- Michael Woods, Boxing
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The call came from Dana White on a Friday.
"Look, we need a headline fight for UFC 85 in London," White told Matt Hughes, a former UFC welterweight champion who had been mulling his options after a disappointing second-round submission loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 79 in December. "We'd like you to step in for Chuck Liddell, who's injured, and fight Thiago Alves. Will you do it?"
Hughes told White he'd think about it, and hung up the phone. He talked about the Alves bout with his wife, Audra. Two days later, he called White.
"I'm in," he said.
Hughes owns the type of competitive grit that made the decision something of a foregone conclusion. The 34-year-old Hillsboro, Ill., resident didn't have to go online and do a Wiki search (like some of us did) to remind himself which "Thiago" White was referring to. He'd seen Alves in action, when he worked Spencer Fisher's corner against the 24year-old Brazilian at UFC Ultimate Fight Night 2 in 2005. He'd watched Alves, proficient in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, knock out Karo Parisyan at UFC Fight Night 13. He knew what he was getting into.
Hughes (43-6) does not know is where he stands as an athlete. He can't possibly know, not after performing badly against St. Pierre, his second loss to the Canadian. There were online rumblings about Hughes retiring after the GSP defeat, but the fighter didn't entertain the prospect of stopping active participation in combat with any seriousness.
"I walked away after the last GSP fight saying, 'That wasn't me,'" he told ESPN.com. "It was such a poor performance. I couldn't pull the trigger, and it was a terrible example of Matt Hughes."
Hughes' fierce competitive nature does not allow him to ponder and verbalize what any fight-game pundit knows: that reflexes slow as age ascends, and sometimes the brain tries to write a check the body can't cash. Hughes says that he will turn back the clock, and give fans a dose of old-school Hughes come Saturday at the O2 Arena in London (on pay per view).
"I'm going to try and get back to the older days," he said. "I'll try and take him down, punish him on the ground. I believe I can impose my will on Thiago, and if he doesn't break physically, he will mentally."
The American Top Team battler Alves (20-4), meanwhile, has been nothing but respectful leading up to the bout. The Pitbull has shown a Labrador's personality as he compliments Hughes and talks about what an honor it is to fight him. One might wonder if his mind is in proper mode to take on a relentless vet with much to prove to himself, to the company and to his fans.
"Everybody knows Matt," said Alves, who does boast a four-fight KO streak.
"He's a legend. I saw him slamming people in the ground and it is a pleasure for me fighting him. I'm really excited."
Will he feel the same when he's dodging incoming elbows come Saturday night?
Hughes has skillfully positioned it so he has a vocational back-up plan once he decides to exit the Octagon for good. The Alves fight is the second-to-last fight of his UFC deal, and he told ESPN.com a fight with the New Yawker Serra, who Hughes sees as something of a garbage-mouthed egocentric, will be the last bout of his deal.
Hughes recently opened a gleaming MMA gym, the H.I.T. (Hughes Intensive Training) Squad in Granite City, Ill. His autobiography, "Made In America: The Most Dominant Champion In UFC History," hit stores in January. His wife is the Warren Buffet of the family and has invested smartly, so the Hughes' are positioned well financially.
Some, or even all of those developments, might make a person think Hughes has one foot out the door, that he's counting down the days to his farewell fight.
That's not so.
But, how much longer he fights is anybody's guess, and Alves could influence that decision in London. It would be unwise, though, to dismiss Hughes' desire, and just how much he wants to impose his will, and his fists, on Serra. A win over Alves will provide him with momentum heading into that culture clash, which is especially useful for a man who's put a ton of miles on his body odometer.
"I don't want to finish fighting," Hughes said, simply. "I'm gonna face Serra."
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.
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