Has the time come for hall of famer Matt Hughes to walk away? | File Photo: Fernando Allende/NY Post/Splash
Former welterweight champion Matt Hughes’ knockout loss to Josh Koscheck in the UFC 135 co-main event on Saturday in Denver was a sobering reminder of how the Old Guard in MMA is being swept out once and for all. With each irrevocable moment -- be it Randy Couture’s knockout defeat to Lyoto Machida, Chuck Liddell’s unceremonious exit against Rich Franklin or the fall of any veteran who once ruled the roost -- the aging mixed martial artist is inexorably pushed toward the door.
It takes a certain mentality to become an elite fighter, much less a champion, and what makes one able to reach such a level is precisely what makes it that much harder to know when to quit; especially for those who for years heard what they could not do from people who were ultimately wrong in their assessment.
It must be especially vexing for Hughes, whose five-defense reign as champion was as intimidating and destructive as any that preceded it. During those salad days, Hughes was known for training minimally for bouts, showing up to get in, at most, a short camp prior to walking into the Octagon to his signature entrance music and crushing challengers. My favorite Hughes-is-AWOL story while champion was his title defense against Sean Sherk at UFC 42 in 2003, when the unbeaten challenger was preparing like a maniac. It was originally told to me by Monte Cox and is worthy of recounting here.
With two weeks left before his defense, nobody could find Hughes. Finally, he showed up to train at the Miletich Fighting Systems camp, with an exasperated Cox asking him where he had been.
“I had to help my brother put a new roof on,” replied Hughes. With that, he went out to decision an inspired but ultimately overmatched Sherk in five hard-charging rounds. That was the quintessential Hughes, who always maintained that farming was harder than training; his dominance was even more impressive because it was well-known that he barely prepared for fights.
UFC 135 was equally painful for Hughes, perhaps more so because he seemed to be planting the seeds of a possible upset. Scoring with a persistent jab and seeming more confident than ever in his standup, Hughes was putting together some solid work in the opening four minutes. Then, suddenly, Koscheck decided to scuttle it all, hammering home a right hook.
I’m not sure precisely when this laissez-faire approach ceased entirely and was replaced by the dedicated Hughes that fully prepared for fights, but it likely happened sometime near the end of his title reign, when he knew that a second go-around with then-challenger Georges St. Pierre necessitated a full camp.
Nowadays, he trains far more than he did in his prime, with a consistency those peak years never knew with any regularity, and he gets beats more handily in the process. It is hard to imagine what’s in his head after a thrashing like the one Koscheck delivered.
In his post-fight interview with UFC color analyst Joe Rogan, Hughes seemed to be the last one in the Pepsi Center to get the cue that this was the ideal time to announce his retirement, and his ensuing hedge on the question was a poignant moment.
The sport has improved tremendously in the five years since he was champion. One could also make the argument that Hughes has gotten older, but, in a technical sense, it’s not like he has dropped off anywhere to visible effect, and his standup is better than ever. It is akin to Michael Jordan going from the most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA to him struggling to score 15 points a night. Yet, the sport stops for no fighter. Hughes’ merciless streak of crushing defeats in recent bouts -- sandwiched around a sort of Senior Tour pair of wins over Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida -- only underscores how quickly a dominant skill set can become obsolescent.
It also should be noted that Hughes has soldiered through some of the worst twists and turns of matchmaking a fighter could endure. Originally slated to face Matt Serra at UFC 79 in December 2007, he instead took a fight with St. Pierre after Serra pulled out five weeks before the bout. There have been fewer rubber matches with so little suspense, as St. Pierre dominated in a fashion that further illustrated the increasing distance between them skill-wise.
In his next bout, Hughes stepped in on short notice against Thiago Alves to supply a main event on a UFC 85 card that was plagued by injuries. Alves, who came in four pounds overweight, looked a weight class bigger and it showed, as “The Pitbull” steamrolled Hughes to win via crushing technical knockout. Then, he was slated for a winnable matchup against Diego Sanchez at UFC 135. Koscheck stepped in after Sanchez withdrew, resulting in a stylistic U-turn that negated virtually every advantage Hughes might have applied against Sanchez.
Hughes has taken plenty for the team -- an admirable role in recent years -- but to continue at this point is beneath his legacy. It is one thing for a never-quite-got-there veteran to serve an extended role as a steppingstone, but it becomes a grim scene for someone of Hughes’ stature. Here’s hoping the former champion knows he has nothing left to prove and walks away for good.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.