Off the Hook - By Joe Reilly

OTH: UFC 52 – The Rematch Volume 1

As UFC 52 rapidly approaches, the MMA community eagerly anticipates two intriguing championship rematches. Both Matt Hughes and Randy Couture are planning on retaining their UFC gold against Frank Trigg and Chuck Liddell respectively. As both matches loom, many possibilites may occur and that is why I am breaking down each fight over two separate installments. In the first installment I will breakdown the co-main event: Hughes vs. Trigg. Read on and I will share my insight…

As UFC 52 rapidly approaches, the MMA community eagerly anticipates two intriguing championship rematches. Both Matt Hughes and Randy Couture are planning on retaining their UFC gold against Frank Trigg and Chuck Liddell respectively. As both matches loom, many possibilities may occur and that is why I am breaking down each fight over two separate installments. In the first installment I will breakdown the co-main event: Hughes vs. Trigg. Read on and I will share my insight.

Matt Hughes (The UFC Welterweight Champion)

If you have followed the sport over the last four years you should be well aware of the achievements and sheer dominance of Matt Hughes. He is a Miletich Fighting Systems expert with a well-rounded game, but the greatest skills he possesses are his great wrestling ability and his brute strength. Hughes originally won the title in late 2001 at UFC 34 against ‘The Ronin’ Carlos Newton in controversial fashion, as Newton locked in a solid triangle choke. Hughes was unable to escape the submission using Jiu-Jitsu technique and went into wrestler mode and lifted Newton high leaning him against the fence. Hughes succumbing to the choke momentarily went asleep and fell to the canvas, which resulted in Newton being slammed to the mat. Newton was instantly knocked out from the impact and when the referee saw this, he stopped the fight and awarded the win to Hughes. Hughes was surprised and then subsequently celebrated the victory.

Hughes then put on a wrestling clinic in his first title defence against Hayato ‘Mach’ Sakurai at UFC 36 in early 2002 where he dominated with big slams and crushing ground and pound. At UFC 38, Hughes gave Newton a shot at avenging the first fight. Many picked Newton to win dismissing Hughes’ original victory as either a fluke or what should have been ruled a no contest. The fight turned out to be a war, but Hughes proved to be the better fighter by imposing some devastating ground and pound that Newton had no anser for focring the stoppage.

Newton moved on with numerous dominant displays against opposition such as Cesar Gracie Brown belt Gil Castillo at UFC 40 (Late 2002) and Sean Sherk at UFC 42 (Early 2003). At UFC 45 Hughes took on a UFC debutant, but experienced MMA fighter in Frank ‘Twinkle Toes’ Trigg. The pre-fight talk demonstrated a personal rivalry between both men, as Trigg opened up the trash talk by claiming he was a better wrestler and fighter and he even went as far to say that he came from a better family upbringing than Hughes. Hughes was clearly angered by these comments saying he wanted to hurt Trigg for the sole purpose of shutting him up.

When the action began, Trigg surprised many by shooting straight in on Hughes and successfully taking him down to the mat. Then a wrestling battle for top position took place. In the scramble Trigg made the mistake of exposing his back to Hughes. Trigg tried to stand up, but as he got to his feet, Hughes had already secured both his hooks in and had a solid rear-naked choke. Hughes torqued the choke backwards pulling Trigg to the mat and Trigg could do nothing but tap out to give Hughes the victory in the very first round. That was Hughes’ fifth title defence and the height of his dominance. It had gotten to a stage where the entire Welterweight division seemed closed with only one worthy warrior in the picture.

On one side of the coin, this was great for the UFC, they had the best Welterweight in the world in their grasp, but in turn it presented a worrying problem for Zuffa LLC (UFC owners). How do you keep a division fresh when you know none of the contenders have a snowball’s chance in hell? The answer came in the form of the world’s best Lightweight, BJ ‘The Prodigy’ Penn. Penn had established himself as the best 155 lbs fighter outside of the UFC despite fighting mostly in the UFC. With the vacant UFC Lightweight title in limbo indefinitley, Penn felt that fighting at 155 lbs no longer was a viable option. He decided that he wanted to fight at 170 lbs for the immediate future, where there was an actual title to chase after.

After much reshuffling in ideas for Penn’s first opponent at 170 lbs, Zuffa took Penn’s feelings to heart and offered him a shot at Hughes’ title right away at UFC 46. Although Hughes said he welcomed the idea, he showed Penn little to no respect going into the fight. He said he felt disrespected by Penn coming up from another weight class trying to challenge him. I’m not sure where this mentality comes from exactly. Maybe it’s a thing in collegiate wrestling, as Penn failed to understand Hughes’ opinion on the subject. This was rich considering Hughes himself had openly stated in previous interviews that he might be interested in stepping up to Middleweight (185 lbs) some day.

Despite the coolness of Penn and the trash talk by Hughes, I was confident that Hughes would not only win, but also finish Penn. It’s amazing how wrong I would be, as Penn came out looking to outstrike Hughes. Hughes didn’t want to play that game and looked to clinch with Penn, but Penn reacted well and easily blocked the attempt forcing Hughes off balance and falling to his back. Penn followed Hughes to the mat without hesitation and calmly tried to work past Hughes’ guard. Hughes was no slouch as he was proving that his guard was difficult to pass with Jiu-Jitsu alone, so Penn postured up and landed a big bombing right hand, which made Hughes cover-up. Penn quickly capitalised and passed and mounted Hughes, and unleashed some ground and pound of his own.

Hughes clearly in shock of what was transpiring turned his back to Penn and Penn went straight for a choke. As Hughes tried to fend off the choke, Penn deliberately crossed his feet, usually a no-no in Jiu-Jitsu 101, but it was a nice diversion by the Jiu-Jitsu wizard, as Hughes tried to counter what he thought was a basic error with a basic error of his own. He tried to reach down with his hands and footlock Penn and as a result left his neck exposed. Penn sunk in the rear-naked choke. Hughes instinctively went to peel Penn’s hand away, but for some reason he hesitated and when the choke got tighter he tapped out. Penn had shocked the world by beating the pound for pound best fighter in the world.

Soon after this however, Penn was stripped of the title for fighting in K1-MMA, as Zuffa felt Penn violated exclusivity terms that no UFC champion can fight in another promotion without their consent. No matter what side you identified with, as a fan on this issue, there is one factor that doesn’t hold up and that is that Penn hadn’t even signed a contract extension yet. Therefore, Zuffa had no claim to Penn breaking any contract terms. Anyhow, the UFC Welterweight championship became vacant.

Instead of putting Hughes in an immediate title fight right off the bat. The powers that be decided to pair Hughes off against Penn’s Jiu-Jitsu instructor Renato ‘Charuto’ Verissimo at UFC 48. It was an interesting choice considering Verissimo was coming off a dominating unanimous decision victory over Carlos Newton. Hughes actively saught after the takedown, but once the fight hit the mat, it was all Verissimo, as he went after Hughes from the bottom with constant submission attempts. In the first round he locked up Hughes in a tight triangle choke. Hughes was about to tap, but he fell to his butt, as a last resort, which allowed Verissimo mount with the choke still in place. Verissimo then made a big mistake, as Hughes’ arm was there for the taking, put he simply just sat there waiting for Hughes to tap out to the choke. This allowed Hughes to roll out of the submission.

Verissimo went on to dominate the remainder of the first round and most of the second round from the bottom. You could argue that the third round belonged to Hughes, as he actually landed some shots inside Charuto’s guard. Bizarrely the judges saw it differently and awarded Hughes the unanimous decision to the disgust of Verissimo. I felt quite frankly that Verissimo was robbed, while Hughes looked clearly surprised getting his hand raised. Later on, Hughes changed his tune and summed up the final bell as the moment that Verissimo knew he was beat. It’s amazing what being schooled can do to one’s ego.

At UFC 50, Hughes was put in a match with exciting up and comer Georges ‘Rush’ St.Pierre for the vacant Welterweight championship. St.Pierre came into this fight undefeated in MMA and with a 2 – 0 record in the UFC. St. Pierre came in and impressed demonstrating some great striking and wrestling skills, by outstriking Hughes and even taking him down at the start of the fight. Hughes soon found his rhythm though and was able to take St. Pierre down and keep him down. St. Pierre managed to establish his guard and went for a Kimura shoulder lock. St. Pierre’s guard was open and Hughes progressed to half guard and finally cleared the half guard with a smooth armbar counter. St. Pierre tapped out with one second left in the first round.

With Hughes being the champion once again, he is set to defend his second title reign for the first time. In the last year, Hughes has finally shown that he is indeed human with a rare loss to his record, but he has also stepped back up to the podium and won gold again. I’m sure he hopes to continue his winning form since his loss to Penn, but a rematch with old rival Frank Trigg stands in his way.

Frank Trigg (UFC Welterweight challenger)

Frank ‘Twinkle Toes’ Trigg is also very well rounded, but his most noticeable strengths are impeccable world-class wrestling skills with a very good stand up game. Trigg originally debuted in the UFC at UFC 45 against Matt Hughes. At this point in his career, Trigg was already experienced having fought in PRIDE and other smaller shows against tough opposition such as Hayato ‘Mach’ Sakurai, Jean Jaques Machado and Fabiano Iha. Trigg had only one loss to that date and it was against Sakurai in Shooto abck in 2000.

Trigg came into the fight extremely confident saying that he knew he could beat anyone in his weight class, and that Hughes would be no exception. As stated earlier in the column, Trigg got into a lot of smack talk before the fight, but he claimed he never had any animosity towards Hughes. It was just pre-fight talk to hype up the fight for the fans. After suffering a loss, Trigg still had one fight left on his contract. Trigg was pitted against another rival of his Dennis ‘Super Man’ Hallman at UFC 48 last year.

Both men had faught before at WFA 3, where their bout ended in controversy. Trigg landed an accidental kick to the groin of Hallman. Hallman decided he was unable to continue and Trigg was awarded the win. Hallman later questioned the decision, as he felt the kick was deliberate, while Trigg maintained that it was accidental and acknowledged it was below the belt, but argued it was above Hallman’s cup. Hallman went into the fight with a lot of anger, while Trigg came in looking to set the record straight.

Trigg wasted little time and pressed the fight from the beginning and soon both men were on the ground with Trigg on top. Hallman tried working different types of leg locks, but every time Hallman attempted one, he got punished with punches to the face. Eventually, Trigg was able to posture out of Hallman’s sportative Jiu Jitsu guard and rain down punches to finish the fight by TKO in the first round. Trigg proved he was the better fighter on the night and hoped it would be enough to warrant a return to the octagon.

Zuffa were impressed and invited Trigg back at UFC 50 to take on Renato ‘Charuto’ Verissimo. As mentioned earlier, Verissimo was coming off a controversial loss to Matt Hughes, but the sportsbooks had Verissimo as the favourite. I have to admit I was agreeing with the oddsmakers going into this fight, as I felt Trigg’s weak point was the submission game. I felt Verissimo was going to submit Trigg inside the first round or second at worst. Guess what, I was wrong.

Verissimo came out aggressively trying take Trigg to the mat, but Trigg remained calm and displayed excellent balance keeping his hips low making the shot from the lanky Brazilian very difficult. Verissimo soon relinguished his takedown attempts, as he was expending a lot of energy in repeatedly going for them. Verissimo then opened up a striking exchange that seemed to rock Trigg briefly, but Trigg reacted well by instinctively shooting on the upright Verissimo tumbling him to the mat.

Trigg went right into Verissimo’s guard and the Jiu-Jitsu whizz aggressively attacked with triangle choke attempts. Verissimo was finally able to lock up Trigg in his web and Trigg looked like he was ready to tap, but Trigg admitted later that the pride of knowing that his son was watching him in the audience drove him on and he some how squeezed out of the tight submission to an emphatic applause from the crowd. Trigg displayed tremendous heart in this move and I guess that explains how he developed his cauliflower ears, a type of battle scar if you will of many grapplers that have spent years in the gym refusing to allow claustrophobic moments to get in their way of escaping awkward situations.

In the second round, both men appeared to have expended a lot of gas, but Trigg definitely looked the fresher. Trigg then took over the fight knocking Verissimo down with a punch and came hammering down with some heavy ground and pound. Verissimo tried to spin out from the bottom with a spider guard, a technique that often has disasturous consequences in MMA fights. Trigg reacted accordingly by posturing up and peppering solid punches through the lose guard landing consistently in the face of Verissimo. Verissimo was done and the referee stopped the fight in the second round. Now that Trigg has come back with two solid wins since his unlucky debut in the UFC he feels he is well deserving of another title shot against Hughes and Zuffa obviosuly agree, as both men are scheduled to do battle in the octagon on Saturday, the 16th of April at UFC 52.

Breaking down the rematch

Without breaking down this fight properly, you may just assume that it’s a foregone conclusion that Matt Hughes will be the victor. After all he submitted Frank Trigg in round one of their last fight, but to truly gain perspective into this rematch, many factors must be considered. First off, that fight was nearly a year and a half ago. Hughes has had three fights since then and Trigg has had two. When you train at their level with their respective training partners, things change.

Second, the first fight was a very competitive battle right up to the finish. By no means, did Hughes dominate his way to victory. If both men fight at the same pace in the rematch, the fight could be determined by who makes a mistake first. Before the first fight, Hughes had been fighting top competition and dominating on a regular basis. However, Trigg hadn’t fought in a year and that was against Dennis Hallman in the WFA, a fight as stated earlier ended very early and ended in dispute. The point being, Hughes was on form, while Trigg was likely to be more ring rusty. Now, both men have been competing more or less as actively as one another.

Trigg is 2 – 0 since that fight and Hughes is 2 – 1 since then. Trigg has been more decisive over recent form by finishing both Dennis Hallman and Renato Verissimo. While Hughes lost to BJ Penn decisively, won a controversial decision over Renato Verissimo and submitted Georges St. Pierre in impressive fashion. Styles make fights and it is that exact reason why you can’t simply say stuff like Hughes barely beat Verissimo, while Trigg made a statement against him. The fact is Trigg and Hughes are different fighters with different tendencies.

The best way to compare fighters is to compare each dimension of their respective games and how they mesh these elements together in an MMA bout. Training with guys like Pat Miletich, Robbie Lawler and Jens Pulver, Hughes certainly knows how to strike, but through proven MMA competition, Trigg is the more proven striker. Trigg is definitely the better wrestler considering he trains with the R1 (formerly known as the Raw) team, which is full of world-class wrestlers with Trigg being no exception. It’s difficult to compare their submission games though. Hughes has demonstrated better finishing ability in this area, but Trigg has ironically demonstrated better submission defence despite being submitted by Hughes before.

An interesting perspective to take on the submission ability of both these gentleman is how they mix their wrestling with their Jiu-Jitsu. Hughes trains with one of the best submission guys around in Jeremy Horn, so he’s definitley tapped into a great resource and training partner there, but from looking at Hughes fight, he tends to abandon these skills at times getting into wrestler only mode when the going gets tough. While Trigg tends to complement his Jiu Jistu skills wikth great posture and calmness when in trouble.

The remaining factors to consider are conditioning and endurance. Both men have great stamina and can battle solidly for long periods of time, but Hughes has proven he is able to go five rounds without fatigue, while Trigg hasn’t. Trigg tends to go for the finish more frequently, which will drain your gas tank quicker. When it comes to endurance, Hughes rarely finds himself being dominated and because of that he tends to appear flustered when someone gets top position on him and actually manages to hurt him. While Trigg has shown recently against Verissimo that he can not only defend tough situations, but he can endure punishment and come back at you even more dangerous.

With the pace Trigg usually brings to a fight, I can’t see this going the distance. Hughes will either finish him or vice versa. I think Trigg is in a good position in this fight, as his balance is amazing and he should be able to decide whether this fight stays on the feet or goes to the ground. I would love to see him stand with Hughes, as I believe he may show that his striking is too good for Hughes. Hughes will try and shoot as he always does and Trigg will be tested, as sprawling on a smaller compact proven wrestler like Hughes compared to sprawling on a less accomplished wrestler that’s taller like Verissimo is more dificult.

The key to any takedown battle is about who can get their hips lower, as it allows more leverage to execute a takedown and more leverage to defend a takedown. I do think with a solid work ethic Trigg can stop more takedowns than Hughes can secure. This is where the striking will come into play. If you pay close attention to Hughes before setting up a takedown, he tends to have his hands pretty low. If Trigg can get his strikes off sharply, Hughes may go down and stay down. If Trigg decides to take Hughes down he will succeed like he did in their first fight and like St. Pierre did against Hughes recently. If Trigg can stay calm while on the ground, I can’t see him being bettered by Hughes.

The only way Hughes can win this fight is by closing the distance more carefully with strikes, than he usually does. He needs to engage with Trigg in striking exchanges and make Trigg forget about the takedown. If he can lure Trigg into a false sense of security, he will pick up Trigg and slam him and if he can keep top position and enforce his strength, he could create openings to ground and pound. All things considered though, I am going with Frank Trigg by KO in round 2. Don’t forget to check out my second installment of the The Rematch segment, where I’ll give my take on Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell 2.

Hopefully, with the success of the Ultimate Fighter series that just concluded last weekend with the first live MMA event on free TV, the UFC will achieve more than 150,000 buyrates (Zuffa’s personal best so far). So, if you live in North America, make sure to order the PPV on In-Demand, Direct TV or any other carrier that features the PPV. It’s on live 7pm P/T and 10pm E/T. Also, Bravo will be showing UFC 52 on one-day delay this Sunday in Ireland and the UK and anywhere else in Europe that carries the channel. Make sure you tune in to keep up the good ratings on Bravo.

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Joe Reilly