Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
The former welterweight champion, considered the best 170-pound title holder in history, is again a top-of-the-marquee fighter, at least for now as his trilogy with B.J. Penn comes to a close at UFC 123 on Saturday in Detroit.
All this publicity still leaves us with one question. What is Matt Hughes? Is he an attraction fighter or a title contender? Should Hughes win his fourth straight fight, what happens next for the 37-year-old?
"The way I see it, I'm set," Hughes said. "I've never been a guy to chase the record books, and I really don't care to hold any more records. So, I'm just ready to go out and have a good time and still compete. I still love to compete."
Hughes (45-7-1) has quietly built up an impressive run in the UFC of late. Intentional or not, it's the type of streak that garners title contention talk. Fighters with lesser credentials have earned title shots in the past, so why do people brush aside Hughes now?
Since May 23, 2009, Hughes has won a unanimous decision over hated rival Matt Serra at UFC 98, TKO'd Renzo Gracie at UFC 112 in April 2010 and submitted Ricardo Almeida at UFC 117 in August. Put aside the pruning of the Gracie family tree there for a moment. That's the profile of a championship contender.
Should Hughes add Penn, a former lightweight champion fighting at welterweight for now, to that list on Saturday, is there any reason he shouldn't get a title shot some time in 2011?
"I'm kind of at a point now it's kind of whatever they offer," Hughes said. "I'm kind of concentrating on just having a good time, and if [UFC president] Dana [White] comes to me or the UFC comes to me and says, 'Hey, we want you to run up a title,' then that's fine."
Hughes spoke of "obligations" he put aside for this third fight against Penn. (Each fighter has a win over the other.) Those obligations will carry Hughes through next spring. After that, he'll think about fighting again.
"One more paycheck this year will really make my wife pretty happy and get her off my back for spending some money," Hughes said. "So, I was able to hold off on all the obligations."
Then there's Hughes, the former champion who's having fun all over again.