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Can Alves use Hughes as a stepping stone?

Michael DiSanto, UFC - We’ve seen it over and over again – young gunslingers seeking street cred in the UFC by challenging aging established stars.

Rich Franklin earned his stripes at the expense of Ken Shamrock. Joe Lauzon used Jens Pulver to make himself famous. Carlos Newton took his career to the next level by beating Pat Miletich. Those are just a few of the dozens of examples of young guns catapulting their career by beating aging former superstars.
By Michael DiSanto

We’ve seen it over and over again – young gunslingers seeking street cred in the UFC by challenging aging established stars.

Rich Franklin earned his stripes at the expense of Ken Shamrock. Joe Lauzon used Jens Pulver to make himself famous. Carlos Newton took his career to the next level by beating Pat Miletich. Those are just a few of the dozens of examples of young guns catapulting their career by beating aging former superstars.

Even established champions such as Matt Hughes accept bouts with declining all-time greats as a way to take their popularity to the next level. That is the only plausible explanation as to why he agreed to face 40-something legend Royce Gracie, who had little shot at beating him.

Two years and two losses after defeating Gracie, Hughes finds himself on the other end of the equation. The most decorated welterweight in the history of the sport – across all promotions – remains a great fighter, but getting thoroughly dominated twice by reigning champion Georges St-Pierre leaves many wondering if Hughes is on the downside of his great career. Has the sport passed him by or are his recent losses just a case of a former champion running into his one true nemesis?

Thiago Alves wants to ask Hughes that question when the UFC invades the UK for the second time in 2008. He wants to use Hughes to sky rocket his career to the next level, entering the realm of the welterweight elite and possibly earning a title shot against GSP.

Can he do it?

This fight is probably the easiest fight of 2008 to break down. If Hughes gets the takedown early and often, he wins. Period. If Alves can keep it on the feet more often than not, he wins, possibly by knockout.

Hughes is a former collegiate wrestler who evolved into a well-rounded mixed martial artist. His ground-and-pound attack is legendary. He has outstanding submission defense and very underrated submission skills, with possibly the best cross-side Kimura in the division.

Thus, his game plan is a simple one. He wants to come out, feint and throw meaningless punches from the outside to try and get Alves to counter aggressively so that he can shoot for single- or double-leg takedowns. Once he gets the fight to the mat, Hughes will work conservative ground and pound inside Alves’ guard. If Alves gets cute with submission attempts or leaves his guard open, Hughes will step over a leg and work for the full mount. He is very adept at passing the guard while firing elbows and punches. Alves wants no part of that – just ask the 14 guys Hughes beat inside the Octagon.

If and when he secures the mount, he will completely control his opponent and begin pounding away. At that point, Alves has three choices: tap out, give up his back and hope that Hughes doesn’t sink a rear-naked choke or try and escape through the backdoor – a very unlikely result against an experienced ground-and-pound expert like Hughes.

If, however, Hughes is unable to get the fight to the ground, he is in for a world of hurt. Alves is a Muay Thai monster with very real knockout power in his punches, kicks and knees. The Brazilian striker scored knockouts or technical knockouts in six of his seven UFC wins. The most impressive of those came in his last bout – a second-round TKO win over Karo Parisyan. Alves fired a knee that dropped Parisyan like he was hit by a sledgehammer. He quickly jumped on his fallen foe and finished him off with a series of vicious punches.

Alves’ game plan, like that of his foe, is a very simple one. He wants to come out, keep his knees very flexed and his weight down so that he can sprawl and fire short, crisp punches without worrying about the knockout. All he needs to do is touch Hughes with his punches. The more he touches the former champion the more likely that a knockout will follow. Alves has the sort of natural, effortless power that allows him to fire shots comfortably and in control without giving up too much in terms of velocity or impact.

Alves, therefore, should work the jab early, something Hughes has trouble defending since he does not move his head much, and fire the occasional right hand right down the middle. After he finds his rhythm, he can follow up the right hand with a clean up left hook, another punch that Hughes struggles with because he often reacts to flush right hands by bringing his right hand in front of his face in a defensive position as if he is trying to slap away the punch. That leaves him wide open for a left hook.

As Hughes shoots for takedowns, Alves should forget trying to time him with a knee. The odds of landing a James Irvin knee are extremely remote. If he finds pay dirt, it will result in a spectacular knockout. If not, he will wind up on his back. Accordingly, he should defend shots with sprawls and look to clinch his opponent and fire knees as Hughes gives up on the shot. That is his best opportunity to land a fight-altering knee strike.

If Alves gets overly excited on the feet, he will wind up on his back because his takedown defense, while good, is not great. Jon Fitch, who has similar wrestling skills to Hughes, was able to take him down and pound him out. Hughes certainly hopes to do the same thing.

Then again, if Hughes is getting a little long in the tooth, Hughes may not have the explosiveness necessary to complete his takedown attempts. Many believe that at 34 years old, with almost 40 professional fights under his belt, Hughes’ best days may be behind him. Most thought the same thing about former PRIDE monster Wanderlei Silva heading into his last fight. After suffering three consecutive losses, he was set to face rising star Keith Jardine. He responded by savagely bludgeoning the top 205-lb contender into defeat.

Will Hughes do the same thing against Alves? If he gets the takedown early, then the answer is a resounding YES. If not, he may find himself asking his people “what happened?” as he his trainers help him back to the locker room after the fight while Alves parties into the night with his American Top Team colleagues.

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