UFC 123: BJ Penn, Matt Hughes and MMA's Strangest Trilogy

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UFC 123: BJ Penn, Matt Hughes and MMA's Strangest Trilogy

In the world of fight sports, there is something undeniably attractive about a good, epic trilogy.

It’s the certainty they offer, the finality that they can provide. We enjoy trilogies for the same reason coin tosses and games of Rock-Paper-Scissors are “best two out of three.”

When two men face each other three separate times, the room for random chance and error is reduced. Post-fight excuses lose their validity. More often then not, the world gets to find out who truly is the better man.

In a little less then two weeks time, B.J. Penn and Matt Hughes will throw down in the rubber match of their own storied trilogy, at UFC 123 in Detroit. Their first two fights were some of the most exciting, dramatic fights in the history of the welterweight division.

Yet all told, the Hughes/Penn trilogy is perhaps the strangest in all of MMA.

Now, I can already hear the complaints of fans arguing that the Shamrock/Ortiz or Wanderlei/Sakuraba trilogies both trump this one in terms of strangeness. I admit, it’s easy to see their point: Both featured revered national icons and elder statesmen of the sport going 0-3 against younger, healthier and more well-rounded fighters in one mismatched slaughter after another.

Sure, those were strange trilogies, but for my money they don’t beat the Hughes/Penn series. Those trilogies were predictable in their one-sided carnage; when it comes to Hughes/Penn, predictable goes out the window.

Their first meeting, in January of 2004, was considered by many to be a total mismatch. Penn had failed to capture the UFC lightweight championship in two efforts, a draw with Caol Uno and a loss to Jens Pulver. Very few people gave him a chance against the heavier Matt Hughes in a weight class above his own.

At the time, Hughes was the most dominant champion in MMA, right in the middle of his prime and riding an incredible 13-fight win streak. The way Fedor was viewed during his PRIDE run, Hughes was viewed back then. He was the invincible, unstoppable champion who ran roughshod over anyone and everyone he faced.

So if Hughes was Fedor, B.J. played the role of Fabricio Werdum. In less than a round, the rubbery Penn submitted Hughes with a rear naked choke to become UFC welterweight champion and shock the world. In a way, Penn’s entire pound-for-pound legacy has been built of this one, shocking upset.

Penn would go on to be stripped of the title due to a contract dispute, and Hughes would go on to regain the belt and go on another long winning streak. When Penn made amends with the UFC and returned to the promotion in 2006, fans salivated at the prospect of Hughes/Penn 2—and of Penn regaining the belt he never lost in the cage.

Sure, Penn’s loss to Georges St-Pierre in his big return match had rubbed some of the lustre of this highly anticipated fight, but fans didn’t seem to care all that much. Penn would defeat Hughes, regain his belt, and even the score with GSP.

Going into the rematch, most fans were confident B.J. would repeat his performance from the first fight and put Hughes away. 

Except not. For two rounds, Penn seemed to have everything going his way. Then an unfortunate rib injury/lack of cardio training saw Penn fade in the third, eventually succumbing to a rain of strikes from the Crucifix-mounted champion.

Far from answering all the questions, this fight only served to raise more. Fans howled that a properly motivated, in-shape B.J. would have smashed Hughes that night, and was well on his way to doing so before gassing big time.

With the series tied at 1-1, Penn headed down to the lightweight division for a lengthy run as champion, while Hughes would drop his belt to St-Pierre and then, slowly drop out of the welterweight title picture.

The consensus of the Hughes/Penn rubber match at this time (circa 2008-09) was that Penn would laughably manhandle the aged, past-his-prime Hughes. Instead, the Hilo kid once again set his sights on GSP, and just as in 2006, it didn’t really work out too well for him.

As the two men get set to meet for the third time, the tables, once again, seem to have been turned. B.J.’s reign over the lightweight division came to an abrupt halt courtesy of back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar, and Penn now finds himself in the unenviable position of having two losses to the champions at both LW and WW.

Many fans argue that Penn no longer has the motivation, the dedication and the drive to excel at the elite level, and that his best days are behind him.

Hughes, for his part, has quietly put together yet another impressive streak at welterweight. There are talks—faint as a whisper, but there nonetheless—that Mr. Country Breakfast may have nudged his way back into the title picture.

To some the placement of this fight as the co-main event to Rampage vs. Machida is indication that Penn and Hughes have joined the UFC “Senior Circuit” where stars who still command fan adulation, but are outside their respective title pictures face each other in nostalgic bouts while their careers wind down.

Indeed, it’s difficult to determine what this fight really means career-wise for either man. The only reason they are fighting is because they are both popular, available and the series is tied at 1-1.

What’s even more amusing to me, however, is the way fan expectation has once again shifted dramatically. After years of believing Hughes/Penn 3 would be a mismatch for Penn, most fans now believe the resurgent Hughes will destroy the lackadaisical, unmotivated Penn, coming off of two losses.

Indeed, the way fan belief and opinion has swung so dramatically back and forth over the course of their series is all the proof needed that this is the strangest trilogy in MMA. Both men have traded favourite for underdog, in their prime for over the hill, dominant champion for has-been, again and again with each other during the course of their six-year, three-fight history.

Their fights have been just as unpredictable—wild, go-for-broke scraps where what’s expected to happen never does. Taken as a whole, there’s no doubt the Penn/Hughes trilogy is the strangest one in all of MMA.

It also happens to be one of the most exciting—and I for one can’t wait for the grande finale.

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