Ten years ago today on MMATorch, senior columnst Shawn Ennis wrote about the Matt Hughes vs. B.J. Benn series and made a prediction on their fight scheduled a week later. Here it is…
Back in March of this year, an eliminator bout was held at UFC 58 to determine the number one contender for the UFC Welterweight Title, held by Matt Hughes. In one corner stood French-Canadian phenom Georges St. Pierre, and opposite him, making his return to the octagon, was B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn. The mixed martial arts community was split down the middle on who would win the fight. Fans who had been around for a while tended to side with Penn, who throughout his career had seemed to beat anyone he wanted to in any weight class. Newer fans went with St. Pierre, who had gone through the UFC Welterweight Division like a buzz saw, decisively beating fighter after fighter, guys who were no pushovers.
The fight would prove to be an exciting one. The first round unquestionably went to Penn, who bloodied the Canadian’s nose with a vicious shot early in the round and kept at his opponent throughout the duration. But a funny thing happened on the way to a decision – St. Pierre battled back against a seemingly nonchalant B.J. Penn, earning the victory on two of three judges’ scorecards. And really, despite who suffered the most damage, it was clear who took the fight. And so George St. Pierre would be signed to fight the most dominant welterweight in the history of the UFC in September.
Hughes had beaten St. Pierre before, but the 25-year-old had battled back with five straight victories over top contenders, and his confidence was soaring. Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when St. Pierre was forced to pull out of the Sept. 23 championship bout due to a groin injury. When it was announced that the original challenger will no longer fight, a replacement has to be found B.J. Penn accepted the fight on relatively short notice (he was preparing for a fight on October 10), and the fans rejoiced.
But why? This was the same guy who just lost the number one contender bout a few months ago. Sure, the decision could have been met with apathy for yet another victim to be fed to the dominant champion Hughes, but this was different. Let’s look back and find out why.
In 2001, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt B.J. Penn burst on to the mixed martial arts scene with three straight first round stoppage victories in his first three MMA fights. The fights all took place in the lightweight (155 lb.) division of the UFC, and the latter two were over viable contenders in the 10-1 Din Thomas and the 13-4-2 Caol Uno.
Penn would sprint down to the octagon, beat his opponent senseless, and sprint back up the ramp, sometimes before the decision was even announced. Needless to say, the top brass began to take even more notice of the 23-year-old Penn. He was brought into the UFC in the first place after he won the gold medal in the Mundial Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championship at the black belt level; the first non-Brazilian to do so. The people in charge knew they had a fighter in The Prodigy. His fourth fight in the Octagon would be against then-champion Jens Pulver, to whom he would lose a split decision after five rounds at UFC 35. This would not deter Penn, as he rattled off two more victories in the UFC against Paul Creighton and Matt Serra.
After a contract dispute with the still-champion Pulver, the lightweight title was vacated, and Penn would get another title shot against the man whom he had knocked out in 11 seconds less than 16 months before, Caol Uno. Unfortunately for everyone, the bout ended in a five-round draw and the lightweight title remains vacant today (the title will be resurrected when Sean Sherk fights Kenny Florian for the gold at UFC 64 in October).
Penn would then take a fight in the Rumble on the Rock promotion in Hawaii and defeat the man currently regarded by many as the number one lightweight in the world, Japanese star Takanori Gomi. This would lead to a unique opportunity for Penn. He was offered yet another title shot in the UFC, but this time it would come in the welterweight (170 lb.) division against five-time defending champion Matt Hughes.
Matt Hughes started his career in lesser-known mixed martial arts organizations such as Extreme Challenge, Superbrawl, and Rings among others. He compiled a record of 28-3 between 1998 and 2001, fighting in the UFC three times in that span and going 2-1. Hughes’s shot at the big time would come in November of 2001 at UFC 34, when he was offered a title shot against Carlos Newton. Newton had ironically defeated Hughes’s trainer and mentor, Pat Miletich, for the title in his previous fight. The fight was one for the ages, though it wasn’t without controversy.
The first round contained a lot of good back and forth ground action, with Hughes perhaps winning the round after a nice sweep takedown, a decent attempt at a guillotine choke, and a good ground and pound flurry at the end, but Newton got a few shots in himself and was never in any real danger. The second round saw Hughes score another nice sweeping takedown, but shortly thereafter he was caught in a tight triangle choke. Showing extraordinary power, Hughes, still being choked, picked up Carlos Newton, carried him across the Octagon, and propped him up on the top of the fence. Newton grabbed the top of the fence, but was admonished to let go. When he did, Hughes finished the fight with what was essentially a powerbomb, knocking Newton unconscious.
The bit of controversy came in when it was apparent that Hughes himself had basically been put out by the triangle choke. When referee Big John McCarthy went in to call the fight, Hughes didn’t even know that he had won the fight. He can clearly be heard saying later to a teammate, “I was out.” But when it was all said and done, there was a new champion, and it was Matt Hughes.
Hughes would erase all doubt at UFC 38, where he stopped Newton again – this time punishing his opponent with strikes. The champion would defend his title thrice more, only going to decision against the aforementioned Sean Sherk. And that brings us to what was to be another defense for the seemingly-unstoppable Hughes. It would come against a fighter who weighed in at 170 pounds for the first time – B.J. Penn.
Hughes was heavily favored going into the bout at UFC 46, but just as he did at the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu championships, B.J. Penn defied the odds, submitting the champion via rear naked choke in the first round. And as a visibly surprised and elated Penn celebrated his victory with the belt around his waist, Hughes sat in stunned silence, perhaps wondering where he had made his fatal mistake.
Penn’s reign as champion was short-lived, however, and the UFC Welterweight Title fell victim to the same fate as that of the UFC Lightweight Title when The Prodigy signed with Japanese organization K-1. The UFC saw this as breach of contract and stripped Penn of his championship.
Between the time when this story unfolded in early 2004 and his fight with St. Pierre, B.J. Penn fought a total of four times in K-1 and Rumble on the Rock in the welterweight, middleweight (185 lb.), and light-heavyweight (205 lb.) divisions, with his only loss coming to the undefeated Ryoto Machida (who is also the only man to have beaten UFC Middleweight champ Rich Franklin) in March of last year.
Meanwhile, Matt Hughes has re-established his dominance over the welterweight division. He regained the title over George St. Pierre in October of 2004, and has stopped Frank Trigg, Joe Riggs, and the legendary Royce Gracie since doing so.
<u><b>HUGHES VS. PENN AGAIN</b></u>
And so the stage is set. The only man to have beaten Matt Hughes since 2001 will finally get his rematch on Sept. 23. And now perhaps you can see why many fans are more excited to see this match than the admittedly long-awaited Hughes-St. Pierre rematch. Both men have a lot to gain and a lot to lose in this fight, and both men want to win badly. It looked to me as if Penn became slightly lackadaisical in his fight with St. Pierre, but I can’t envision the same thing happening when he gets a chance to prove that he’s still the best in the world at 170. By the same token, Hughes won’t be making any of the same mistakes he made in their first match.
This is the kind of fight that MMA fans dream of. The two combatants have a history together, and both will have plenty to prove when they meet. This is a built-in storyline. Add in the sure-to-come specials on Spike TV hyping the event, and fans will be foaming at the mouth to see the rematch, and you can count me among them. In fact, I’m already excited, and the fight is still almost three weeks away at the time of this writing.
As for my pick for the fight, I’m going to go with Hughes by decision. I can’t see either man finishing the other, as Penn is too slippery for Hughes to be able to employ ground and pound for too long, and Hughes will be wary enough of and will train for Penn’s BJJ skills, and the Miletich Fighting Systems elite fighter will be able to neutralize that advantage.
Hughes is extremely powerful and should be able to take Penn down at will, punishing him until he escapes, and don’t be surprised to see one or two of Hughes’s trademark slams. Penn, on the other hand, will have the superior striking and will be able to land a few good shots. If Penn were to win, he’d have to stun Hughes enough to throw the wrestling ace off his game and then sink in another submission. I just don’t see it happening, and I can’t see Hughes being controlled during a fight long enough to lose a decision.
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