This weekend at UFC 123 Matt Hughes and Bj Penn will be fighting their long anticipated (at least by me) rubber match in the ultimate match up of hard work vs skill. And for maybe the first time ever, I won’t be hoping that Matt Hughes accidentally knocks himself out on the way to the cage. For the entirety of my MMA fanship, I have been a Matt Hughes hater, but now, in the twilight of his career, I am finally starting to see the appeal.
I’m not entirely sure what it was about Matt Hughes that made me hate him so much. Maybe it was his politics. I’m not an incredibly liberal person who is offended by anybody who sports a gun while spout family values, in fact I consider myself to be fairly moderate. I also like to hunt. Its just the way that Hughes made sure that he personified these ideals and shoved them down the fanbases throat. Or maybe it was because he was the face of the Miletich fight camp that so cheesily wore their championship belts to corner their teammates that irritated me. Or maybe it was his quiet arrogance that he tried to play off as modesty that annoyed me.
One things for sure, I always disliked his fighting style. He always seemed like the ultimate example of brawn over style. He reminded me of the rich kid rivals in any sports movie ever, that couldn’t do much with the ball but they had no trouble mercilessly throwing your best player down and injuring him. For me that was Matt Hughes. His first title winning fight against Carlos Newton always seemed to be a great example of this to me. Newton was an artist out there with ingenious grappling skill. And just like what always happens in the movies, the less athletic but more skilled fighter caught the big bully in a tight triangle choke. All was right in the world. But then, as he so often did, Matt Hughes used his obscene country boy strength to rain on my parade and slam Carlos Newton off of his submission hold and out of consciousness. This big corn fed bully was ruining my narrative.
It wasn’t really until the Almeida fight that I started to see Matt Hughes in a different light. I was watching the fight in a bar and had befriended a loud and loudly drunk Matt Hughes fan. As soon as Hughes’ iconic walk out music began my drinking companion began whooping and cheering like his hog had just won the coveted best in show at the county fair. I began to bunker down expecting a long fight. Then Matt Hughes did what Matt Hughes does. He choked Ricardo Almeida limp with a front headlock. It wasn’t even a submission hold. He grabbed an old front headlock from folkstyle wrestling designed to defend a takedown, and squeezed until Almeida’s eyeballs squirted out of his head. Just then, Matt Hughes’ biggest fan next to me shouted in a perfect good old boy yell, “WHOOO! A country boy WILL survive!” And at that moment, I got it. I was wrong all along.