Hughes-St. Pierre: UFC's match of the year?

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Dave Doyle

Forget Michigan-Ohio State. Saturday's real battle between No. 1 and No. 2 takes place in the octagon at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

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    Hughes-St. Pierre isn't the only title match at UFC 65. Read about Tim Sylvia's heavyweight title defense against Jeff Monson.

  • The Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title match between champion Matt Hughes and challenger Georges St. Pierre just might be the perfect mixed martial arts showdown. Rarely have two opponents at the top of their game offered such an intriguing blend of contrasts and complements as those possessed by Hughes, one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport, and St. Pierre, considered by many his heir apparent. Why does the main event of UFC 65 have insiders, fighters, and fans alike arguing over who will win? Here are eight reasons why this could be the match of the year, one for each side of the octagon:
  • 1. Personality and marketability: This is supposed to be an era in which outlandish and outrageous athletes get all the attention. But Hughes has built himself up to one of the biggest sports draws on pay-per-view television with his straight-ahead, no-nonsense Midwest values. If you pay for a Matt Hughes fight, you might not get much hype, but you're almost guaranteed to see an unparalleled display of hard work and the will to win. "I am who I am," said Hughes. "The fans know what to expect from me when I fight so I think that's why they keep tuning in." St. Pierre, meanwhile, has the potential to become UFC's breakthrough crossover star. The native of Ste. Isidore, Quebec (outside of Montreal) is loaded with a rare, likeable charisma that makes girls want to be seen with him, but he's not so pretty that he turns off the guys, who understand he can bring it when the octagon gate is shut. Already one of Montreal's most popular athletes and a near-mainstream name in Canada, St. Pierre's rep for making time for his fans with autographs and pictures is legendary in a sport already known for athlete accessibility.
  • 2. Intersection of eras: The 33-year old Hughes is from the old school of former college wrestlers — he was a two-time NCAA All-American at Eastern Illinois — who broke into MMA as a way to make some money off their talents and found their niche. The 25-year old St. Pierre is from the generation who discovered Royce Gracie as a kid — he was a black belt in kyokushin karate by the age of 12 — and grew up wanting to follow in his footsteps. A St. Pierre win would represent a passing of the torch to the generation that grew up specifically shunning other sports in favor of mixed martial arts. "Other kids in Montreal, they all wanted to play hockey," said St. Pierre. "I like hockey, but as soon as I saw Royce Gracie in the UFC, the little guy beating all the bigger guys, I knew that was who I wanted to be like."
  • 3. History: Hughes' legacy is such that he has earned his spot among the sport's all-time greats. Twelve times since 2001, Hughes has entered the octagon as either UFC welterweight champ or as a challenger. Eleven times he has been victorious, and he has avenged his only loss, to B.J. Penn. Hughes has compiled a 40-4 record has won an astounding 19 of his past 20 fights dating back to early 2001. The sport has evolved at light speed since that time, stars have peaked and burned out, dozens of "next big things" have come and gone, but Hughes has not only adapted, he's improved as he's gone along. St. Pierre (12-1) just might represent Hughes' last great challenge at welterweight. GSP has not been given an easy road to his title shot. His past three wins have been convincing takeouts of some of Hughes' most famous foes: Current lightweight champ Sean Sherk (five rounds against Hughes; lost to St. Pierre in 2:53 of the second in a one-sided fight); Frank Trigg (both won in one round, Hughes twice); and Penn (Hughes needed two fights to defeat Penn; GSP decisioned him the first time out).
  • 4. Rematch: At UFC 50 in Oct. 2004, Hughes handed St. Pierre his only career loss, and did so in a manner that gnaws at St. Pierre to this day. Then 23, St. Pierre had his moments in the first match and made the champ sweat, but made a mistake borne of inexperience and left himself open for an armbar, then submitted with one second left in the first round. Since then, St. Pierre, who at UFC 54 got on the mic and got down on his knees after he dispatched of Trigg and literally begged UFC president Dana White for another shot at the title, has focused all his energies on his second chance. "I gave Matt Hughes too much respect the first time we fought," said St. Pierre. "He was my idol, I looked up to him. I still respect Hughes but now I see him as just another opponent. Back then I was happy to be in the octagon with him. Now I see myself as the future champion of the world."
  • 5. Skill sets: Once he steps into the octagon, St. Pierre transforms from affable kid brother to human buzzsaw. With a lanky frame by welterweight standards, limitless energy, and an uncanny ability to think on his feet, switch gears and adapt to circumstance, St. Pierre's fights often come off as MMA clinics. Hughes, quite simply, might have more heart than anyone who has ever stepped into the octagon. Every time it appears Hughes has met his match against someone with more skills, he manages to flat-out bull his way to victory, whether by way of big slams or a vicious ground-and-pound assault. "I don't think there are any secrets about Matt Hughes' style," said St. Pierre. "That is why he has been a great champion. The true champion always finds a way to win." Examples include Hughes' first fight with Trigg at UFC 45, in which Trigg had Hughes trapped in a rear naked choke, but Hughes got up and dropped backwards in order to break loose and score the win. Or the second Trigg match at UFC 52, in which Hughes survived a low blow, broke another choke, and carried Trigg all the way across the octagon for a running slam in one of UFC's all-time highlights. Or the second Penn rematch at UFC 63, in which Hughes lost the first two rounds, barely escaping multiple submission attempts at the end of the second, and adjusted his strategy on the fly to win via third-round TKO.
  • 6. Too little/too much?: St. Pierre has only fought once since handling Sherk a year ago (a win over Penn at UFC 58 in March), raising questions of potential ring rust. He's coming off a groin injury that caused him to pull out of the first scheduled date for the fight on Sept. 23.
    The veteran Hughes is fighting for the fourth time in less than a year, just eight weeks after an absolute war with Penn. While St. Pierre runs the risk of octagon rust, Hughes is flirting with the danger of burning the candle at both ends. Both fighters downplay their concerns. "I am not worried about being rusty," said St. Pierre. "The only time I have stopped in the past year is when I was injured, but I have been training hard and fighting the whole way." For his part, Hughes said "I didn't have any major injuries after I fought B.J. My eye was sore from getting poked, but I wasn't really hurt. It actually feels like I've never stopped training, I've just stayed focused. It's not like when you have a long time between fights and have to get your body back at full speed again."
  • 7. "I was not impressed by your performance:" If the fires haven't already been fanned enough, the two have accused each other of perhaps the greatest sin one mixed martial artist can commit towards another: disrespect. Hughes was legitimately steamed when St. Pierre grabbed the mic after Hughes beat Penn at UFC 63 and announced he wasn't impressed with Hughes' performance, stealing the limelight from the champ after one of his crowning achievements. St. Pierre, who apologized to Hughes afterward, doesn't like how Hughes has questioned his commitment after St. Pierre pulled out of the first scheduled date of the match on Sept. 23 with a groin injury. "At the end of the day, I know Georges isn't a bad guy," said Hughes. "He just came off wrong. We've said some things that have gotten on each other's nerves, but I need to focus on beating Georges. If I start thinking about hurting him because of something he said, I'll lose focus. I just want to win the match."
    Who will win the Matt Hughes-Georges St. Pierre fight at UFC 65? How about Sylvia-Monson? Tell us what you think.

  • 8. End of the road? Finally, Hughes has dropped hints he is at least thinking of winding down his sensational career. While Hughes' competitive streak is legendary, he doesn't live for the spotlight the way, say, Tito Ortiz does. Hughes has expressed a desire to get out while he's made enough money to live comfortably and raise his children on his Illinois farm. He knows he has the opportunity for the rarest of finishes in the fight game: to go out on top as champion. If Hughes beats St. Pierre, he will have bested everyone at 170 pounds worthy of his presence in the octagon, save potentially Diego Sanchez if Sanchez continues his rapid ascension. On the other hand, as one of the UFC's big three draws along with Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, he's in the group making well into six figures every time he fights, topping seven figures with bonsues for the shows with the biggest buy rates. "I'm not in love with the idea being in the spotlight," said Hughes. "It's nice and it is an ego stroke, but I read the Bible every day to keep myself grounded. Other fighters might live for the attention, but I don't. One day I am going to wash my hands of the sport and walk away. I want to make my money while I can I want to make my money and then go home and raise my family on my farm." Dave Doyle is an editor for The MMA blog has more from Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre, as well as reader predictions. Check in Saturday for a live blog of UFC 65 from Arco Arena in Sacramento.
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