The UFC era following shortly after the tournament era faded was a tumultuous and unstable time with many on the outside trying to ensure the failure of the promotion. The UFC was holding on for dear life and needed fighters and names to at least drive demand and interest.
In the pre-TUF era between 1999 and 2005, Matt Hughes was that name, and the most dominant champion the UFC had ever seen. Fans were still getting used to the different weight classes and different champions from each weight, and Hughes was knocking them all down at 170 pounds.
In the dark days of the UFC, when they kicked and clawed to stay alive, Hughes sticks out front and center in my mind as someone who kept me and many coming back for more.
When I reflect on watching his great career, two fights of his really hooked me completely on the sport and the skill and determination it takes to step inside the Octagon.
Matt Hughes vs Carlos Newton I - UFC 34 November 2, 2001
I always tuned in to Hughes' fights at the time, and this one in particular because it was for the title, and against one of my country's best in Carlos The Ronin Newton. Newton had shocked many earlier that year when he choked out Hughes' teacher and heavily favored, Pat Miletich, for the win and the title.
Hughes was evenly matched in the early going of the fight and got caught in a very bad spot early in the second round. Newton got Hughes in a triangle choke near the cage and things looked bleak for the challenger.
This was where that real rush of the early UFC was born as Hughes picked up Newton as a last resort and slammed him hard down on the canvas, knocking Newton out in the process and taking the victory. The fans went wild.
The referee called the bout over, and after Newton went out and let go of his hold, Hughes also slithered to the ground, seemingly out from the choke. It was an incredible, movie-like finish to a title fight. Both fighters out, but Newton being called out the second before.
I was personally disappointed for the Canadian Newton, but was in awe of the heart and power of the new champion Hughes. With title fights like this, the division thing could be ok after all.
Matt Hughes vs Frank Trigg II - UFC 52 April 15, 2005
Matt Hughes had just returned to being the champion a few months earlier and was defending it for the first time against flamboyant wrestler and former foe Frank Trigg when his next big moment came, and again made me in awe of the sport.
This fight with the loud and lippy Trigg (let's say he was that era's Chael Sonnen in a way) was epic and remains my favorite fight in UFC history to this day.
The trash talk and hype was enormous coming into this one, and Hughes was hit early by an undetected low blow by Trigg. Trigg pounced on the hurt champion and fed him some punches to the head before the two went to the ground. The challenger quickly took the dazed Hughes' back and the end seemed all but there for Hughes in this one.
After struggling in the position for nearly two minutes, Hughes was able to reverse position, pick up Trigg and carry him across the cage on his shoulder before slamming him down with the fury and force of a madman hell bent on revenge. He then did some ground and pound of his own before securing his own rear naked choke for the win. It was the greatest win the UFC had seen to date and an incredible come back from Hughes.
This fight was a week after the Ultimate Fighter One finale, and the lights would turn on bright for the sport for years to come.
Hughes would go on to defeat BJ Penn and Georges St-Pierre but in my opinion, these were his two greatest moments and he hooked me on the UFC forever.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report MMA and guest blogger for Sportsnet.ca.
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