By Brad Cameron
What started as a hobby, turned into something more for Matt Hughes.
Hughes started in mixed martial arts after a successful college career in wrestling. He went on to win 45 matches, including nine-title matches in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s welterweight division. He is tied for second-most wins in UFC title fights with Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre. Hughes also has the most wins in UFC (18), most title fights in the UFC welterweight division (12) and most successful welterweight title defenses (seven).
Those are some of the accomplishments that helped Hughes get inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2010.
“I wrestled through high school and college and I still wanted to compete somehow when I got done wrestling, so I took this sport up just as a hobby,” Hughes said. “I never thought I’d be real good at it. I never thought I would be a world champion. I definitely never thought that I could support a family with the income from fighting. It was 100 percent hobby. I kept fighting and did well enough to keep going and eventually won the world title.”
The turning point for Hughes came in his first UFC welterweight title bout. At UFC 34 on Nov. 2, 2001, Hughes made the most of his opportunity, defeating then-champion Carlos Newton by knockout at 1:27 in the second round.
“If I would have lost that fight, I would have stepped away and retired,” Hughes said. “I would have went back to the family farm and probably be in the combine right now cutting beans or hauling beans. I won that fight and it kept me in it. It was that defining moment where I thought, ‘I’m done with this hobby,’ but I won the fight and I kept going forward.”
Hughes held the welterweight title two days short of 26 months. He defended the title seven times during that span, defeating Hayato Sakurai at UFC 36, Newton in a rematch at UFC 38, Gil Castillo at UFC 40, Sean Sherk at UFC 42, and Frank Trigg at UFC 45.
“After you win the world title things change a little bit,” Hughes said. “You have more security. I was able to defend it a few times after that, so it gave me more and more security in the sport, so that is why I stayed with it.”
Hughes’ first title reign ended when B.J. Penn defeated him by submission at UFC 46 on Jan. 31, 2004.
It didn’t take long for Hughes to regain the title. Penn vacated the title, and Hughes defeated St. Pierre by submission with an armbar in the final second of the first round at UFC 50.
Hughes defended the title two more times, stopping Trigg by submission at UFC 52 and defeating Penn by technical knockout at UFC 63.
Hughes traces his success to a couple of things.
“ I go back to my roots — working on a family farm where my dad had me doing heavy lifting every day. Because of that, I think I was one of the strongest in the weight class and that was because of the family farm,” Hughes said. “The other thing was growing up with a twin brother. I learned to compete young. Mark and I were always competing against each other. I’m a competitor. Even today, I find myself competing against my brother.
“Those two things — the family farm and growing up with a twin brother — made me who I am.”
Hughes also had good people to help him.
“A lot of young guys ask me, ‘How do you do well in a sport.’ I answer with this and I believe it. Number one, you have to have a good trainer. I had Pat Miletich and Jeremy Horn and a bunch guys at the Miletich camp that helped me out — getting my skills and perfecting my skills inside the cage,” Hughes said. “Number two would be to have a good manager and I had Monte Cox. He is still probably the best manager out there today. He really got me to where I was going to be. He knew everybody in the world, so him getting my matches for me really helped me out.
“Those two people — Pat Miletich and Monte Cox — got me to the world title and got me my wins. Not only did Monte put me there, but Pat’s training helped me win.”
Hughes’ second title reign ended with a loss to St. Pierre on Nov. 18, 2006, at UFC 65. The two fought for the title a third time on Dec. 29, 2007, at UFC 79 with St. Pierre winning by submission late in the second round.
The losses are what really stand out to Hughes in his career.
“When somebody asks me about the competition I faced and how good they were, the first thing I think about is the losses that I had,” Hughes said. “I had some losses that were against some good guys. GSP is probably the best all around fighter I ever faced. B.J. Penn in the first round is probably the best fighter. In the first round, B.J. can just about beat anybody. You really have to wear on him to beat him down, but B.J. is a great first round fighter.
“Those two guys are always on top of the list, probably because they beat me and probably because they beat me twice.”
Hughes last competed on Sept. 24, 2011. He is 45-9 in his mixed martial arts career.
“I’ve not announced my retirement, but right now it looks like I’m fully retired,” Hughes said. “The UFC still treats me well so I can be retired. It’s just funny, when God puts you on a road, you don’t know where you are going. I have all the faith that he put me there, and I have to thank him from that.”
Despite being inactive from competition, Hughes has kept himself busy.
“I’ve got a hunting show, which I love, on The Outdoor Channel. I’ll stay with the hunting show. I like to travel. I like to hunt, so that suits me well,” Hughes said. “I’m helping my brother with the family farm. Right now, he is in the combine cutting beans. I still am very close to the family farm.
“It’s funny, when I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get off the farm or stop working. Now, I live real close to the farm, and I go to bed at night thinking about what I’m going to do at the farm the next day. I’m not happy until the next morning when my feet hit the ground and I’m going to the farm. I can’t wait to work.”
When it comes to UFC, Hughes helps train his friends in the sport when asked.
“A lot of people ask me about commentating, but I just don’t have the gift of gab to fill that air time,” Hughes said. “I don’t want to talk when I don’t have anything to say.
“I do train a little bit. When B.J. or Robbie Lawler need a little help, I’ll go and help them train. That’s about it. I love to train, but as far as having a gym where you have to live in it, I would rather live with my family. I want to raise my kids more than coaching. I do some stints on coaching, but I’ve got other things I want to do.”