Of course, neither outlook is likely to give you a crystal clear picture of how the fight will actually go. If you went on previous history before their first encounter, Hughes' 13-match win streak made him a significant favorite over a fighter who was moving up to welterweight for the first time. Of course, he lost. If you went on previous history before their second bout, surely it would stand to reason that since Penn beat him once, he would beat him again. Of course, he lost.
Both fights in a sense went against the expected outcome, tying the series at 1-1 heading into the rubber match at UFC 123. It's been forgotten to history, but for the record, Hughes was about a 4-to-1 favorite against Penn at UFC 46. While Hughes did go off as the betting favorite in the sequel, it was a line largely influenced by the fact that Penn took the fight on short notice as a replacement for an injured Georges St. Pierre.
So while Hughes was the favorite in both of the first two fights, he comes in as the underdog for the tiebreaker. That's somewhat surprising considering that Hughes has won three straight bouts while Penn is on a two-match losing streak.
It's hard to predict what the third time around will look like given their familiarity to each other. Hughes though, has made no secret that his plan of attack will be similar to what he's used throughout the entirety of his Hall of Fame career.
Hughes will be the one to push forward through most of the fight and set the pace. That's an important factor if the fight goes three rounds as "cage control" is a criteria for scoring. Compustrike.com studied Hughes' last 13 UFC fights, and found that he spends about 56 percent of his fights on the ground, a clear indicator that he determines where the fight is contested.
One of his best qualities is his relentless with takedowns and pressure. He's only completed 15 of his last 32 takedown tries (47 percent) but even when he's unsuccessful, that constant, grinding style serves him well in later rounds, effectively tiring out his opponent.
That's essentially the formula Hughes used against Penn in their second fight, when Penn seemingly had the advantage in the first two rounds, but was worn down by Hughes' takedown tries and clinchwork against the fence. By the third, Penn was exhausted and Hughes overwhelmed him with a takedown, followed by fight-ending ground and pound.
If Penn is able to keep distance and prevent Hughes from crowding him, he will have the advantage in the striking department. Hughes will be the first one to admit he's no Frankie Edgar, and he won't have a speed advantage to exploit. Indeed, Penn is quicker than Hughes, he throws crisp strikes and has power, though he focuses on his hands and rarely throws kicks or knees. Hughes's standup has gotten better over the years, but his combinations are used to set up takedowns as often as they are thrown with the intention of hurting his opponent.
The ground is anyone's game. Penn himself said during fight week that Hughes is the equivalent of a black belt. While most consider Penn the better grappler, Hughes proved in the second fight that he would not be automatically overwhelmed by the Hawaiian anytime the fight hit the mat.
I see this fight changing as it goes along. Penn will be the sharper man early, letting his hands go and scoring with strikes, but Hughes won't give him the space he needs for long. He'll clinch, he'll shoot, he'll do whatever he can to make the fight as physical as possible. The uglier it gets, the better his chances. And with his size advantage (he'll probably be about 10-12 pounds heavier than Penn on fight night), that style of fight will wear Penn down. It's not a question of his conditioning as much as it is the simple truth that it often takes more energy to play defense than offense in a physical fight.
Penn will look good early, maybe even take the first round, but Hughes is very good at adjusting and even better at making his opponents play to his strengths. By the third, he should be where we're used to seeing Hughes, on top of an opponent and grinding out a victory. Hughes continues to turn back the clock with a decision, and Penn loses his third straight.