Matt Hughes finally put the speculation about his career to rest as he joined Dana White in announcing his retirement from active competition at the UFC on Fox pre-fight press conference. Hughes will now join Chuck Liddell as Zuffa-era stars who are transitioning to the front office, as White also announced that Hughes will serve as the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Development and Governmental Relations.
Hughes gave a brief, terse announcement following White’s remarks. He later admitted that he “wasn’t happy” with retiring, but was looking forward to his new position as a mentor to fighters and administering the UFC’s new code of conduct.
One could tell just from looking at Hughes that he would be happier competing, but realizes that age catches up with us all and he just physically can’t do the things that made him the greatest UFC welterweight champion of all time and a UFC Hall of Fame inductee.
From the days of being a Illinois farmboy who grew up to be a college All-American wrestler, Hughes seemed to thrive on competition. His first fight wasn’t much more that a favour to help out a friend, who paid him $100 for his winning efforts. After fighting (and winning) again at that same friend’s show, Hughes met up with renowned manager Monte Cox, who wanted to represent him. The rest, as they say, is history.
His first real taste of MMA came in the Extreme Challenge circuit, where he was introduced to the tournament format. After two impressive wins, including one over former UFC Middleweight champion Dave Menne, he was submitted in the finals by Dennis “Superman” Hallman. It wouldn’t be the last time that “Superman” would prove to be Hughes’ kryptonite.
In between racking up wins on the independent circuit, Hughes made two appearances in the UFC, debuting at UFC 22 where he defeated Valeri Ignatov, and UFC 26 where he stopped Marcelo Aguiar. It was then that the UFC brass offered him a rematch with Hallman and Hughes jumped at the opportunity. Hughes may have been too eager, as for the second time in his career he lost in less than 30 seconds, and it came against the same man. Hughes learned from the setbacks however, and worked harder on his submission game at the vaunted Miletich Fighting Systems in Iowa.
After regaining his footing with a seven fight winning streak that included three wins by submission, the UFC came calling once again. This time it was to take his coach and mentor Pat Miletich’s spot against the man who had dethroned him as Welterweight champion, the Canadian “Ronin”, Carlos Newton.
Hughes returned to the UFC focused and determined to take home the Welterweight title for his camp and his coach. The two battled back and forth for two rounds before the fight ended in one of the more controversial finishes in UFC history. Newton had Hughes caught in a triangle choke, which Hughes attempted to escape by carrying him over to and pressing him against the top of the cage. With his last breath, Hughes powered him down from the top of the fence with a slam so vicious it knocked Newton unconscious. It literally was Hughes’ last breath as he passed out from the triangle choke at that same moment. The referee ruled Hughes the winner and woke him up to declare a new Welterweight champion.
From there Hughes became an unstoppable force at Welterweight, rattling off five straight title defenses, including a more decisive victory over Carlos Newton, and a grudge match against Frank Trigg. MMA fans wondered if there was anyone who possessed the skills to dethrone the dominant champion and his vicious ground and pound offense.
The man to finally break Hughes’ streak was an unlikely opponent, former lightweight title contender BJ Penn. Hughes admitted later to taking Penn somewhat lightly due to his size, and was shocked along with the rest of the MMA world when Penn blasted Hughes with a right hand and followed up with a rear naked choke in the first round to defeat Hughes for the Welterweight title.
After Penn left the UFC due to a contract dispute, Zuffa again lined up Hughes to fight for the vacant title against Canadian welterweight sensation Georges St. Pierre. The young St. Pierre was clearly intimidated by fighting the veteran Hughes, and Hughes won the fight via first-round armbar, taking the Welterweight title back to MFS with him once again. But Hughes commended GSP for his effort, and said that the world hadn’t seen the last of him. He would be proven right, to his own detriment.
The first defense on Hughes’ docket was a rematch against Frank Trigg. The two shared an intense dislike for each other and the trash-talk before the fight was ratcheted up a notch. The two met at UFC 52 where Trigg took an early advantage due to a low-blow that went unseen by the referee and a rear-naked choke attempt. Hughes was able to regain control and in a moment that has been seen countless times on UFC highlights, carried Trigg all the way across the cage before slamming him. Hughes won with a rear naked choke of his own in the fight that was given “Fight of the Night” by the UFC and stole the thunder from the main event rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. UFC 52 set an all-time pay-per-view record for the UFC at the time, coming off the heels of the debut season of “The Ultimate Fighter” on Spike TV.
With TUF becoming a smash, Hughes was asked to coach on the second season of the show opposite Middleweight champion Rich Franklin. It was there that many new and casual fans were exposed to Hughes for the first time, and either delighted in or were aggravated by his hyper-competitive nature. His attempts to get under the skin of Jorge Gurgel or loss of temper on Mike Whitehead either made fans laugh or liken Hughes to a sadistic drill instructor. Either way, people were watching. Hughes was even given the opportunity to star in a Xyience protein shake commercial, where he famously compared the product to his own country breakfast.
UFC chose to capitalize on Hughes’ growing fame by putting him against UFC legend, Hall of Famer and pioneer Royce Gracie. Gracie had actually asked for Hughes specifically, believing his family’s jiu-jitsu could overcome anything the American wrestler could throw at him. In the end, Hughes proved that his time was the present and Gracie’s was the past as Hughes mercilessly took the fight to Gracie and won by first round TKO. The card, UFC 60, again set an all-time pay-per-view record for the UFC.
A rematch with GSP was to be in the cards, but due to an injury to the French-Canadian, the fight was postponed. In the vacancy left by St. Pierre, in stepped BJ Penn who had returned to the UFC earlier in the year. Hughes was ecstatic to avenge his earlier loss, and did so in typical Hughes fashion. After absorbing an early onslaught by Penn, Hughes was able to take top position and lay a beating on the Hawaiian until the referee could take no more and waved off the contest. As the fight was stopped, Hughes pointed over to his corner and said “I told you”.
With GSP fully healed, the rematch was set for UFC 65. This time, intimidation was not a factor by St. Pierre and the man nicknamed ”Rush” attacked Hughes on every level, finishing the fight with a brutal head kick. Hughes’ second reign as UFC Welterweight champion had come to an end, but Hughes vowed to once again regain the title.
After Matt Serra shocked the MMA world by dethroning GSP, Zuffa decided to match the loud-mouthed Long Island native opposite Hughes on season 6 of TUF as rival coaches, with the two to clash in a Welterweight title bout after the show. The two grew a mutual dislike over the course of filming, and each man vowed to shut the mouth of the other come fight time. But an injury to Serra scratched the bout, and Hughes instead was to compete for the interim Welterweight title in a rubber match against Georges St. Pierre.
Hughes entered the third match-up confident, insinuating GSP was weak mentally and mocking his loss to Serra. But when push came to shove, GSP took the match with an armbar, the same move Hughes had used to defeat him three years prior.
After a follow-up TKO loss to Thiago Alves, the bloom appeared to be off of the Hughes rose, and some wondered if his best days were behind him. Hughes seemed to acknowledge this as well, as he vowed to take only fights that were “interesting” to him.
Hughes took time off after the Alves fight to treat knee and other nagging injuries and stepped back in the cage almost a year later to settle the grudge with Matt Serra. The two battled hard for three rounds but Hughes scored the decision victory. Post-fight, the two embraced in the cage and raised each other’s arm, squashing the beef for good.
Following two victories over Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida that were impressive but ultimately lacked meaning, some speculated whether Hughes was on a “retirement tour” and whether the competitive fire inside had burnt out. Hughes attempted to answer those questions with a third fight against BJ Penn, who had been running amok in the lightweight division for the previous few years. The fight brought more questions than answers to the Hughes camp as BJ blitzed him and scored a KO in less than 30 seconds. When retirement questions loomed, Hughes vowed to re-evaluate and come back.
His final trip to the octagon saw him matched up with Josh Koscheck, a man who’s fighting style was compared to a prime Hughes. Koscheck was a late replacement for Diego Sanchez, who may have been a better match-up for Hughes stylistically. But being the competitor Hughes is, he accepted the change without complaint. Hughes kept Koscheck at bay with the jab early, but Koscheck landed a vicious right hand towards the end of the round that sent Hughes to the mat. Koscheck swarmed Hughes and just like that, the career of a legend was over.
Hughes refused to admit to anyone, even himself, that he was finished. Instead, his closing remark after the Koscheck fight was that he was going to ask UFC “to put him on the shelf” for the time being. The capacity crowd knew what he really meant, as did UFC President Dana White who indicated he was “90% sure” Hughes was done at the post-fight press conference. Certainly his wife knew, who had wanted him to retire for some time now. But for the man himself, surrounded by the men who brought him to the top of the MMA world, the words were too much to bear. Looking to his side and seeing longtime friends Robbie Lawler and Marc Fiore along with legendary trainer Pat Miletich, who re-joined Hughes after a six year absence in his corner, the memories of better days must have come flooding back.
Hughes never considered not fighting or asking for a different opponent. He has always been the definition of “company man” for the UFC. Dana White noted when making the Hughes announcement that Hughes had “never said no” to him. Even the Alves fight and subsequent loss was done as a favour to the UFC, who desperately needed him to step in on short notice when the card was ravaged by injuries and needed his star power. Beyond that, he even allowed Alves to come in overweight.
He always put the good of the sport above his own needs, a stark contrast to the situation UFC found itself in with Jon Jones and the cancellation of UFC 151. It’s no coincidence that someone with Hughes’ attitude towards the sport is now being asked to mentor younger fighters, as he always lead by example as an active competitor. Having an experienced voice like Hughes in Jones’ ear may have been able to save UFC 151, and will certainly add a voice of reason the next time a similar situation occurs.
Matt Hughes leaves the sport holding the record for most wins inside the UFC with 15. He is second only to Tito Ortiz for the most fights under the UFC banner (25), and is tied with St. Pierre for most welterweight title defenses (7). He has crossed over into mainstream notoriety with his TUF appearances, his autobiography “Made In America”, and his hunting show on the Outdoor network. One hopes he adapts as well to his executive position as he did to the cage. His legacy is built upon his devotion to competition and he proved one thing to us all; as his entrance music says: “a country boy can survive”.