LONDON – After Georges St. Pierre thrashed him about like he was a beginner and then submitted him at UFC 79, Matt Hughes admitted that thoughts of retirement had crossed his mind.
At the post-fight news conference in Las Vegas that night, Hughes vowed that he would retire before he’d become anyone’s highlight reel.
But on Saturday, in the main event of UFC 85 at the O2 Arena, Hughes became someone’s highlight reel yet again.
This time, Hughes became a notch on the belt of Thiago Alves, who knocked Hughes out with a perfect left knee in the second round.
As good as the up-and-coming Alves looked – and he looked plenty good – it was difficult not to wonder whether he’d have been nearly as successful a few years earlier.
Time, and the changing face of mixed martial arts, has clearly caught up to Hughes. He’s had two reigns as UFC’s welterweight champion, has won nine title fights and had an amazing run of 19 wins in 20 fights, which included victories over luminaries such as B.J. Penn, St. Pierre and Royce Gracie.
He’s been a classy representative of the sport, which made watching him get thrashed about like a sparring partner Saturday all the more difficult to take. He clearly wants a fight with his bitter rival, Matt Serra, a fight UFC president Dana White said he’d make if Hughes wants it.
And while there was a time when most mixed martial arts experts thought Hughes would steamroll Serra, that time is long past. Hughes has now lost three of his last four and has been dominated in each of the losses.
Though the bad blood between the two, and Serra’s ability to chatter, would help sell the fight, it would be another of the WWE-type promotions that the sport is better off without. The UFC appeared to leave that behind when it was done with the Ken Shamrock-Tito Ortiz trilogy, and it has no need to go back to such events. The athletes are too good and the sport has evolved too much for it to rely on “feuds” to sell tickets.
And given that there has to be considered at least a decent possibility that Serra could win the fight, White needs to consider the fact that he wouldn’t be doing Hughes any favors by letting him get into the cage and get beaten up again. Certainly, he doesn’t need to be in with young, strong and athletic men like St. Pierre and Alves any more.
Hughes was asked how he felt seeing such superb athletes like St. Pierre and Alves develop into stars and he didn’t mince any words.
“I don’t like it,” Hughes said, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “Ask me again and I’ll say it a thousand times. I don’t like it.”
Five years ago, he would have been drooling for such competition and he would have overpowered it on most nights.
But while the 34-year-old Hughes said he felt good even as he walked to the cage, he lacks the quick, explosive shot that he had as a younger man. Hughes went for a shot early, but Alves easily saw it coming and stuffed it.
Hughes was handled by Alves much like Ortiz was handled by Lyoto Machida two weeks earlier at UFC 84. At an impromptu question-and-answer session with a handful of reporters after Friday’s weigh-in, White was talking about how Ortiz didn’t land a punch or a kick and didn’t get a takedown against Machida.
Hughes wasn’t much better against Alves. And that bout was essentially played out the way the St. Pierre fight was in December.
For his part, Alves is moving close to a shot at the welterweight title, though he has to prove he can make the 170-pound weight limit.
He needed a diuretic to help him in a 2006 fight, which cost him an eight-month suspension imposed by the Nevada Athletic Commission. He barely made weight for his November win over Chris Lytle, needing to strip naked to hit 171. Alves said he sprained his right ankle about 10 days ago, which prevented him from working out for three days. That, Alves said, resulted in him weighing four pounds over the 170-pound limit at Friday’s weigh-in.
An engaging sort who once had a job as a dance escort for women in South Florida, Alves said all the right things at the post-fight news conference. He said he has long been a fan of mixed martial arts and especially enjoyed watching Hughes.
“This means everything to me,” he said of a win over Hughes. “I remember watching Matt Hughes slamming people through the floor. I’m really, really happy.”
The problem that White must wrestle with now is that pretty much everyone beats him. And while the fighter almost always believes he has one more bout left – and Hughes desperately wants to tear into Serra to settle their long-standing differences – there comes a time when the fighter needs to be protected from himself.
That time has come for Hughes, and White needs to forget the money a potential Hughes-Serra bout may generate and do what is best for the man.
That means telling him no more fights.
In the ring, Hughes said he still wanted the Serra fight, but he wouldn’t flatly demand it at the post-fight news conference.
“Any questions about my future, I think those are best directed toward Dana,” Hughes said. “Ask him.”
White said he would “absolutely” make that fight. But to say that ignores what unfolded in front of him not only on Saturday, but on Dec. 29 as well as Nov. 18, 2006.
There’s no reason for Hughes to press forward. He’s a surefire Hall of Famer and, most importantly, he still has his health and his faculties.
He needs to walk away and let the great young fighters in the business try to equal his records.
The time has come for Matt Hughes to retire.