Humble Hughes leaves door slightly ajar

DENVER -- It was nearly 18 years ago that the first UFC was held in Denver. And on the day it came back to the Mile High City, one of the sport's pioneers fought in his last bout. The company’s sweet homecoming turned into a sayonara of sorts.

Maybe, that is.

Matt Hughes did what he could against Josh Koscheck. It didn’t go the way he had hoped, but it ended up how many expected. He lost. Hughes was game, but in the end he didn’t have the speed or athleticism to match Koscheck’s. The two-time welterweight champion/current UFC Hall of Famer went down via a first-round knockout. This part was fairly predictable.

What he’ll do next isn’t. It was only the ninth loss in a career that spans 54 fights. Nearly five years ago to the day -- Sept. 23, 2006 -- Hughes defended the 170-pound belt for the last time against B.J. Penn. Not long after he came to from being knocked out Saturday -- the second time in a row, the previous time against none other than Penn at UFC 123 -- he smiled, shook his head, and treated it as he has everything in his career.

As a professional who left it out there.

Yet with the microphone in his face, just when everyone expected him to announce his retirement and give the “it’s been a crazy run” speech, he went all anticlimactic in front of the 16,000 people on hand at the Pepsi Center.

“I’m not retiring,” he said. “I’m going to tell the UFC to put me on a shelf and we’ll see what happens after that.”

Leading up to the fight, Hughes talked about retirement as a virtual certainty. He said his wife was the one pushing the notion, and he didn’t have much defense left to fight that fight. Yet at an obvious moment to walk away, he kept the door slightly ajar. It might be that he wants to take time and think about it. Or it might be that he wants to just sort of fade out without all the hoopla. That would be Matt Hughes’ style.

And that’s what UFC president Dana White said at the postfight newser.

“I think he’s going to retire,” he said. “I just don’t think that Hughes wants to say the word 'retire.' There was a lot of talk that this was the last fight of his contract, and I don’t know whether that’s true or not. He’s a guy I’ve never worried about, last fights or whatever. I was just talking to him out in the hallway and he’s going to fly out to Vegas in a month or so and sit down and talk. I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang it up ... without saying ‘retiring.’”

If Hughes does choose to call it a career, it will go down as one of the most storied in the UFC’s history. Hughes defended the welterweight belt seven times between 2002 and 2006. The Fertitta brothers and White bought the UFC in 2001. Hughes and Zuffa’s UFC are synonymous. They have been linked together the whole way, through thick and thin (Hughes fought twice under the UFC banner prior to Zuffa). He’s an old-school carryover. And therefore, if he wants to fight again -- and remember, he won three out of four heading into the bout with Koscheck -- he will be granted a fight.

It’s easy to imagine him going either way. With Royce Gracie asking for a rematch against Hughes for a swan song of his own, there will be dangling carrots out there for him to look at. He’s still a fan favorite, he can still fight, and the UFC can still market him.

And if this does happen to be it for the country boy?

Matt Hughes will always be a part of the scaffolding that made the UFC what it is today, and all the fighters he helped pave the way for -- including Koscheck, who was very grateful in victory -- should doff their caps for the service.

(Not that he’d ask for it.)