A Country Boy Can Survive

Matt Hughes

The Matt Hughes era has come to a quiet end, but thinking back on his career still inspires goose bumps (and a good amount of fear).

Long before Matt Hughes was hauling off marquee UFC welterweights in his truck, he was the terror of the Midwest. Between 1999 and 2000, Hughes fought 18 times. He won the first 17. The last one was against Dennis Hallman, the only guy to beat him two years earlier in 1998. The Hallman losses bookmarked Hughes’ first incredible run in MMA. By the end of 2000, Hughes was 22-0 against everybody not named Hallman.

Against Hallman, though, he was 0-2.

And this is one of the reasons why, in late 2012, we wondered if Hughes might have one more fight left in him. Maybe he wanted to exact some revenge on Hallman? After all, not long after the second loss, he went on another 13-fight winning streak, captured the UFC Welterweight Title, and became the most dominant man on the planet.

Or, maybe he could be lured back for a fight with Royce Gracie, who blew on those embers ahead of UFC 134 by calling Hughes out. Gracie wanted revenge from UFC 60, when Hughes put him in his famous crucifix and bashed Gracie’s face. It was a message he was delivering that said good old American wrestler trumps legendary jiu-jitsu. Or, maybe we would see Hughes take umbrage to what Dan Hardy has been saying about that ever-present smirk and his hunting habits.

There were plenty of reasons to fight one more fight.

Only, those reasons are ours. Hughes has his reasons for ignoring all that. He is just about officially retired from the fight game. He recently told a local paper in Iowa, “It looks like I’m fully retired,” and cited reasons of family. The racket, it would appear, is over.

How will you remember one of the original no-nonsense wrestlers to strike it big in MMA? Will it be for tapping out Georges St-Pierre at UFC 50 with just a second left in the first round? That was the stuff of his legend. Will it be for his UFC 34 performance against Frank Trigg, which remains the heart of the UFC’s highlight video to kick-off main cards at live events? That was the one where he was getting choked, picked Trigg up, ran with him still attached, and slammed him down with all his momentum. End of story. That’s Hughes. And pick any fight from the B.J. Penn series. Those were the days of unmovable objects meeting unstoppable forces.

Will you remember his strength?

His strength came from determination away from the cameras. Corn-fed stock and brood. Simple work ethic. There is a story about when Pat Miletich first rolled with Hughes. Hughes was so preternaturally strong that Miletich wondered if he was on something. Being Miletich, he asked. Hughes took offense at that, and let Miletich know it. Hughes was all-natural. There was nothing artificial about Matt Hughes. To insinuate otherwise was a sin.

Perhaps you will remember the jaw-clinching menace as he was being introduced for a bout, or that his haircut was unapologetically jock. That he is a proud American, has his politics at the ready, and doesn’t like big words. That he was the middle-class warrior, a lunchpail fi ghter, a dictator of wills. Hughes never concealed his disgust—he always looked pompous. Always righteous. Always stubborn. And that smirk? It was the smirk of a man in on a secret.

Maybe you’ll think of him for defending the 170-pound belt seven total times against the best the UFC could throw at him. Or that he’s a God-fearing man, who believes in nuclear family values, and fears most of all his wife, who told him that he’s done fi ghting. He’s a distillation of core America, the diesel engine, the strong neck, the camoufl age. Nobody looks as comfortable in camo as Hughes. And maybe that’s how you’ll remember him, smiling over fresh kills from Africa to his native Illinois. After all, he’s got his own hunting show on the Outdoor Channel.

But you should remember the desire.

Hughes didn’t back down from anybody or anything. It was simple. You stick a man in front of him, and he goes through that man. Hughes was the last great example of simple, just as the game gets complex. And long before Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre had their runs, Hughes was the fi rst sustaining champion.

Once more unto the breach? Not likely. Hughes is happy in the quiet country life, a side of him that never broke character. In fact, it’s not a side of him. It’s him. He’s got a shotgun, a rifl e and a four-wheel drive, and a country boy can survive.

Thanks for the memories, Matt Hughes.

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