UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes checks in with thoughts on his career and the UFC's 20th anniversary...
The promotion that put mixed martial arts on the map is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary later this month on Nov. 16 at UFC 167. While the organization punched, kicked and choked its way into existence on a cold night in Denver back in 1993, when the UFC rolls out the Octagon for their milestone show, it will do so in the only place fit to host a celebration worthy of such an accomplishment…Las Vegas, Nevada.
The “fight capital of the world” is the place the UFC has called home since the Zuffa-era began in 2001, and will surely be the location for the promotion’s biggest fights for many years to come. That said, the 20th anniversary event will feature one of the year’s most anticipated fights as pound-for-pound great and long-reigning welterweight king Georges St-Pierre puts his title on the line against one-punch knockout artist Johny Hendricks in the main event of UFC 167.
Having the welterweight title on the line in the main event is a fitting byline, as the 170-pound division has consistently held its status as one of the deepest, most talent-rich collectives under the UFC banner. In addition to the light heavyweight division - which is largely considered the UFC’s “crown jewel” weight class - the welterweight ranks have provided some of the best action in UFC history, and has been a “must watch” division for the majority of the UFC’s reign atop the sport of MMA.
With that in mind, a big reason the 170-pound division earned the respect of a growing fan base is credited to former champion Matt Hughes.
For a five-year period ranging from 2001-2006, the Hillsboro, Illinois native was in a class of his own as he ruled the welterweight division and shattered the record books along the way. The future Hall of Famer presented a level of dominance never before seen inside the Octagon and did so at a time when the organization he championed and the sport itself needed it the most.
Hughes, hand-in-hand with a group of other future legends, became one of Zuffa’s most visible and viable assets as the “dark ages” of MMA gave way to the post-TUF boom of 2005. Yet, while the rising tide of future stars and champions would eventually break through, Hughes’ impact on the Octagon will never diminish.
“It’s amazing,” Hughes said. “My first UFC was in late 1999. I’ve been with the UFC for about 13 years and the way this sport and company have grown have been amazing. SEG owned it when I first started, and when Zuffa bought the company in 2001, things really started turning around. I won the title for them in late 2001 and as soon as I won the title, it was just amazing how much things changed. For a fighter, it changed my life incredibly.”
Meant to be Broken
In a sport like MMA, where the fighters involved and the landscape itself are in constant evolution, it would have been a far stretch to expect Hughes’ records to stand the test of time. While many of his marks in the history books have been matched or broken, the number of times he competed for a UFC title (12) and his amount of overall appearances inside the Octagon (25) are achievements of the highest order.
Of the records Hughes set during his time competing under the UFC banner, the only one that still stands today is number of overall victories in the Octagon. Where there are a number of young, talented fighters who have the potential to claim that record as their own, as of now his 18 Octagon wins are the most by any fighter in UFC history, and a mark shared with the man he fought three times, St-Pierre.
That is a lofty set of accomplishments by any standard and it is only fitting they can be found on the resume of the two-time former champion. As a country strong farm kid who grew up against the backdrop of the corn and soy bean fields that cover Southern Illinois, rising to become one of the best 170-pound fighters to ever enter the cage is a story equally as rich as the one that belongs to the organization he helped bring to the mainstream.
“From a fighter standpoint, things are only going to get better,” Hughes said. “When I started there weren’t high school kids training to become mixed martial artists. Now you have kids saying they want to be in the UFC. Junior high kids are walking around saying they want to be the next Georges St-Pierre or the next ‘Bones’ Jones and who knows how talented the fighters of the future are going to be. Things are only going to keep going up from here.”
Time for Reflection
Nevertheless, the end of the road comes for every athlete, and when it comes to this, Hughes is no exception. At 40 years old, and with his days of power-slamming his opposition to the canvas behind him, Hughes can reflect proudly on the work he did both in and out of the cage. He remains a definitive example that just because the spotlight fades, the fighter doesn’t have to fade along with it.
Being at the pinnacle of a sport and having all the perks that come with being “the man” for so many years can be a difficult thing to lose. Yet, those elements aren’t the aspects of his fight career Hughes misses; in fact, they never even enter the conversation.
What the former two-time welterweight champion longs for the most is the entire reason he decided to give an unlikely career in mixed martial arts a try. And in retrospect, those motivations are an exceptional example of what made him such an exceptional figure in the UFC’s history.
“I was interviewed two or three years ago and in the interview the person asked me what was the biggest thing I was going to take away from this experience when I retired,” Hughes recalled. “I told him it was an interesting question and that I had never been asked that before. I told him I would answer that question at the end of the interview. The whole time he’s asking questions and I’m answering them, but I’m trying to figure out my answer to that previous question so that I can give it to him at the end. When he came to the end and it was time for me to answer, I told him I wanted to give him the most honest answer possible.
“I told him when he first asked the question, the immediate thing that popped into my head was winning the world title, but that honestly isn’t the right answer…not by a long shot. What I’m going to take the most out of this is the good times with my buddies. Here I am getting paid to walk into a gym with my friends twice a day, train, lift weights and have fun. I get to go wherever I’m going for the fight - basically take a vacation - train with my friends a little bit more, then I fight on Saturday. I told him this life has been nothing but a dream. That is what I’ll take away from this sport the most; all the great times I’ve had with my buddies.”
Coming Back Stronger
On the topic of friendships forged in the fires of battle, Hughes’ bond with BJ Penn is one of the most unlikely friendships in UFC history. The two men spent years as heated rivals and their grudge matches were some of the most high-profile tilts of their time.
“The Prodigy” would come from out of nowhere to defeat Hughes at a time when it seemed as if no man could…a favor Hughes would eventually return in their rematch two years later. Following their epic battles the two men became good friends and remain close to this day. While a third fight was sprinkled in just before Hughes closed the book on his MMA career, their two title fights rank up there as some of Hughes’ favorite memories of his time in the UFC.
“The craziest point of my career - and this is the way it is but I’ll explain it - came when I lost the title to BJ Penn. The second craziest point would be when I won the title. I won the belt in late 2001 and defended the title four or five times before I fought BJ for the first time. I ended up losing the fight and was pretty shocked. I thought the title was mine in that fight and didn’t think BJ could get it from me. I had defended it before on numerous occasions and it just shocked me that this kid coming up from 155 pounds was going to be able to beat me, the defending champion.
“You look at that on a piece of paper and nowhere on that piece of paper does BJ Penn beat Matt Hughes. But he did and that was pretty crazy. My wife will tell you I went through a brief depression after that fight, but in the end it made me a better fighter.
“It’s been a good experience and I like it. I like thinking about the old days with BJ,” Hughes said. “The first fight was a shock but the second fight is one of my prized fights because I beat someone who beat me previously. I beat someone who had me in a bad position because he had me really hurt at the end of that first round. I like to see fights where fighters have to go through a little adversity. I don’t like to watch fights where it’s all one-sided.
“As it turns out, we have the same personality,” he added. “BJ and I get along well together and it’s been fun. He beat me two out of three times and it’s fun to get together with him. We act like old high school buddies who haven’t seen each other in a long time. I really believe deep down in my heart that if I had a problem I could call BJ in Hawaii and he’d be right there. He would jump on the first flight and come wherever I was and I would do exactly the same thing for him.”
Where the rivalry turned friendship with Penn has a special place in Hughes’ heart, one grudge that is categorized someplace different is his feud with Frank Trigg. They met twice under the UFC banner with Hughes winning both via rear-naked choke, with the latter of the victories becoming one of the best highlights in UFC history.
After defeating the Las Vegas native at UFC 45 in 2003, Hughes was none too motivated for their rematch at UFC 52 in April of 2005. The lack of motivation showed in grand fashion in the early going as Trigg jumped out to an early lead in the fight and appeared seconds away from becoming the new welterweight champion when he took Hughes’ back and locked in a choke of his own. In that moment, the fire ignited inside the champion, and he not only spun out of the submission, but picked Trigg up from the ground, put him over his shoulder, then ran him across the cage for a power slam. Shortly after hitting the canvas he sank in a choke of his own and the rest his history.
While the highlight footage of that finish can be seen on the montage that plays before every UFC event, the part Hughes remembers the most isn’t finishing the fight, but the expression on the faces of the people who cared the most about him as he came across the cage with Trigg in tow.
“I fought Frank Trigg at the Mohegan Sun and beat him in the first round by standing rear-naked choke,” Hughes said. “I beat him pretty definitively. I go on to fight a couple more times and Trigg fought a few more, then Dana White calls me and says he has my next fight ready and it’s going to be Frank Trigg. I went into that fight not exactly motivated to fight him again because it’s hard to beat someone in consecutive bouts. So here is this second fight and Trigg already knows what I do. He’s already felt me in a sense and I just didn’t want to face him. But we got into the cage together and you already know the ending.
“One of my favorite parts about watching that film is when I run him across the cage and slam him, I slam him right in front of my corner,” he added. “You can see the four guys in my corner stand up and go crazy. I try to imagine what they were going through in that moment. One second their guy is caught in a choke and is out, then the next he’s slamming his opponent, is on top and right back in the fight directly in front of them. That is my favorite moment about that highlight, when the guys in my corner are all jumping up and down and excited for me.”