Passing the Torch: Matt Hughes edition

We see it in every venue of entertainment; from movies and television to music to combat sports. Someone is all the rage one moment and then -- poof -- it's all gone.

But while a once-hot actor or actress might be forced to star in direct to DVD movies or a former chart-topping artist is reduced to "Where Are They Now?" status, their falls from grace -- although apparent -- are played on such a public stage as those of fighters.

Passing the Torch is a special about those fighters who were once on top of the world but suffered at least two losses that forever altered their career -- either leaving them shells of what they once were or forcing them to retire outright.

When the topic of dominant champions in mixed martial arts (MMA) is broached, it would be a crime not to bring up Matt Hughes.

The Illinois wrestler dominated the welterweight division in a way not seen before. Five years and seven successful title defenses sit atop his resume with his only blemish during that time coming at the hands of a lightweight who would end up becoming his greatest rival.

He would eventually get his revenge on the Hawaiian but his reign at the top of the 170-pound division came crashing to a halt immediately afterwards at the hands of the new welterweight kingpin.

Here we go!: 

Hughes' title reign almost didn't happen. His trainer at the time, Pat Miletich, was slated to get a rematch against Carlos Newton -- the man who beat him for the title -- but the UFC felt a fresh challenger was needed and Hughes was booked instead.

It was a spirited bout that saw "The Ronin" get a triangle choke locked on Hughes in the second round. The wrestler did what wrestlers do best and lifted the champion up, pressing him against the cage. As the flow of oxygen begin to taper off, the American dropped Newton onto the mat, knocking him out cold. Slightly groggy, it took Hughes a few seconds to realize what he had accomplished.

After that, there was no looking back. Five straight defenses including a more definitive victory over "The Ronin" separated the welterweight division into two columns: Hughes and everyone else.

A shocking upset loss to B.J. Penn was the first crack in the champ's armor but he recovered admirably by rattling off five straight wins including finishes over Georges St. Pierre, Frank Trigg, and Royce Gracie. When Penn came back to the Octagon after a sabbatical, Hughes got his win back and added the Hawaiian's name to his list of victims.

He's rocked!: 

While Hughes continued his streak of dominance, another fighter was beginning one of his own. After suffering a submission loss to the champ at UFC 50, Georges St. Pierre became a man on a mission. He felt the welterweight title was his destiny and hero or not, Hughes was standing in his way.

When they met inside the Octagon the second time, it was as if the champion was fighting an entirely different man. Standing in place of the hesitant fighter who couldn't even look the champ in the eye was a confident, skilled beast that didn't concede a single second of the fight.

A near finish at the end of the first round served as the appetizer to the second round technical knockout (TKO) main course.


A year later, the two met a third and final time. If their prior bout left any doubt as to who was the better fighter, "GSP" thoroughly erased it with another second round stoppage.

It's all over!: 

After his second loss to "Rush," Hughes was on the business end of a Thiago Alves flying knee that knocked him senseless. A devastating loss to be sure but not too bad considering the former champion took the fight on short notice and his opponent came in overweight. 

The former champ would go on to win three straight following his bout with "The Pitbull" but none were against top caliber welterweights. Matt Serra's time in the spotlight had come and gone and a bout with Renzo Gracie was more spectacle than sport.

His most impressive of the three wins was a submission victory over Ricardo Almeida at UFC 117. But while "Big Dog" is as solid a fighter as there can be, no one would ever confuse him with a world beater. When Hughes finally stepped inside the cage with a top-level 170-pounder, he looked across the cage and saw his old rival, B.J. Penn.

Their first fight ended in a shocking submission. The second saw Hughes weather an early storm from the former lightweight champ to come back and earn a TKO victory. The rubber match could have gone either way.



It didn't. That night, Penn joined Dennis Hallman in a very exclusive club of fighters who have finished Hughes off in less than 30 seconds.

The aftermatch:

After the brutal knockout to the Hawaiian, it was obvious that Hughes could still scrap but would come up short against the upper echelon of welterweights.

His status became even more obvious at UFC 135 when it only took Josh Koscheck one round to knock out the former champion. Talks of retirement peppered the build up to the fight as it was the last of Hughes' contract. When pressed about hanging up the gloves by Joe Rogan, Hughes refused to commit either way.

The sport -- one where he was once recognized as the best -- had passed him by. Nothing will ever erase his accomplishments inside the Octagon but a new breed of fighter has cropped up and left him on the outside looking in.

If you're the drinking type, toast to Matt Hughes tonight, one of the greatest fighters of all time.


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