The memories are hazy, but Ricardo Almeida remembers enough about his first impression of Matt Hughes that they burn deep within his core. Ten years ago Almeida and Hughes faced off in the 99 kg-and-under division of the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships. Almeida recalls working off his guard. In an attempt to neutralize Hughes’ already strong mat game, he went for an arm lock. Hughes countered with a slam to the canvas.
That was curtains. Almeida felt like he suffered a concussion and lost a close decision on points, though he still left Abu Dhabi a bronze medalist in the Absolute Division. At the time Almeida wasn’t an MMA fighter and knew little about Hughes, already 14-1 competing around the United States, including a win over Valeri Ignatov in his UFC debut. The degrees of separation that night were strong as a tidal wave. Renzo Gracie, Almeida’s eventual instructor and founder of the famous tournament, won the under 77 kg weight class for the second time in three years.
The dots were connected at UFC 112 in April. The venue was an outdoor facility in Abu Dhabi. Almeida was there to see Hughes stop Gracie in Round 3 of their bout and immediately went to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to request a fight with arguably the greatest welterweight to compete in MMA. Silva moved quickly to sign the match for UFC 117, Almeida’s second since moving down from middleweight to 170 and one that could have been an obsessive countdown. Big Dog didn’t wallpaper his home with photos and clippings of his opponent infatuated with avenging Renzo’s honor and Hughes’ first-round submission of Royce Gracie in 2006. The carrot that dangles before him is enough of a stimulus. A victory over the newly-inducted UFC Hall of Famer will rocket Almeida up the welterweight rankings and provide cachet he’ll be able to boast for a long time.
“I did ask for the fight and was getting emotional about wanting that win back for the team, but it’s not like I had a picture of Matt Hughes up on my wall and looked at him for motivation,” Almeida told Heavy.com “My motivation is to be a better fighter each time. That’s all I want to be. I’m preparing for his leg kicks. I’m preparing for his right hand. I’m preparing for his double leg. I like to fight more precise and toned rather than with my heart and my fists.”
Consider Almeida’s slate polished and focus calibrated. While Hughes holds UFC records for most all-time wins (17), successful title defenses (seven), and his nine championship fight wins is tied with Randy Couture, Almeida’s credentials and chances cannot be dismissed. Big Dog is the first to be awarded a black belt by a Gracie family member and has won all three fights since a year-long layoff, his second following a four-year break from 2004-2008. A winner of two straight after losing three of four, Hughes, 36, remains relevant, but he’s peaked, Almeida, 33, is peaking. Hughes’ last two victories was a controversial decision over former rival Matt Serra and a blasting of 43-year-old Renzo Gracie after he overcame a sluggish start to change his game plan and earn the knockout late in the third round.
“He’s going to keep coming, keep adjusting and keep figuring out ways to win,” Almeida said. “He’s a champion, no doubt about it. He knows how to compete. He knows how to win and knows what he needs to do. He listens to his corner and has a strong team behind him. The fact that he’s done so much and I’m still kind of looking for those good things, I definitely agree that I’m more motivated than him.”
Vintage Hughes owns wins over Georges St. Pierre, B.J. Penn, Frank Trigg and many others during respective winning streaks of 18 and 13. Like the Renzo Gracie fight, Hughes fell behind early in the first Penn bout, dominated for two rounds before rebounding to score a TKO and avenge a first-round submission defeat to the Prodigy. His long history affords Almeida extended time to review video of how he’s taken over fights with brute force.
“He always seems to try to wear Jiu-Jitsu guys down on the feet and then take them down and use his power to pass the guard,” Almeida said. “That’s what he did to B.J. Penn in their second fight and to Georges St. Pierre in their first fight when he beat him.”
Perseverance has been Almeida’s M.O. He’s overcome an MCL tear, a long time away from the Octagon, and the low blow of finding out his son Renzo (named after Gracie) was autistic three weeks before his comeback fight against Rob Yundt. Almeida considered backing out of the 2008 contest and re-retiring. Instead he called his father, who told him Renzo would have to swallow the pill for his own good, and returned to submit Yundt 1:08 into the first round. These days Renzo is training Jiu Jitsu with his dad and boxing with coach Mark Henry. Almeida holds fund raisers to raise autism awareness in his local communities and his goal is to begin a specialized program at his Hamilton, N.J. based academy.
“I didn’t really understand it, and I didn’t realize it’s something as common as it is and there’s all these resources for these families,” Almeida said. “Whatever I can do to spread that, for sure I’ll be doing it.”
What Almeida understands is what’s at stake on August 7: A big win over a Hall of Famer, a quantum leap into the welterweight title picture and validation of why he came back. For a fighter who lives on motivation, these incentives are premium unleaded.
“Here’s a guy who’s done it all in the Octagon and I having a chance to go in there and test myself against him,” Almeida said. “I’m definitely in the best shape of my life and I’m healthy. I don’t think as a competitor it gets much better than that. The reality is I just want to compete. I just want to be the best I can be. Fighting a guy like Matt Hughes is a huge chance for me to prove I belong among the top guys.”