UFC 123 preview: Hughes-Penn

Published Nov. 19, 2010 12:00 a.m. EST

On Saturday night one of the great in-ring rivalries finally reaches its conclusion with B.J. Penn (15-7; 6T/KO, 6SUB) and Matt Hughes (47-5; 17T/KO, 18SUB) fighting in what many fans are treating as the real main event of UFC 123.

Back in 2004 when Hughes was on top of the world as the all-conquering powerhouse welterweight champion he faced B.J. Penn in what most figured to be a routine defense. Penn had no pedigree as a welterweight and had twice struck out in attempts to win the title at his natural 155-pound weight.

In a legendary performance Penn showed what an irresistible force he could be when fully focused, beating Hughes to the punch and choking the champion out in the first round. Penn would end up leaving the UFC over contractual issues and the rematch wouldn’t happen until 2006, with The Prodigy once again challenging. Once again Penn controlled the fight early on but this time Hughes was able to withstand the early onslaught, coming back strong as Penn tired, finishing the fight in the third.

With both fighters poised at one apiece, Saturday’s fight is the long-awaited rubber match that gives one fighter to chance to conclusively prove he is the better man by winning the series.


Staff predictions:

Chris Roberts: Forget the need to book win/win fights, especially when you can put a three-win streaking Matt Hughes up against the once-again-slumping-though-always-dangerous B.J. Penn.

Most of the questions seem to surround the most recent UFC lightweight champ as he now transitions back into the welterweight division. Hopefully this fight will shed some light on whether Frankie Edgar simply has Penn's number or if his days of being taken seriously as a top 10 fighter are in the past.

Obviously, the UFC has based much of their marketing of their UFC 123 PPV around the fact that this is the rubber match in their trilogy, with Penn winning the first fight back in 2004 and Hughes redeeming himself (via TKO no less) two years later, and that makes a lot of sense. They are both huge names in the sport and putting them together produces a fight almost big enough to headline a PPV.

Personally, I find it by far the toughest of the night to handicap and thus one of the most interesting as well. How do I know if the “Eye of the Tiger” Penn will show up or if he's going to send that UFC 118 impostor instead? Is this mid-life career resurgence from Matt Hughes as real as it appears to be?

I do see it being a tight battle that goes the distance without anybody gaining a clear advantage. I ultimately decided on Hughes because, well, I'm sick of getting burned by Penn and because if Frankie Edgar proved anything it is that the path to victory over Penn goes through the judging table.

Pick: Matt Hughes via decision

Will Cooling: Well, well one of the greatest rivalries in UFC finally gets a rubber match and, like Chris, I’m stumped. On the one hand, this is Hughes’ house, with Penn having long struggled to compete at the highest level as a welterweight. On the other, Penn dominated Hughes in his prime like nobody else and even the return fight showed that Penn may just have a style that Hughes struggles against.

Indeed, that could be the deciding factor in this fight. If Penn’s conditioning is up to standards and he can avoid being worn down by the mauling tactics of Hughes then he could just pull off his first victory outside of the lightweight division since 2005. On that level, it’s encouraging to hear that Penn has decided not to pile on the extra pounds in a doomed attempt to match Hughes’ bulk, a decision that will surely pay dividends in allowing Penn to fight at a fast pace.

It does, however, mean Penn will be giving up size and power to the significantly larger Hughes, but that’s inevitable when a natural lightweight moves up a division. Hughes will be hoping that the extra mass will put turbo boosters under his wrestling, giving him the edge he needs to overwhelm the legendary takedown defense of Penn. If it does, then as, Chris predicts, Penn will be in for a long night with Hughes able to control him from the top and grind out the decision. However, I still believe in Penn and believe that he has enough to keep the fight standing and take the victory.

Pick: B.J. Penn by third-round TKO