Josh Gross
Sunday June 8th, 2008

Matt Hughes put together one of the most brilliant runs in mixed martial arts history.

Working his way up the ranks, the Illinois farm boy, so smartly managed by Monte Cox through most of his career, meshed together 18 consecutive wins. Powerful slams made more dangerous by heavy ground-and-pound helped Hughes put together an almost unheard of stretch in a sport that features few unbeaten competitors.

By the time Hughes settled down with the Zuffa-promoted UFC, he was a veteran training with Pat Miletich in Iowa. Twice, Hughes won six consecutive UFC-promoted bouts, which saw him stop many of the world's best welterweights.

To be the UFC champ, a generation of welterweight contenders knew, you'd have to defeat Hughes. Very few could -- until recently. Hughes' downturn continued Saturday in London, where he fell for the third time in four fights.

Standing southpaw for a better angle to attack takedowns on Thiago Alves' lead leg, Hughes went after the big Brazilian. A deep shot was crushed when Alves sprawled hard, forcing Hughes to unclasp his hands.

Alves stood. Again, Hughes' shot was easily denied.

This was the game Alves' corner asked for. Sprawl, push away and strike. Maybe even get on top and do to Hughes what he's done to opponents for a decade: wreck 'em with punches and elbows from the top.

Against similar foes with strong striking, Hughes was dominant. Takedowns always came. Pressure eventually worked through whatever defense was separating Hughes from the end of the fight. But against Georges St. Pierre and now Alves, Hughes failed to control his opposition.

Three out of Hughes' four first-round takedown attempts were rebuffed. And even when the American (42-7) was successful, the 24-year-old Alves (15-3) calmly worked from the bottom and never took a significant shot to his face. The same could not be said for Hughes, who soon wore a star-shaped cut on the bridge of his nose to accessorize welts around his eyes.

Hughes, however, was no stranger to adversity.

Against Frank Trigg, Hughes produced one of the best moments in MMA history when he freed himself from a beating on the bottom, hoisted his rival on a shoulder, power-walked to an opposite fence, and delivered his anything-but-fragile package to the canvas.

Against Alves, there was no miraculous comeback. The Brazilian concaved Hughes' chest with a flying knee, smearing a mask of red across the veteran's eyes. Another jumping knee, this one more to the chin, felled the former champion to the canvas, where he took a stiff right to the jaw before referee Herb Dean intervened.

Two decisive losses in a row leaves Hughes in a tenuous position.

A couple of wins could have sold the public that he stood a chance against Anderson Silva. But now fans will be left wondering: If Hughes couldn't take down a 180-pound Alves -- or whatever weight he blew back up to on Saturday after failing to make weight by four pounds (it would be nice to know) -- what chance would he stand against a 200-pound chin-seeking "Spider"?

One would hope Hughes learned from the UFC departure of his mentor, Pat Miletich, the former 170-pound champion who unceremoniously exited the octagon against tough middleweight Matt Lindland. A bout against Silva would be unwise; Hughes, middleweight, doesn't seem a likely proposition.

That leaves the 34-year-old crop farmer's last bout -- he guaranteed at least one more -- the likely grudge match against New Yorker Matt Serra.

"My wife wants it, I want it, and I know these fans want it too," Hughes said while looking into the packed O2 Arena crowd after losing Saturday.

Rivals, the welterweights were featured as coaches on the sixth season of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. Their payoff fight, scheduled for Dec. 31, 2007, was called off when Serra, who stunned the MMA world by knocking out St. Pierre to capture the belt, withdrew due to herniated discs in his back.

There won't be a better time to make the fight, and Hughes said he was promised -- win or lose against Alves -- Serra would be next.

Could he parlay a win over Serra into something more, back into a space where Hughes is competitive with Alves, St. Pierre and, if he makes the 15-pound jump, B.J. Penn?

Leading up to the Alves bout, Hughes said he increased his training regimen from two to three times a day, placing a heavy emphasis on cardio. But the additional training didn't yield additional sparring. Since Hughes left Miletich and crew in Bettendorf, Iowa, his timing has been off. A shift in focus from hitting the mitts to grinding out hard rounds in the gym might be the thing that kickstarts Hughes. Look at Serra, who knocked out St. Pierre after 80 rounds of sparring under the watchful eye of Ray Longo.

Hughes knows what's best for him, and if he truly is pouring every ounce of his energy into preparing for fights, then he knows he can't compete at the sport's highest levels anymore. The young generation he inspired with his dominance has come to get theirs.

Of Hughes, Alves said, "He's a legend."

A legend whose tale is near its conclusion.

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