Matt Hughes: A Sherdog Retrospective

By Staff Feb 9, 2013

It was a no-brainer that Matt Hughes would end up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship front office.

Since the early strokes of 2011, when Chuck Liddell called it a career and was afforded a largely ceremonial position within the company he helped build with his prizefights, it seemed as though Hughes was destined for a similar fate. Liddell was viewed as the consummate company man by the UFC, and his lasting popularity and lofty legacy made it an easy decision to keep him around as a face within the company. Hughes was no different in this regard. However, no matter what awaits the Hillsboro, Ill., native as the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Development and Government Relations, it is not the title for which Hughes will be remembered.

When Hughes debuted in the Octagon at UFC 22, the company was still under the ownership of Semaphore Entertainment Group. The Midwestern scene with which he would come to be so intimately associated was just starting to thrive and flourish. However, after he wrestled Valeri Ignatev into that ground, few could have expected that this athlete would become the sport’s first welterweight icon.

Hughes’ longtime trainer, Pat Miletich, had helped put the 170-pound division on the map, but Hughes was the division’s first master in the modern era. Not long after the codification of the Unified Rules and Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC, Hughes power-bombed Carlos Newton through the mat. The former Eastern Illinois University wrestling standout would win two UFC welterweight championships and reign as a perennial pound-for-pound elite. His rivalries with B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre crystallized the welterweight division as a crown jewel of the sport. Hughes’ 25 UFC bouts rank second only to Tito Ortiz’s 27, and with an Octagon mark of 18-7, no fighter has won more inside those eight hallowed walls.

Hughes has also been a constant source of MMA conversation throughout his career. The combination of his outstanding accomplishments and outspoken personality intensely polarized onlookers. Was his style a display of dominance or one-dimensionality? Was Hughes a trash talker or a straight shooter? Did his embodiment of Midwestern America charm you or offend you?

Your answers might have a lot to do with how you feel about hunting and John Deere tractors. However, no matter what side of the Hughes debate you stand on, you likely remember exactly where you were sitting -- more probably, standing -- when he ran across the Octagon with Frank Trigg on his shoulders. We do, too.

As the 39-year-old hall of famer turns over a new leaf in retirement, staff members and contributors weigh in on their most vivid memories, reflections and appraisals of Hughes’ trials, triumphs and importance to MMA:

Jeff Sherwood: In New Orleans for UFC 27, I was on Bourbon Street having a few cocktails at the Bourbon Cowboy when I witnessed a pretty funny scene that involved Matt Hughes and Team Miletich. Back in those days, I was not as familiar with MMA fighters and UFC talent. More importantly, they were not as familiar with me, so me and my two buddies sat down at the table next to Team Miletich to relax over a few drinks. After a few drinks, a guy walks in wearing a cowboy hat. Hughes told him, “Hey, nice hat.” I really think he was being serious, but the cowboy thought the future legend was making fun of him. He got upset and lashed back at Hughes with something along the lines of, “Boy, I’ll whip your ass,” which got the attention of the entire Miletich crew. I turned to look at Hughes and he just had a big smile on his face, which I think ticked off the cowboy off even more. Miletich himself tried to play peacemaker and told the cowboy he did not want a fight, but the guy insisted that Hughes was “dead.” He was as irate and red-faced as a man could be. Miletich coolly walked him away from the table, I guess to explain the situation to him a bit more clearly. The cowboy kept looking over his shoulder, looking back at Hughes, whose smile just grew. Miletich returned to the table with a much-calmer cowboy, who then shook Hughes’ hand and ordered a round of drinks for Team Miletich. After cooler heads prevailed, Hughes and the cowboy shared their drinks while discussing the hat that had brought them together in the first place.

Mike Whitman: So many Matt Hughes moments to choose from, so little time. Certain words and images spring to mind immediately when thinking of the two-time welterweight king: Carlos Newton’s head bouncing off the canvas, the look in Frank Trigg’s eyes while he was suspended in mid-air, the UFC’s original killer -- Royce Gracie -- stretched out and helpless. These mental pictures are not what I will remember most about Hughes, however. Oddly enough, the thing that resonates most deeply inside of me when I think of the hall of famer is what preceded so many of his triumphs as champion. I cannot say with certainty how his opponents felt standing in the Octagon when all light left the arena and Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” began to play, but I can say definitively that it always scared the s--- out of me from my couch. When Hughes made that walk at the height of his powers, he might as well have been the Grim Reaper. He was taking you down and elbowing you in the face, and there was nothing you could do about it.

RJ Clifford: I can say with relative certainty that without Matt Hughes you would not be reading my words now; thank him or curse him. UFC 34 was the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event I ever attended. I was a freshman college wrestler in town for a tournament and snuck away for a glimpse of this “cagefighting.” Watching Hughes power-bomb champion Carlos Newton was as close to a religious experience as you can get in Las Vegas. Hughes was awarded a belt for something that usually puts you in jail, and I was hooked. Few fighters have given fans so many memorable moments, from coming back from the groin strike against Frank Trigg and tapping out Georges St. Pierre to pounding out B.J. Penn and mercifully letting go of Royce Gracie’s arm; and he did it all like he just jumped off his tractor and into the cage for some afternoon down time. I can only guess how many of those moments had the same effect on others as it did me on that November night in 2001.

Brian Knapp: Even in the twilight of his career, as he fought to combat eroding skills and diminishing motivation, Hughes was a very real threat. That speaks to his greatness. While future generations will marvel at his knockout slam against Carlos Newton at UFC 34 and his sublime comeback win over Frank Trigg at UFC 52, his unlikely submission of Ricardo Almeida at UFC 117 sticks with me. Hughes dropped the former middleweight King of Pancrase with a ringing left hook and then rendered him unconscious with a modified anaconda choke, becoming the first man to submit the Renzo Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. It was the final feather in his hall of fame cap, as Hughes went on to lose his next two bouts before calling it a career.

Mike Fridley: The Hughes memory that most resonates with me is that of his matchup against Hayato “Mach” Sakurai at UFC 36. It was early 2002, and I, being an avid follower of the Japanese scene, in general, and Shooto, in particular, had raved to all of my friends and co-workers about the complete badass that was about to eject Hughes’ teeth into the crowd on pay-per-view. Needless to say, Hughes had me eating all sorts of bitter crow in my basement in front of my people, as he destroyed the man I trumpeted as the next big thing. From this moment on, I never broke out the anointing oil before a newcomer’s Octagon debut, and I never, ever underestimated Hughes again.

Jordan Breen: I’m a bit of a weirdo, so when I hear “Matt Hughes,” I tend to wonder if he could have beaten Dennis Hallman in a third fight and other less-relevant miscellanea. However, if we are talking about Hughes hypotheticals, there is one that always dominates my thoughts. Lost in the all-time highlight-reel madness of Hughes slamming Newton for the welterweight crown at UFC 34 is the fact that Hughes entered the bout as a late replacement on only a few weeks’ notice. Zuffa originally wanted to have then-Shooto 168-pound world champion Anderson Silva come to the UFC to face the new 170-pound titleholder. Because of his legacy and athleticism, it seems to have become some kind of accepted revisionism that Hughes was a champion-in-waiting who simply got his moment. At that point, Hughes was simply just another solid welterweight contender, winning fights in and out of the Octagon in what was basically a non-farm-related hobby for him. Furthermore, the interest in Silva did not end there. At UFC 36, Hughes’ first title defense was supposed to come against the Brazilian. Unfortunately, talks deteriorated for the same reason as before: Pride Fighting Championships was starting to hit its boom time in Japan, and Silva’s team, Chute Boxe, wanted its athlete to be able to fight outside the UFC, both in Japan for Pride and for the gym’s domestic Brazilian shows. We would not get Silva in the UFC until some five years later. It seems like just a pointless exercise to imagine how Hughes-Silva might have gone back in 2001 or 2002. However, it is compelling for other reasons. It was a period of early agenda setting for the Zuffa-led UFC; it is no secret the company preferred Pedro Rizzo to Randy Couture and B.J. Penn to Jens Pulver. While Hughes eventually became a UFC star, he had to pave his own path. He did it one fight and one defense at a time, all while doing farm work and roofing jobs throughout training camp.

TJ De Santis: Matt Hughes was the first fighter I had ever stood next to in person. At a Shooto Americas card in Belleville, Ill., we were a short drive from the then-UFC welterweight champion’s home. I was just a fan then, so I walked up to him to shake his hand and asked him if he was ready for his upcoming fight -- the standard fan stuff. Our brief and truly meaningless conversation left me thinking one thing: “This dude is gigantic.” I remember returning home and talking to my friend about how I met Matt Hughes. He asked me about my impression, but I could not honestly remember anything else but his hulking stature. It was just a few weeks before he was scheduled to fight B.J. Penn at UFC 46. “Do you think B.J. has a chance?” my friend asked. “No way, Matt is gigantic,” I replied. Not long after, I stood next to him as Penn shocked Hughes by first-round rear-naked choke. “Too big, huh?” my friend said, smiling smugly.

Sam Genovese: Some legends are parts of different eras, so rarely do we see a prominent passing of the torch like we saw with Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre. For this reason, their first fight is etched in my mind as an integral moment in the history of the welterweight division and the sport as a whole. In that fight, St. Pierre displayed everything that would define him as a champion in the future, but in that moment, we saw the tenacity and technique that defined MMA’s first welterweight icon as Hughes coaxed the tapout from GSP.

Lutfi Sariahmed: Matt Hughes may have been one of the first fighters to come across as a professional wrestling-type villain in MMA. When I first got seriously interested in MMA and long before I sought to cover it, I was compelled by the Hughes-GSP rivalry. I could not stand the talk of how GSP was intimidated and not as credentialed as Hughes. Over time, I realized this was part of the UFC’s morphing into the kind of mainstream sport that people had dreamed about. Is this not one of the highest forms of respect the public can pay an athlete? We hate the New York Yankees because of their unmatched success. We cannot stand the Duke Blue Devils or the “Cameron Crazies” because of how well they perform year after year. It was the same thing with Hughes. Those who rooted against Hughes were all admitting to his dominance.

Tristen Critchfield: It might not have been the most notable of wins during his extended reign as welterweight champion, but nothing defined Matt Hughes’ toughness more than his second victory over Frank Trigg. Trigg caught the Miletich Fighting Systems product with a knee to the groin early in the first round of their rematch at UFC 52, but the foul was overlooked by referee Mario Yamasaki. As Hughes doubled over in pain, Trigg attacked with a flurry, sensing an opportunity for the finish. “He got hit in the groin [and] looked to Mario Yamasaki. Mario Yamasaki didn’t stop it and Frank Trigg took advantage of it,” UFC analyst Joe Rogan said as “Twinkle Toes” pounded away with punches and elbows on the mat. Trigg would move to full mount before taking Hughes’ back, looking to end the bout the same way the Pat Miletich protégé ended their first meeting -- via rear-naked choke. Somehow, the champion escaped the predicament, picked up Trigg and carried him across the Octagon before dumping him on the mat. From there, it was Hughes’ turn to deal out the punishment from full mount. Eventually, Trigg surrendered his back, allowing Hughes to lock in the fight-ending rear-naked choke. With a little less than minute remaining in round one, Trigg asked out of the fight, capping off a near-miraculous comeback for Hughes. No, Trigg was not the signature victory of Hughes’ UFC tenure, but given the circumstances, it was hard not to be impressed with his performance.

Jack Encarnacao: The fight I think captures Matt Hughes’ essence was his third-round TKO over B.J. Penn in their second meeting at UFC 63. It was Hughes' final Country Boy Can Survive moment. Penn’s 2004 submission of Hughes added a new depth to our understanding of the commanding, farm-tough wrestler. His face was scraped and stunned, frozen even, after he tapped out. It was Hughes’ first UFC loss in more than four years, an unforgettable reminder of what happens to his cocksure disposition when he is checkmated. That image, coupled with Penn’s elation, provided the backdrop to their 2006 rematch. The fight saw Penn trumping Hughes again, with boxing in the first round and with grappling in the second. We nearly saw a replay of UFC 46, as Penn swept Hughes, took his back and lined up the same rear-naked choke that so swiftly dispatched Hughes two years prior. Penn eventually shifted to a triangle-armbar position, and it appeared the Hawaiian simply had Hughes’ number. However, Hughes weathered the pressure until the end of the round and emerged from the entanglement not with a look of dejection but of anticipation. Penn had used up his energy. Hughes had taken his foe’s best, and his verve was still very much intact. In the third round, Hughes landed almost at-will on the feet, took Penn to the mat, passed his vaunted guard, locked up his arms in side control and rained down short punches for the TKO. Hughes stood up, that proud grin back on his face, and mouthed “I told you” to UFC President Dana White at cageside. After that fight, Georges St. Pierre entered the cage and famously declared he was not impressed with Hughes’ performance. It was the prelude to his taking Hughes’ title and hype in their rematch, the inverse of what Hughes experienced in his bouts against Penn. Hughes would never defeat a top contender again, unable to bounce back from the adversity presented by St. Pierre, Thiago Alves, Penn in a third fight and Josh Koscheck. For what turned out to be the last time, on Sept. 23, 2006 in Anaheim, the country boy had survived.

Todd Martin: When considering the retirement of Matt Hughes, my mind immediately drifted back to UFC 65. On the surface, it was not a highlight night for the longtime welterweight champion. He was knocked out by Georges St. Pierre, losing the welterweight crown that he would never regain. Still, what was striking to me about the evening was the way he reacted to the defeat. Often branded cocky and at times viewed as a villain to UFC fans, Hughes handled the setback with a telling humility and dignity. After losing a title via knockout, few fighters are going to come out for a post-fight press conference. That is just what Hughes did. He sat and took questions from the media in Sacramento, Calif., for a good 30 minutes and stayed after the press conference to take more. He was funny, at times self-deprecating, complimentary towards St. Pierre and, above all, completely comfortable in his own skin. As a fighter, it was one of his lowest nights. As a person, it was one of his best.

Chris Nelson: Matt Hughes was a fearsome fighter, a dominant champion, a pound-for-pound great and, in his prime, arguably the best welterweight that MMA has ever seen. His popularity and rivalries with the likes of Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn helped the UFC flourish, and his style helped shape fighting to the extent that it’s hard to imagine what MMA would look like today if he had not been around. Whatever you think of Matt Hughes the man, any lover of MMA has to give it up for Matt Hughes the fighter.
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