From his iconic “A Country Boy Can Survive” entrance to his no-nonsense, blue collar approach, Matt Hughes was an agent of change in mixed martial arts. The two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder was the sport’s premier welterweight for the better part of five years and did not relinquish his mantle until a prime Georges St. Pierre arrived on the scene.
Hughes was a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Eastern Illinois University before shifting gears to MMA. He made his debut in 1998 and went on to a historically successful career at 170 pounds, serving as a lynchpin for the Miletich Fighting System camp in Iowa, where he linked arms with future UFC champions Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver and Robbie Lawler. Hughes retired in 2013 with a 45-9 career record, having registered 35 of his victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission. The UFC hall of famer still ranks third on the promotion’s all-time list in career wins (18) and fifth in appearances (25).
On a resume littered with defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Innovation Meets Controversy
It was a finish that was talked about for years, and it made Hughes a champion for the first time. Carlos Newton had risen to prominence on the strength of his dangerous submission skills and had put away Hughes’ longtime mentor, Pat Miletich, with a bulldog choke to capture the welterweight crown at UFC 31. Hughes posed a serious threat but had not yet established himself as the top 170-pound fighter in the sport. His clash with Newton at UFC 34 on Nov. 2, 2001 started him down that path. After a competitive first round, Newton seized control in the second. Hughes was bogged down in the Canadian’s guard and eventually found himself entangled in a triangle choke. The challenger fought to extract himself, but as the seconds ticked off the clock, it seemed more and more likely that Newton’s submission skills would allow him to retain his title. No one could have foreseen what ensued. In a desperate but genius maneuver, Hughes scooped up Newton, walked him over to the cage and rested him against the top of the fence. The two rivals then slammed down hard on the canvas, the concussive impact knocking out the Canadian. Hughes also appeared to be out, having lost consciousness in the clutches of the choke. However, when Newton’s triangle was undone by the slam, Hughes was set free and was the first to come to his senses. Since Newton was still unconscious, referee John McCarthy essentially had no choice but to award the Miletich protégé the victory. Newton to this day believes the Hillsboro, Illinois, native fell victim to the choke, while Hughes remains steadfast in his belief that he slammed the champion on purpose to prevent going to sleep.
2. A Twinkle in His Eyes
Serious bad blood existed between Hughes and Frank Trigg when they met for a second time at UFC 52 on April 16, 2005 in Las Vegas. Hughes had submitted “Twinkle Toes” with a rear-naked choke two years earlier, so an undercurrent of revenge was present; and Trigg nearly tapped into it. After a groin strike to Hughes went unseen by the referee, Trigg bludgeoned him with hard punches. Hughes absorbed a volley of unanswered shots, and the possibility of a massive upset seemed more likely with each passing second. Trigg even threatened with a rear-naked choke, but the reigning welterweight champion stayed calm in the midst of significant adversity and soon recovered from the foul. Trigg failed to secure the choke, surrendered position and provided Hughes with an avenue through which to escape. He rose to his feet, scooped up a stunned Trigg and carried him across the Octagon before slamming him to the canvas. The crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena roared with deafening approval. It remains one of the most iconic moments in Ultimate Fighting Championship history. From there, Hughes blasted Trigg with punches and elbows, applied the rear-naked choke and forced the tapout 4:05 into the first round.
3. Legendary Beatdown
When the blockbuster bout between Hughes and Royce Gracie was announced for UFC 60 on May 27, 2006, most MMA observers knew it was not going to end well for the legendary Brazilian. Hughes was at the height of his power and entered the cage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on the strength of three consecutive finishes against Trigg, St. Pierre and Joe Riggs. Still, many Gracie loyalists held out hope that he could catch lightning in a bottle one last time. It was not to be. Hughes took down the Brazilian, controlled him from top position and threatened to snap his arm with a kimura. Gracie found out the hard way that time had passed him by, that he had been replaced by a superior model. Hughes rained down punches, forced the Brazilian to surrender his back and then flattened him out with hip pressure. More punches followed, prompting the stoppage 4:39 into the first round.
4. Dose of Humility
Hughes had a freight-train feel about him when he risked the welterweight crown against B.J. Penn in the UFC 46 co-main event on Jan. 31, 2004. One opponent after another had yielded to his mix of power wrestling, nasty ground-and-pound and technical grappling, as he had rattled off five consecutive title defenses. Penn was one of the most gifted fighters the sport had ever seen and had rebounded from a majority decision loss to Pulver in 2002, with victories over Paul Creighton, Matt Serra and Takanori Gomi sandwiched around a five-round draw with Caol Uno. So-called experts believed Hughes was too strong for the popular but undersized Hawaiian. They could not have been more wrong. Penn took it to the champion on the feet, and when Hughes stumbled after whiffing on a left hand, “The Prodigy” tossed him to the mat. Penn passed the guard, advanced to the back and cinched a rear-naked choke. Hughes had no choice but to tap with 22 seconds left in the first round, as he emerged from the choke with a blank stare and reluctantly passed the torch. He had won 13 fights in a row and emerged as the most dominant champion in the UFC. Penn made it look easy.
5. Second Reign
Anticipation was high when Hughes encountered St. Pierre in the first of their three career meetings at UFC 50 on Oct. 22, 2004 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At stake: the vacant welterweight championship. St. Pierre was undefeated and viewed as an all-time great in the making, but Hughes proved he was not quite ready for primetime. The first cracks in GSP’s armor appeared during the pre-fight staredown, as he looked skyward while receiving the referee’s final instructions, seemingly unwilling to meet Hughes’ gaze with his own. Even so, St. Pierre’s skills were superior for much of the first round, as he pestered the future hall of famer with his jab, surprised him with a takedown and connected with a spinning back kick to the sternum. Hughes executed a takedown of his own -- his second of the fight -- in the final minute and appeared content to ride out the closing seconds in top position. However, St. Pierre framed a kimura without securing his guard, and Hughes countered with a far-side armbar to force an immediate tapout. Only one second remained on the clock, and Hughes was the undisputed welterweight champion for a second time.