world at 170 pounds, had slammed headfirst into a wall of complacency. It was almost as if the mixed martial arts world had figured out how to topple him and he had mutated from majesty to normalcy.

"I think it [was] a combination of a lot of things," said Hughes, who fights St. Pierre Saturday in Las Vegas for the third time. "You win so many times, you just get stuck in a rut to where you don't think you're doing anything wrong. I got back to my roots of hard work, actually. Hard work and wrestling."

In order for the former welterweight champion to beat another former welterweight champion in St. Pierre, Hughes will have needed to put forth a similar work ethic that made him what Zuffa president Dana White described as the greatest 170 pounder of all time.

St. Pierre thrashed Hughes when they clashed for a second time in November 2006. Thirteen months after the deflating loss, Hughes claims to know just what to do when he tries to tackle "Rush" in the rubber match.

"In hindsight, do I wish I would've gone in there with a better game plan? Sure. I didn't win," reflected Hughes on his second fight with St. Pierre. "Anybody who doesn't win wishes they would've had a better game plan or followed the game plan a little bit better. I'm not going to tell you my game plan, but yeah, I did a lot of things wrong."

While his answers were succinct in regards to how he'll attack St. Pierre, his philosophy on how to fight and what it takes to become great were a little more in-depth.

"I'm a big believer that you have to be able to win everywhere, and so you're never going to be able to put your opponent in the most dominant position all the time," he mused. "You gotta be able to win everywhere. That's my mark of a true champion, somebody who doesn't have to go in there with a very strict game plan but can still pull off a victory from everywhere."

Without giving away any training secrets or ways of handing St. Pierre his second defeat in three fights, the relatively mute Hughes remained confident that he'll walk away from the Octagon as the new UFC "interim" welterweight champion.

Hughes had been locked down in preparation for arch nemesis Matt Serra (Pictures), but the reigning welterweight king suffered an injury and had to withdraw from the event. Still, Hughes said he's done enough in the gym to triumph, especially considering that he already had the mindset for a championship bout.

"If I caught Georges in a situation where he hasn't been training that long, then good for me," Hughes said. "I'm very comfortable going five rounds. I've been going for five rounds for, shoot, close to three years now. Did I think it would help me out? Yeah, a little bit because that's what I'm used to doing. I just wanted it to be a five-round fight because I thought it ought to be a title fight when Georges and I fight."

Hughes was unclear as to how much longer he'll continue to fight, though he's maintained for over a year that two or three more major fights remain in his tank before he'll likely exit stage left.

The sure-fire Hall of Fame fighter has little else to prove in MMA, and there are only a handful of challenges remaining for the Illinois farmer that pique his interest.

"To be honest, I'm playing it by ear," he said of a looming retirement. "However the road goes for me in my career is what's going to depict it. I've got a 17-month-old little girl at home and two boys and I want to spend time with them. I've been smart enough with my money to where I don't have to go out and fight 20 more fights and be comfortable."

"I can't say that two or three big wins in a row will keep me in the sport and I can't say two losses will keep me out of the sport," he continued. "I just don't know right now. The only thing I'm worried about right now is my training for Georges St. Pierre (Pictures). I'm not worried about any type of retirement or who might be next. I'm worried about Georges."

To reopen many a jaded eye about his fall from grace as well as land a shot at Serra's genuine UFC title, Hughes had better be worried about St. Pierre. If the trilogy-making match unfolds like the first 11 or so minutes of their storied history, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Hughes will once again experience the anguish that comes with failing to win.
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