by Kevin Iole, Yahoo! Sports

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates –
Matt Hughes stretched his arms and smiled broadly.


He’d had a terrific training camp in
preparation for his bout against Renzo Gracie on the main card of UFC 112 on
Saturday at Ferrari World, but things are still a bit different than they were
in his heyday.


When Hughes awakens each morning, the
aches and pains are all too real to him. The toll of more than a decade as one
of the elite mixed martial arts fighters in the world is readily apparent.


“I like the fact that he’s a little
older than me,” the 36-year-old Hughes said of his 43-year-old opponent. “I’m
feeling my age and I’m sure hoping he’s feeling his age. I like that.”


It will be a different Matt Hughes who
walks into the cage on Saturday than the one who so dominated the welterweight
division that he’s a lock for induction into the Ultimate Fighting Championship
Hall of Fame.


He’s still extraordinarily competitive,
but he’s no longer motivated by championships and by the thrill of pounding
someone into submission.


In his early days before he got to the
UFC, Hughes fought on small shows throughout the Midwest, where he was renowned
for his amazing physical strength. His opponents were routinely paid more than
he was because few were willing to take a beating on the cheap.


“They knew going in that they were
going to take a whipping, so in order to get me fights, my manager, Monte Cox, (who
was promoting those shows) had to pay them good money to get them to take those
fights,” Hughes said. “It was not like I was going to go in there and submit
them easily.


“I was going to pound on them and beat
on them and hurt them, but I’m not that guy any more. I am who I am and I love
who I am. My priorities are different.”


Hughes became a Christian five years
ago. He was married and settled down after a wild life spent largely on the
road as a well-to-do and carefree bachelor. He’s got two daughters, Hanna
Grace, 3½ and Katelyn Mae, 3 months, and enjoys taking care of them much
more than he does training or mapping out a game plan.


All of a sudden for Hughes, things have
changed. He’s not determined to make another title run. If one came, he’d
accept the opportunity, but winning a championship and reveling in its glory
isn’t the be all, end all to him any more.


And as a fighter, he doesn’t have the
same nasty attitude he once had, where he not only wanted to win, but to
inflict pain and punishment along the way.


“I’ve had a lot of changes in my life
the last five years,” Hughes said. “I became a Christian. I got married five
years ago. Three-and-a-half years ago, I watched my daughter be born. Three
months ago, I watched another daughter be born. When you see that in real life,
and you’re around kids all day – I’m around my kids, because I love my
kids and I love nothing more than being around them – I’m not the same
fighter. I can’t possibly be.


“It used to be, when I walked into the
ring, that person across the ring was lucky I didn’t rip his arm off and start
beating him with it. That’s the way I felt. I’m just not that aggressive any
more where I want to tear somebody’s head off. I’m 36 years old now. I would
say I’ve turned into a more technical fighter than a nasty fighter.”


That nastiness is what made him great
and whether he can reclaim his position at the top of the welterweight heap is
a question open for serious debate.


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