THESE DAYS MATT HUGHES IS HAPPY BEING HIMSELF
By Kenny Rice
Where do you go after already establishing a legacy so sterling you’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame? What is left after dominating your division like no one else has? How do you answer the legion of fans who want more chance to see you in action? Can you just walk away and be happy?
Matt Hughes has heard every one of these questions in various forms. The gist of it is this: will the two-time UFC Welterweight Champion, the man who successfully defended his title a once-record seven times, come back for a grand finale in the octagon?
“I take it as a compliment that so many fans on Facebook, Twitter, my web page, are saying they’d like to see me fight again. If nobody wanted to see me fight I wouldn’t have to worry about making a decision,” he laughs over the phone from his home near St. Louis. “But people other than the fans, my wife and children, factor into the decision. I haven’t made one yet.”
The 38-year-old Hughes stood out in several ways during his great run, beginning with winning his first welterweight title when he defeated Carlos Newton with a KO slam at UFC 34 in 2001. He personifies the All-American boy who grew into the All-American man. A Gary Cooper or John Wayne for the fight world. What you see is what you get, and you always see a straightforward, loyal, and honest person who lives up to the standard that he himself has set.
His popularity has been without flaws or qualifications. From an All-American junior college wrestling career, to becoming a two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois University, he’s as real as it gets. He is not a tatted up, trash talking, controversial and contradictory athlete. He is the antithesis. He’s still a fresh-faced family man who is as comfortable in nature as in the arena. He is Middle America, and has a broad appeal to those who wish for a comparable life.
Moreover he was a great fighter, winning against virtually every top welterweight who came along. He even missed out on another title defense when Joe Riggs came in overweight in UFC 56, making it a non-championship event. After he lost his crown January 2004 to B.J. Penn he had it back by October that year, beating Georges St. Pierre.
It is difficult to report on Hughes now, because the past tense and the present are a blurred line. He hasn’t retired officially but might be closer to it than ever, or not. In typical Hughes fashion it will be that family-centric decision he treasures more than any belt he has ever won.
His wife, Audra, is the most prominent person in his future decision-making. “She always says no. I know I will retire sometime. This isn’t golf where you can play at a high level into your forties or fifties.”
The toughest thing for most athletes isn’t getting hit again, or losing a step or not being able to catch up with the fastball. It’s the realization that after a lifetime of training, competing, sharing moments with friends and foes alike, it is all over. Suddenly and sadly for most, cruel and cold for others.
None of this applies to Hughes, so content in his own skin, so happy being himself that there is not a single outside force that will affect his judgment. He can fight again, he has picked up in his workout schedule and says he would be ready again “not any closer than four months.”
He has said he would like to finish up like his mentor Pat Miletich did, coming back for one more victory to say goodbye. Hughes was there when Miletich defeated Thomas Denny to close out his storied career. “It was great to see Pat go out that way and I do think about doing the same.” But he also doesn’t have to delve too deep into his memory bank to reevaluate a return. His last two losses, to Penn and Josh Koscheck, were both knockouts.
“When I think about going out with a win I immediately think about the two losses I’ve had. If those fights had gone the whole time I believe I would’ve won,” he states matter-of-fact. “I’ve been hit a few times, maybe I’m getting a little weak in the recovery process.”
There are four significant factors as well – Joey (12), Brandon (10), Hanna (5) and Katelyn (2). His days revolve around his children. As he speaks glowingly of their life together, the cage seems farther and farther away.
His favorite time is “mornings and nights with the kids.” He sets his entire routine around them daily.
“I get the kids off to school, around mid-morning I catch up on chores. I lift at 11 o’clock, have lunch at 12. Catch up on a few more things and pick the kids up at 3, and spend the afternoon and evening with them until they go to bed.”
Family first, then hunting, his other passion, it seems interest Hughes more these days than fighting. His ego has always been in check, so day dreams of having his arm raised in victory one more time don’t exist in his picture-perfect world. It’s not in his nature – nature itself is. That’s why he is so thrilled now in talking about about Joey being a chip off the old block, not on the mat but amongst the wild.
“He is a tremendous hunter. I love going out with him, watching how natural this is for him. It’s passing the torch to see my son growing up the way I did, and to enjoy and appreciate it all the way I have.”
Hughes has a flourishing career from the countless hours he has spent in the woods and fields, perhaps more time there than in gyms. “Trophy Hunters TV hosted by Matt Hughes” on the Outdoor Channel takes up a large portion of his time, and that’s perfect.
“I’m pretty lucky. I have my family; I’ve had a career. Now I’m doing something that I have done for as long as I can remember, hunting and being outdoors. I’m home unless traveling for work. It’s a good place to be.”
Nothing in our conversation suggests Hughes wants to fight again, certainly not soon. He has been there and done that with exceptional, indelible performances, time and time again. He does have other interests and priorities. He has his belts and trophies but Hughes isn’t defined by them as much as he defines who he is and wants to be.
This is no more evident than when he is asked about his legacy as a fighter. “I really don’t think about that. I don’t know how to explain it really. I fought hard, worked hard for every fight. I don’t think about those things, about me or any other fighter.”
He doesn’t have to, he is too happy simply, honestly, being himself. That win is secure.
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