Catastrophic loss to Penn leaves Hughes fans asking what's next

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It was a place Matt Hughes probably never thought he'd be. Standing in the Octagon after just 21 seconds worth of work in the co-main event of UFC 123, looking over at his corner and asking, in full view of the UFC's cameras, "What happened?"

It's the kind of question that, once you have to ask, you already know that you aren't going to like the answer.

What happened in this instance was B.J. Penn's right hand, followed closely by several more punches that pushed Hughes from prone and vulnerable to limp and unresponsive. Twenty-one seconds, and the rivalry ended with Hughes on the wrong side.

Now that he knows what happened, the next question Hughes will have to answer is, what's next?

At least for the moment, it doesn't seem like it will be retirement. Not right away, anyway. UFC announcer Joe Rogan gave Hughes every opportunity to play that card in the post-fight interview, but instead Hughes just picked at the tape on his gloves and remained solidly non-committal.

"I had a lot on the line. This was a huge fight for me," Hughes told Rogan. "To be honest, I don't know what goes on now."

Surprised? If you know Hughes, you shouldn't be. Even if his skills may be fading with age, his competitive streak won't die nearly so easily. To call it quits after just one loss -- particularly such a quick and embarrassing one -- wouldn't be his style.

The hardest part is, there are still plenty of welterweights in the UFC who Hughes can beat. He proved as much with his recent three-fight win streak. His stock was on the rise, and he had even begun to talk, albeit in the vaguest terms possible, about a potential future title shot. The loss to Penn should put an end to those notions, but does that necessarily mean he has to quit?

The irony is, most of the veterans of this sport will tell you that if you aren't in it to be the champ, you're in it for the wrong reason.

But what about the fighters who have already been champ? What about Hughes, who's a living legend in MMA and yet will almost certainly never again hold any title of note? He's physically capable of continuing to get in the cage and collect paychecks in whatever novelty fights the UFC can dig up for him, but does that mean it's a good idea?

This, too, seems like one of those questions that a fighter doesn't want to ever have to ask, lest he be forced to confront an answer he doesn't like.

Other notes from UFC 123

• Give some credit to "Rampage" Jackson for not even bothering to hide his shock when the judges handed him a split-decision victory over Lyoto Machida. The fight was close enough in the first two rounds that either way it went on the scorecards, somebody was bound to be upset. It just so happens that this time that somebody was Machida. As far as what that victory does for Jackson's standing in the crowded light heavyweight division, the answer is: not much. At least we can hope that it will motivate him to get in the cage more often in 2011.

• George Sotiropoulos started slow against Joe Lauzon, but once again we were reminded that it's how you finish that matters most. Does the second-round submission mean a title shot is in his future if he can get past Dennis Siver in Australia? Maybe, but it will have to be an impressive victory, and he'll only get it after the rest of the 155-pound contenders, new and old, sort some things out first.

• Former NCAA champion wrestler Phil Davis did nothing to diminish his standing as a bright young prospect in the UFC's 205-pound division, but steamrolling a heavy underdog only proves so much. The time has come for Davis to get a step up in competition, perhaps against someone who can finally launch some offense of his own, just so we can see how "Mr. Wonderful" reacts. Will the UFC give him that test in his next fight, now that's he's won four straight in the Octagon? Guess we'll have to wait and see.