Jeff Chiu / AP
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 | 11 p.m.
DETROIT — During an open media workout Thursday, UFC welterweight Matt Hughes casually admitted he’s wondering the same thing as everyone else when it comes to his upcoming fight against B.J. Penn at UFC 123 Saturday.
Which B.J. will show up?
“I’m preparing for the best B.J. out there,” Hughes said. “But everybody is wondering which B.J. is going to show up, including me. I wish I knew exactly who was going to show up but you just don’t know.”
Penn’s work ethic leading up to fights has long been a topic of debate, however the former champion seemed to silence critics in 2009 with dominant title defenses over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez as a lightweight.
Following back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar this year, however, questions regarding Penn’s motivation have started to resurface.
Although even Hughes wasn’t afraid to point it out, he added that a fighter coming off consecutive losses is usually a hungry one.
“I know B.J. says it’s not his concern, but I’ll tell you that anybody who has two losses in a row, it’s on their mind,” Hughes said. “I can just about guarantee it’s going to be the best B.J. out there.”
While Penn’s work ethic is in question, the opposite holds true for Hughes — despite the fact he recently turned 37 and was on the verge of retirement in 2008.
After being stopped by Georges St. Pierre and Thiago Alves, Hughes has rebounded with three straight wins and could even find himself back in title contention with a win over Penn.
Hughes credits the run to freeing himself of the pressure he felt during his amazing run, during which he defended the welterweight title a total of seven times.
“I do feel I’ve got a little momentum on my side,” Hughes said. “I’ve found a way somewhat to have fun in there.
“I had a bad fight against Georges (St. Pierre) and then I took the fight against Alves, which maybe I should have taken maybe I shouldn’t have. But then I beat (Matt) Serra, I was back on a win and I started having fun. I was able to cut the pressure away and it’s just really been good for me.”
Even at this stage in his career, Hughes says that the training and travel associated with a big fight is a process he enjoys.
He’s also found a perfect balance of sticking with the same wrestler, grinder mentality that’s brought him this far, while still finding the humility to make changes to his game and evolve his style.
“I think I know what got me where I’m at so I try to stay on that road, but I can learn something from anybody,” Hughes said. “Everybody in the UFC could probably come up and show me something. I try to keep an open mind. I’ve won the world title more than anybody else but I’m still a human being and I can still learn.”
That said, Hughes says he expects this final meeting against Penn to showcase the fact that the two are still very much similar to the fighters who first met in 2004 and 2006.
Penn shocked the world of mixed martial arts when he moved up from the lightweight division and submitted Hughes in their first meeting. Hughes came back two years later with a TKO victory in the third round.
Preparations for the trilogy have brought on a little déjà-vu according to Hughes, who says neither he nor Penn have changed drastically in the last four years.
“I’m the same person and B.J. is the same person, so it really hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Hughes said. “I’m the kind of guy you see what I can do and if you can stop that, you’re better than I am.”
Whereas Hughes says he used to enter a fight like Saturday’s with a fear of losing, he’s now to the point where his only expectation is to do his best and to have fun.
As long as he feels he can do both of those, he’ll put off the urge to retire.
“I’m thinking about retirement all the time,” Hughes said. “I’ve got four kids at home and a wife who likes to see me.
“My only goal is to keep having fun. I’ve never cared about records I hold or the belts. It’s never been a goal of mine.”
While Penn (15-7-1) has looked to keep his game plan to himself, Hughes (45-7) has openly admitted this fight will likely hold the same keys as the previous two.
It’s unlikely Penn will want this one to go the ground, where Hughes’s strength, submission defense and ground and pound might make it a long night.
As was the case in their first two meetings, look for Hughes to shoot in and put Penn on his back.
“I don’t move like Frankie Edgar,” Hughes said. “Frankie Edgar is all over the place. I don’t move like that so I really have to get on him and wear him out.”
Penn has shown the ability to defend Hughes’s takedowns in the past, but he’ll only be able to do it for three rounds if his conditioning is on point.
Not to take anything away from Edgar, but Penn did admit he wanted to move back to 170 pounds following his win over Sanchez. So, now that he’s in the weight division he clearly wanted to be in, maybe the effort will be greater.
“I considered moving to 170 after I fought Diego but you never know how life works out,” Penn said.
Last Time Out:
Penn: Unanimous decision loss to Frankie Edgar at UFC 118.
Hughes: Submission win over Ricardo Almeida at UFC 117.
The Lines: Penn, minus-170; Hughes, plus-140
Penn: On his legacy: “I think every fight I’ll always be surrounded with the legacy question. I kind of gave up on that whole legacy thing for now. I’m just kind of doing my thing. I’m 31. Some people say I’m young, some people say I’m getting old. I just want to enjoy it.”
Hughes: On Penn. “B.J. is a guy who always wants to fight the best. He never has turned down a tough fight. I would guess he’s 100 percent prepared for me and to go three rounds.”