On November 20, 2010 fans will be treated to a rubber match that many never thought would never see the light of day. Former multi-divisional champ B.J. Penn will enter the Octagon against former welterweight king Matt Hughes for the third time. Each fighter holds a victory over the other, though the victories came in very different ways. This rubber match is much more than just a tiebreaker between two all-time legends in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. No title is at stake, but two men's careers hang in the balance and depend heavily on the outcome of this third bout.
This rivalry began amidst Matt Hughes' first run as the UFC welterweight champion. Hughes had been dominant in the UFC, he was in the middle of a 13-fight win streak and some were questioning whether there was anyone to really challenge him.
B.J. Penn, on the other hand, had only nine professional fights and was moving up a weight class to fight Hughes. B.J. was not taken lightly, however, as he had burst onto the UFC scene with three very impressive wins before losing in a title bout to Jens Pulver. That being said, Hughes was the favorite. Penn surprised many when dominated Hughes and submitted him with a rear naked choke in the last minute of the first round.
The rematch came when B.J. Penn had to fill in for an injured Georges St. Pierre and fight Hughes again for the UFC welterweight title. This match looked like the first fight early on—Penn was stuffing every Matt Hughes takedown and he was getting the best of Hughes on the feet. Hughes worked hard for the takedowns in the first two rounds, but found no success. B.J. looked to be on his way to another victory over Matt Hughes.
What happened next has been the subject of much debate over the years. Some say B.J. Penn injured a rib, while others say that Penn simply gassed out and could not keep up with Hughes' pace. Either way, Penn entered the third round much differently. Penn had defended every takedown attempt thus far, but in the third round Hughes took B.J. down with ease. Hughes then moved to side control and got Penn in the crucifix position where he pounded B.J. until the ref stopped the fight.
While B.J.'s victory was quicker, Hughes' was much more brutal in the end. However, B.J. showed in the first two rounds of the rematch that his skills were superior to Hughes'. B.J. dictated everything about both fights until the final round of the rematch. I expect history to repeat itself at UFC 123, especially considering what we have seen from both fighters in recent fights.
By the looks of things, Hughes should have the advantage coming into this fight. He is on a three-fight win streak, while B.J. enters the rubber match on a two-fight losing streak. Looks can be deceiving. Matt Hughes' wins have come over fighters who are considered (at best) above average at this point in their careers. B.J. Penn, however, is coming off of two consecutive loses to one of the fastest and most well rounded fighters in the UFC today, Frankie Edgar. Edgar seems to have B.J.'s number. Penn had no answer for Frankie's crisp, speedy striking, nor his movement and pace. Hughes does not possess these skills that B.J. struggled with against Edgar.
Recent fights have shown us that Matt Hughes has become much more comfortable striking with his opponents, which is what I fully expect him to do against B.J. Penn. This is where Hughes will meet his demise. Hughes' striking will allow B.J. to dictate the fight, which will lead to either a KO victory or a submission victory after Penn knocks Hughes down with his strikes. B.J.'s plodding boxing style didn't work against Edgar, but it will be more than enough to get the job done against Hughes.
The real question becomes: Where does B.J. go from here? After a win over Hughes, Penn will likely test the waters a welterweight. The problem is Penn has lost twice to the champions at both of his potential weight classes. Another title run will most likely require either Frankie Edgar or Georges St. Pierre to lose their title.
I believe B.J. will not make an official decision about his future until he sees the outcome of "Edgar vs. Maynard" and "St. Pierre vs. Koscheck." If one of those champions loses, that will be the weight class Penn will pursue. If both champs win, I expect Penn to try his luck at welterweight for a while and see where that takes him.
Let's face it, there are few compelling matchups left for Penn at lightweight. He has fought most of the title contenders and none of those matches really have fans begging for a rematch.
Please leave a comment about what you think the future holds for both Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn.