The First Time: Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn, and a Fight That Shook the Sport

Photo by Jeff Sherwood via Sherdog

B.J. Penn was practically anointed king of the UFC's lightweight division. When he failed in a second attempt to win the title, going to a spirited draw with Caol Uno at UFC 41, he and the promotion were at a loss. Penn wasn't ready to give up on his dream of being the best lightweight in the world. He wanted UFC promoter Dana White to bring back the man who had beaten him for the first time, displaced champion Jens Pulver, or one of he best lightweights in Japan like Takanori Gomi. White was more interested in a bout with his favorite welterweight Robbie Lawler.

Penn, a stubborn, proud, and resourceful man, went out and got the Gomi fight himself. The UFC had told him it couldn't be done - his brother Jay Dee somehow did what Zuffa couldn't. He got Penn and Gomi together for a fantastic match in Hawaii. Penn won handily and finally felt like the top lightweight in the sport. He was ready to take on White's offer of a welterweight and set his sights on Sean Sherk. White was willing to go further. How would Penn like a fight with welterweight champion Matt Hughes?

Hughes was considered by many to be the best fighter in the world. A strong wrestler with developing standup and submission defense, Hughes had defended his title five consecutive times. Despite this reign of terror, Penn, naturally, was more than happy to test himself against the best. I set the scene in my book Total MMA:

(Hughes) was well respected by his peers and the hardcore fanbase that closely followed the sport. But he wasn't becoming a star. In boxing, some of the top technical fighters, like Bernard Hopkins and Ronald Wright, aren't the biggest draws. People preferred the more charismatic performers, guys who weren't as good but had more pizzazz. UFC fans were the same way. Hughes seemed bland, and his ground-based attack wasn't going to result in many flashy knockouts or submissions. While the wins piled up, the pay-per-view buys did not.

You could forgive Hughes for being a little cocky going into the bout. He had seen Penn fail against his teammate Jens Pulver. To Hughes, Penn was pampered and weak. After a string of tough bouts, he expected this would be a night off. In his book Made in America, Hughes recounts just how lightly he regarded his Hawaiian challenger.

I remembered his belly-aching after Jens kicked his butt, claiming he had actually won. And now he was going up a weight class to take me on. Was this spoiled rich kid for real?

...When I was leaning back against the cage during the introductions, I felt something I hadn't felt in over two years in the cage: I was bored. Hey let's get this thing started, I thought. I wanna go watch some TV.

Penn was just as confident. Despite the size difference, he felt a bit like the wrestler's Kryptonite. Even if Hughes did what Hughes did best, slam him to the ground, Penn would present a difficult challenge for the Pat Miletich product when the fight hit the mat. And to prepare for the best wrestler at 170 pounds, Penn took his training camp to Oregon to work with Randy Couture and his team of hard-nosed wrestling greats. In his heartfelt autobiography Why I Fight, Penn talked about the joy he got from frustrating the larger Couture in training. But now, with a title and pride on the line, the training took a turn towards the serious. Penn explained that Hughes was a good wrestler - the guys he was training with were great wrestlers:

There was no better training partners if you had to face a wrestler than the guys at Team Quest. After working with them for a couple of weeks, I was even more confident I would win. The guys there, with their all-American collegiate wrestling backgrounds, Matt Lindland with his Olympic silver medal in Greco-Roman and all the others who were just starting to get involved, it was the best place I could be.

In the main event that night, Vitor Belfort dethroned Randy Couture in less than a minute. His glove caught Couture's eyelid just wrong and the resulting cut forced a stoppage. It took Penn a little longer to take the championship from Hughes, but not much. The challenger was able to secure the top position on the wrestler. For Hughes, like most men who made wrestling their life, was clearly uncomfortable there. The goal his entire athletic career was to stay off his back. Being there, naturally, just felt wrong.

He attempted several sweeps, but Penn was able to maintain control. A big right hand rocked Hughes and Penn was able to advance to a full mount. A desperate Hughes gave his back, but instead of trying to escape or defend his head, he attempted a half hearted footlock. Penn, with nothing in his way, no hands to impede his progress, secures the rear naked choke for the win.

For Penn, it was a career defining win. For Hughes, it was a relief. The pressures of being champion were wearing him down. He told me it felt good to be able to relax, recharge, get married, and then return for another shot at the gold. When he did regain the title, it wasn't from Penn. A contract dispute saw B.J. leave the UFC for more than two years. When he did return, Penn once again had Hughes on the brain. The Illinois native was once again the champion of the world - and Penn wanted his belt back.

But that's a story for another time. Look for Kid Nate's post on the rematch tomorrow here at Bloody Elbow.

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