DENVER — Matt Hughes won’t say whether his bout with Josh Koscheck at UFC 135 will be his last. He’ll hint at it. He’ll tell you his wife thinks he should hang it up. He’ll claim that he’s not looking for another long-term contract with the UFC once this one is fulfilled on Saturday night. But he won’t come out and say it.
Maybe that’s because, somewhere deep in that obstinate fighter’s heart of his, he still dreams of glory. If Hughes gets a taste of it this weekend, UFC president Dana White predicted, don’t expect him to go anywhere just yet.
“There is no way in hell he will retire if he beats Koscheck on Saturday night,” White said following Wednesday’s pre-fight press conference inside the Pepsi Center.
Of course, that’s a big if.
On paper, Koscheck is a lot like the Hughes of five or six years ago, and not just because of their shared penchant for needling opponents through sly, smirking lips. Koscheck, like Hughes, is a work horse in the gym who believes in being tough first and everything else second. He’s a powerful, accomplished wrestler (probably a better wrestler than Hughes even in his prime, if we’re being totally honest) who can do everything else well enough to keep opponents guessing.
Koscheck first aimed for a fight with the former UFC welterweight champ about two years ago, and he wasn’t exactly delicate about it. The fight never materialized, but Hughes insisted that was because the UFC hadn’t offered it to him. Then a broken hand scratched Diego Sanchez from the UFC 135 fight card and Koscheck stepped in on three weeks’ notice for the fight with Hughes that he had long since stopped asking for.
Hughes doesn’t seem to feel one way or another about the opponent switch, but whether against Sanchez or Koscheck the stakes for him seem equally vague. He’ll be 38 in October, and even White is wondering what possible reason he’d have to stick around beyond this last fight on his current contract.
“I get to this point with these guys — and Hughes is a perfect example, same thing with [Chuck] Liddell — what’s next?” said the UFC president. “Unless you guys tell me you want to go for another run at the title, you look at guys like Hughes and Liddell who have accomplished everything — Wanderlei [Silva] too, Wanderlei’s accomplished everything — what’s next at this age? You guys have made a ton of money. Hughes doesn’t need to make any more money. Believe me when I tell you.”
Then again, Liddell didn’t need the money either, and yet he was in no hurry to leave the sport for the life of a middle-aged retiree. Hughes seems more amenable to the idea, at least in theory, where many wonderful ideas live.
“I don’t want to be in my forties and fighting,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I just don’t. I’m about to be 38, so we’ll see what’s going to go on. I am not going to sign another four-fight deal.”
It makes you wonder though, if he has no interest in sticking around for any length of time, why not just call it now? Why not do as fellow welterweight Chris Lytle did recently, and announce that, win or lose, this is his last stand?
To understand the answer to that question, you have to understand Hughes, who suffers from a brand of compulsive competitiveness that is almost a disease. Make no mistake, it has served him well in his fighting career. He became one of the most dominant champs in UFC history in part because of the tremendous force of his own will. Maybe that’s why quitting feels like the hardest thing he could possibly do, and he doesn’t even want to discuss when or under what circumstances he might do it.
White knows Hughes as well as anyone, and he’s probably right that a victory on Saturday night will push the retirement decision off even further into Hughes’ purely hypothetical future. But then, victory isn’t terribly likely. Even on short notice, Koscheck is a heavy favorite, and with good reason.
The tougher question isn’t what Hughes will decide to do if he beats his younger counterpart. But what if the more likely outcome occurs? What if he gets thoroughly and utterly stomped? What if Koscheck makes the point to him in so forceful a fashion that he can’t ignore it any longer without becoming the worst kind of aging fighter cliche? What then?
Hughes won’t say. Maybe he can’t say, because even imagining defeat — and, with it, the end of a career he’s spent his entire adult life pursuing — is a room in his mind that he does not allow himself to unlock, much less enter.
White, however, has some ideas about what might be next, and it involves a cushy corporate gig with Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company.
“He’s one of those guys that would be [like] Chuck Liddell and stick around and get paid to do nothing,” he said.
Not that Hughes needs the money, as we’ve already been reminded. And what he does need, the one thing he might want to stick around for, no one else can give him.
– Ben Fowlkes