Two welterweights who stood at or near the top of the sport will collide this Saturday night (September 24, 2011) in the co-main event of UFC 135 as former two-time 170 pound champion Matt Hughes takes on recent title challenger Josh Koscheck.
Matt Hughes enters this bout on the verge of his 38th birthday and with many questions surrounding his potential retirement. This is the last fight under his current UFC contract and he's on the heels of a quick knockout loss to B.J. Penn at UFC 123 last year.
Josh Koscheck is also returning from a failed title challenge to George St. Pierre in which he was repeatedly jabbed to the point where he needed corrective surgery. Koscheck stepped up in place of Diego Sanchez, a fellow veteran of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season one and is hoping to use a victory over Hughes to propel him back up the divisional ladder.
Does Hughes have one last big fight in him? Can Koscheck bounce back by taking out the UFC Hall of Famer he called out years ago? Which will win on Saturday night, the UFC's past or the present?
Record: 45-8 overall, 18-6 in the UFC
Key Losses: Georges St. Pierre 2x (UFC 65, UFC 79), B.J. Penn 2x (UFC 123, UFC 46), Thiago Alves (UFC 85)
How he got here: Wow, where do we start? Matt Hughes is a legend of the sport. There's no doubt about that. He was a two time All-American while wrestling at Eastern Ilinois. When he transitioned to MMA, he competed in a ton of regional shows including three times in the UFC at UFC 22, UFC 26 and UFC 29.
When his coach, Pat Miletich, couldn't compete for the welterweight title at UFC 34, Hughes stepped up and won the championship against Carlos Newton in an incredibly dramatic slam while being triangle choked in which both men lost consciousness.
Hughes defended himself five times before a surprise loss to B.J. Penn at UFC 46. He would fight George St. Pierre for the vacant title after Penn left the UFC eight months later would would defeat GSP via armbar with one second left in the first round.
Hughes would defend his title twice while also fighting in two non-title bouts against Joe Riggs and Royce Gracie but would lose his championship to George St. Pierre via technical knockout in a rematch. After coaching a season of The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes would fight St. Pierre for the interim title but would lose via second round armbar, the last time he'd ever compete for the belt.
Since then, Hughes has fought sporadically, going 3-2 over the past three years. He had a nice three fight win streak snapped by B.J. Penn in a trilogy fight, losing via knockout just 21 seconds into the first round. The country boy was slated to face Diego Sanchez at UFC 135 but Josh Koscheck stepped in on short notice when "The Dream" went down with an injury.
How he gets it done: Hughes prides himself with his wrestling but he likely won't have a wrestling advantage over Koscheck. He likely won't be faster either.
His keys to victory include trying to utilize his brute strength against the TUF season one veteran and perhaps peppering Koscheck's eye with jabs like in his last fight against Georges St. Pierre. Koscheck had his orbital broken badly against GSP and that could be a weakness Hughes could try to exploit if he can find a home for the jab.
In terms of utilizing his strength, the best place to do that would be in the clinch against the recent title challenger. Hughes could close the distance and really try to bully him against the fence which could give him opportunities to really try to wear Koscheck out, perhaps hurt him with short strikes or some dirty boxing.
What Hughes doesn't want to do is trade power strikes or turn this into a wrestling match. Josh Koscheck is a terrific wrestler and has a very real chance of gaining the upper hand in scrambles which could put Hughes in a bad spot.
Record: 15-5 overall, 13-5 in the UFC
How he got here: Josh Koscheck was a national champion Division I wrestler and four time All-American at Edinboru University in Pennsylvania. He was very inexperienced in MMA with just two career fights when he tried out for season one of The Ultimate Fighter. He was able to utilize his wrestling to handle rival Chris Leben but would fall short in a decision to Diego Sanchez.
Koscheck would get off to a strong start in the UFC, winning seven of his first eight fights in the promotion including gaining his revenge against Diego Sanchez. This earned him an opportunity to face Georges St. Pierre, the former champion in the first fight after losing his title. GSP surprised "Kos" by wrestling with him and earning a unanimous decision.
The TUF veteran bounced back with strong showings against Chris Lytle and Dustin Hazelett but would suffer a rough stretch of taking fights on short notice and losing to both Thiago Alves and Paulo Thiago.
The former All-American got back on track against veteran Frank Trigg with a first round knockout and would defeat Anthony Johnson in one of the best performances of his career at UFC 106. He outwrestled Paul Daley at UFC 113 to earn a title shot, drawing the ire of the Brit.
In his rematch against St. Pierre at UFC 124, Koscheck was dominated by GSP's jab, having his orbital bone broken badly and losing a five round decision. After an nine month layoff, he stepped in on short notice for Diego Sanchez to fight Matt Hughes in the co-main event of UFC 135.
How he gets it done: In the stand-up, Koscheck will likely do what he always does, look to land his big power strikes. He's got some lethal looping hooks that can put Matt Hughes' lights out if he can connect flush.
If he wants to protect his eye, don't be surprised one bit to see Koscheck go back to his roots with his wrestling. He has the technique and skill to take Hughes down and go to work against the veteran on the ground. The key will be to not leave himself exposed in the process and give Hughes an opportunity to go for some of his unique submissions like the headlock that put Ricardo Almeida to sleep at UFC 117.
Koscheck has stated that he's been working on his striking defense so don't be surprised to see improved evasion in his striking. He saw what B.J. Penn did to Matt Hughes the last time out and he knows he can do the same thing if he can connect with a big blow. Expect to see him really head hunt in the striking department.
Fight "X-Factor:" The X-Factor for this fight is, how will Josh Koscheck react when he gets punched in the orbital again? It's a big storyline coming in for a reason. Some fighters take some time to get acclimated to the same situation after suffering a bad injury and how Koscheck reacts to getting hit in the face will be a huge factor into how this fight plays out.
If he's timid and protective of the eye, that's something that Hughes can pick up on and turn up the aggression with his striking. If he shakes it off and presses forward aggressively, Hughes will have to completely change his method of attack and it could throw him off.
Bottom Line: This bout would have been a lot more interesting had it happened about four years ago when Hughes was still at the top of the sport. Now, at 37 years old and approaching 38, he's getting very close to the end of his career. Koscheck is highly favored in this bout and rightfully so. It could end quickly for the recent title challenger, or Hughes could pull something out of his hat and come away with a huge victory. There's a high chance of a finish and you should definitely tune into this one at least for the historical value because it may be the final fight of Matt Hughes' long and storied career.
Who will come out on top at UFC 135? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!