I first met Matt Hughes in 2007. He had already established himself as a legend - I was just getting started writing professionally about the mixed martial arts. Hughes was a hero of mine. Not only did I love his aggressive wrestling, but we came from the same area of rural Illinois. It was a bond, if only in my mind.
That wasn't what made Hughes my top get as I carved out a plan to interview all the top names in the sport for my book Total MMA. As intriguing as Hughes was in the cage, as enraptured as I was by his fighting style and take no prisoners approach, there was something else that caught my attention, that drove me to call in every favor I'd ever earned to get 30 minutes with Hughes.
In the midst of his second season coaching The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes had compared himself to Esther. You get used to athletes and their egos. And don't get it twisted; despite their reputations as regular joes, it takes a colossal ego to step into the cage, betting your short and long term health that you are a better man than the guy you're locking eyeballs with. But comparing yourself to a figure out of the Bible? A queen and heroine at that? It took brass balls and made me pretty sure there was more to Hughes than met the eye.
Talking to him that day, I was struck by his Christian faith. He told me about a trip to Mexico where he found God. But religion hadn't changed Hughes completely. The swaggering jock was just below the surface. When I asked him if he thought Jesus would approve of cage fighting, there was a pause on the line. "That's a stupid question," Hughes said. "You know I punch people in the face for a living. What do you think I believe?"
Hughes is unflinchingly honest, both about himself and others. It's so unusual that it puts you off guard. Most people hold back, if only out of respect for social niceties. Matt Hughes is missing that piece of the personality puzzle. His thoughts are never far from the surface, and as the toughest guy in most rooms, he isn't afraid to share them. He's so honest that many readers thought he came off as the villain in his own autobiography. Matt Hughes is not about spin; in a culture that spins even the most basic sciences, that's sometimes a problem. Like when your boss decides he doesn't like you that much.
"I thought he was a d*ck," UFC President Dana White once told me about his earliest impression of the fighter he now calls a close friend. White wasn't alone. Hughes rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
"Matt likes to push buttons," long time friend and trainer Pat Miletich said. "He's a great guy and we get along great. But he's not afraid to mess with people a little."
There will never be another Matt Hughes. The UFC's most dominant welterweight was perhaps the last world champion to ever begin the sport of mixed martial arts as a hobby. There was no glamor or glitz when Hughes stepped off the farm and into the cage. No money to speak of. Just tough guys who liked to fight - and nobody was tougher than Matt Hughes.
They say you can sniff out the special ones right away. That was certainly true of Hughes. "I refereed his first fight," Miletich said. "I told him that night, if you ever want to come down to Iowa and train with me, I think I can make you a world champion."
What impressed me most was his metamorphosis in the cage. Early Hughes might as well have been a 170 pound Mark Coleman or Dan Severn. He focused like a lazer on the takedown, then did whatever he could to pound the guy in the face until he quit.
"Matt was just so strong," Miletich remembers. "I had never had an issue with anyone my size. I had fought heavyweights and never had a problem. But Matt was a monster. He didn't know how to fight in the beginning, but he was almost impossible to stop as a wrestler."
Against submission wizard Dennis Hallman, Hughes learned brute force wasn't always an option. The resulting growth was something special to behold. In 1998 he was clueless against Hallman's guillotine choke. By 2006 his jiu jitsu was slick enough that he schooled the legendary Royce Gracie himself on the mat. Most amazingly, Hughes spent much of his career as a part time fighter. He would show up for what most in the sport would consider a short training camp, then proceed to decimate an opponent who had trained four times as long.
If Matt Hughes never fights again, he leaves behind a legacy unparalleled in his weight class. He didn't just defend the title five times in a row (a record since surpassed by Georges St. Pierre). He did it at a time when the UFC's place in the sport was less clear. There was significant debate about whether UFC heavyweights and light heavyweights compared to their Japanese counterparts. Hughes made sure that argument never extended to welterweight, smashing Frank Trigg and Shooto's Hayato Sakurai.
Unfortunately, much of Hughes's success came before the sports rise to new heights. Since his appearance as a coach on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes has compiled just a 7-5 record. He was past his prime as the sport catapulted into the mainstream. He was still a star, but as a springboard for St. Pierre and others. His best days were gone.
Matt Hughes, for those who never got to see him, was the best fighter of his generation. He's been surpassed by Georges St. Pierre, as all great athletes are eventually replaced by younger counterparts. That can never alter his legacy or change the past. Hughes was a freight train, steamrolling everyone in his path. His ability to snatch an opponent into the air and carry them across the cage, looking for the right spot to smash them to the mat, was a wonder to behold. There will never be another Matt Hughes - and the sport won't be the same without him.