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Hughes, Liddell get UFC spotlight

December 29, 2007|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- With 14 Ultimate Fighting Championship title fight victories between them, Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell have been called "the men who've helped build this company," by UFC President Dana White.

Known for devastating wrestling skills (Hughes) and entertaining striking ability (Liddell), the pair is anchoring a UFC pay-per-view card tonight when Hughes fights Georges St-Pierre for the third time with the interim welterweight title on the line, and Liddell gets his long-awaited crack at former PRIDE Fighting Championships belt-holder Wanderlei Silva at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

The question lingering around both fighters, however, is whether these will be their final bouts.

Hughes, 34, has confessed he's playing his future "by ear," and Liddell, 38, is reeling from two consecutive losses.

"It's going to be interesting to see," White said. "These are two guys who've made plenty of money to retire. With that much money in the bank, it's harder to be hungry."

Hughes and St-Pierre have split their first two fights. Hughes (43-5) won their first meeting by first-round submission in 2004. The 26-year-old St-Pierre knocked down Hughes twice in a November 2006 rematch, winning by second-round technical knockout on a left kick and a flurry of six punches that forced referee John McCarthy to stop the fight.

St-Pierre (14-2) is predicting a repeat victory in the main event, praising Hughes as "the most decorated champion in the sport," but proclaiming he "has all the tools to solve him."

The winner of the five-round bout will meet injured champion Matt Serra in a 2008 fight, White said.

Serra stunned St-Pierre as an 11-1 underdog in an April bout in Houston, and Hughes was captured on television cameras smiling widely at ringside at the thought of meeting Serra and winning the welterweight belt for a third time.

Hughes and Serra starred as bitter rival coaches in the UFC reality television series "The Ultimate Fighter 6," but Serra suffered a back injury in training, and St-Pierre was installed as his replacement.

Now, Hughes finds himself with a challenge he considers stiffer than Serra. He admits life after the Octagon has strayed into his thoughts.

"I've got a 17-month-old girl and two boys I want to spend time with," Hughes said. "I can't say two or three big wins will keep me in the sport, and I can't say one or two losses will keep me out."

Meanwhile, Hughes' friend, Liddell (20-5), will re-enter the Octagon three months after suffering his second straight loss, a three-round split-decision defeat at the hands of Keith Jardine at Anaheim's Honda Center.

In the post-fight news conference, the former light-heavyweight champion sat mostly glum-faced, bearing facial cuts and bruises sustained in a fight most expected him to win easily.

In May, Liddell suffered a first-round knockout and surrendered his belt to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

After the Jardine loss, he delayed discussing his future in the sport, sparking speculation he might end his career.

"I was only thinking of taking some time off," Liddell said. "I didn't think I was going to lose that fight, and I thought by losing, I had lost the fight against Wanderlei that I had wanted forever."

Liddell versus Silva has failed to materialize several times, most achingly in 2003, when Liddell lost to Jackson in the semifinals of a PRIDE Grand Prix tournament won by Silva (31-7-1). White recognized Liddell-Silva was still a fight mixed martial arts fans wanted to see, and pitched it to Liddell.

"That motivated me, easily," Liddell said. "I'll get back on track and get a chance at [Jackson's] title again."

Silva, who has defeated Jackson twice, also has lost back-to-back fights, against Mirko Filipovic and Dan Henderson, and hasn't won since July 2006. Nicknamed the "Axe Murderer," Silva presents an exciting fight, Liddell said, "because he's emotional, aggressive. He comes forward, and I like that. You can't coach that out of him in 10 months."

Liddell insists, "I'm still performing at a high level. Once I'm not, I'm going to retire."

Ideally, Liddell says, both he and Hughes will win, and retirement talk will be delayed for another day.

"Keep it going, that'd be the best case," Liddell said.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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