Matt Hughes is easily one of the most recognizable and dominant champions in the sport of mixed martial arts. At age 36, he's racked up an impressive 45 wins in 52 career contests, and he's successfully defended the UFC welterweight title 11 times. Hughes was inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame at the 2010 UFC Fan Expo due to his long-time service in the world's top mixed martial arts promotion and his laundry list of accomplishments. Unlike most Hall of Famers, however, Hughes isn't ready to slow down and get off the saddle just yet.
Hughes made the case at UFC 117 that he may still have what it takes to compete in the upper echelon of the UFC's 170-pound division. Battling New Jersey's Ricardo Almeida, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who entered the contest riding a three-fight winning streak, Hughes overpowered Almeida in the clinch, sank in what many would consider to be a very underutilized choke known in the wrestling community as the "Dave Schultz front headlock choke," and subdued Almeida in mere seconds. It was an impressive performance to say the least, and it proves that Hughes still has a place in choppy waters of the UFC's welterweight division.
Fighters like Rashad Evans call his style "antiquated," and writers like myself believed he was experiencing the inevitable slowdown that age produces. Hughes has acknowledged in the past that he has thought about his physical condition and style in these late years, but Saturday night's performance against Ricardo Almeida certainly didn't prove a continued downward spiral into retirement. On the contrary, Hughes was in better physical condition, fleet-footed enough to evade Almeida's boxing, and slick enough to catch Almeida in a choke that he didn't see coming for even a split second. To top it all off, Hughes powerfully showed that he still had the brute strength to completely incapacitate a grown man in seconds, an attribute that has been connected to him for his entire career.
The performance brings new questions into the discussion of where the UFC welterweight division goes from here. Jon Fitch has obviously solidified himself as the #1 contender following his victory over Thiago Alves, but his next fight really depends on whether his teammate, Josh Koscheck, can defeat Georges St. Pierre in December. Dan Hardy battles Carlos Condit on October 16th, and Martin Kampmann meets UFC newcomer Jake Shields on October 23rd, leaving only a few opponents for Hughes to fight. Dennis Hallman would be the easy choice as the UFC could build it as Hughes wanting to avenge his losses, but that seems rather ridiculous at this point.
The better choice, in my mind, is Mike Swick. Not only has American Kickboxing Academy had a beef with Hughes in the past over potentially ducking the trio of Koscheck, Fitch, and Swick for easier fights, but it's actually a fight that's somewhat compelling. Hughes moves on from dominating Renzo Gracie and his students to demolishing one of AKA's premier fighters? Perhaps.
It's certainly a fight that could get some fair interest from casual fans as well. After all, Hughes, along with a successful fighting career, has had some success in the realm of self-marketing as well. Everybody seemed to love him as much as bandwagon fans loved the Dallas Cowboys in the 90's only five years ago, but much of that changed after his UFC 65 loss to Georges St. Pierre. His coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter season 6 certainly made him out to be a villain, and he slowly became a man that many fans loved to hate. Fortunately for Hughes, being loved and hated produces interest and bigger paychecks.
I won't say that I'm a huge Matt Hughes fan because I'm not. He comes off as cocky and arrogant most of the time, and I would probably believe it if someone told me Rick "The Model" Martel followed him around spraying "Arrogance" wherever Hughes went. His personality rubs me the wrong way, but that won't take away from the fact that Matt Hughes is a legend of this sport who deserves praise. He's also the epitome of middle America, and I can't hate on the "God fearin' hard workin' combine driver".