Saturday night at UFC 123 in Auburn Hills, Michigan B.J. Penn and Matt Hughes will face each other for the third time. We're closing in on eight years since the two first met at UFC 46. The bout was the highlight of one of the great cards in the Zuffa boom period. This was a period when the light heavyweight division was doing the heavy lifting for the UFC with Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfort all doing battle at the top of the sport. UFC 46 featured one of those fights with Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort meeting in a bout with an unfortunate eye injury ending. Other than the disappointing climax to the card the event featured great bouts from Frank Mir vs. Wes Sims to Georges St. Pierre vs. Karo Parisyan.
But for mixed martial arts fans who tuned-in on January 31, 2004 nothing sticks out in their memory more than B.J. Penn vs. Matt Hughes.
Their early UFC careers ran on parallel tracks in different divisions. For three years, from 2001 to 2004, Hughes was the dominant welterweight in the UFC and Penn was the promotion's top lightweight. And never the twain shall meet, or so it was assumed at the time.
By 2004, Matt Hughes had fought in, and won, six UFC title fights. He'd beaten Carlos Newton (2x), Hayato Sakurai, Gil Castillo,and Frank Trigg. He was universally regarded at the world's best welterweight.
For his part, Penn had put together a more checkered career. He won his first three fights but then fell short in his attempt to take Jens Pulver's title at UFC 35. He then won two more fights before fighting Caol Uno to a draw in a fight that was supposed to crown a new lightweight champ. That fight killed the UFC's lightweight division for three years. Penn went off to Hawaii and beat Takanori Gomi.
The history of MMA is littered with men who had been labeled "unbeatable" by the fans. Matt Hughes fits firmly into that category. He was facing the best men in the division and destroying them, the best 170 pound men. And when the fight was announced the idea that 155 pound B.J. Penn would go up in weight and unseat the farmboy with the amazing slams and ground and pound.
But that's just what Penn would do, and he would do it in less than one round. It was the most amazing performance in a career full of amazing performances for Penn, a complete domination of arguably the best fighter on the planet.
Penn would leave the UFC for slightly over two years following the bout, testing himself at middleweight and even heavyweight (a loss to future UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida). Penn returned to the UFC and lost a welterweight contender bout by very close split decision to Georges St. Pierre. GSP would get injured before facing the man who was once again king in Matt Hughes and it opened the door for a rematch between Penn and Hughes.
At UFC 63 the two met for the second time with Penn dominating early yet again before the combination of fatigue and a rib injury allowed Hughes to get on top, pin Penn's arms and unleash a flurry of blows that forced a third round stoppage. The loss led to Penn dropping back to lightweight where he would find the UFC lightweight title that had eluded him for so long.
Now, after dropping back to back fights to Frankie Edgar, B.J. moves back up to welterweight in a move that either signals the need for a marquee win or the need to return to relevance in the larger MMA picture.
Likewise, Hughes enters the fight looking for meaning in the larger sense of his career. He's riding a three fight win streak but multiple losses to Georges St. Pierre and a loss to Thiago Alves signaled what was likely the end of his time as a championship level fighter.
Too often we see bouts like this in the UFC which feel ultimately meaningless. Two men, meeting toward the top of the card in a bout that has no direct ties to the championship picture. But this bout is more than that. It's history being fleshed out. Ultimately one man will be able to retire and look back at his career knowing that he was the victor in a huge three fight series between legends. The third fight of a trilogy is one of the best things in combat sports and it's quite exciting to know that we'll be seeing it go down this saturday between B.J. Penn and Matt Hughes. Two foes, tied together by almost eight years of history and endless time in the spotlight.