The Real Matt Hughes

After ten title fi ghts and two seasons on reality TV you think you know him, but really, you have no idea. Gentleman or jerk, who is…The Real Matt Hughes

Matt Hughes is giggling. The greatest UFC champion to date grins as he faces off against another fi ghter on the mat at H.I.T. Squad, the MMA training facility he co-owns in Granite City, Illinois. Hughes is light on his feet, anticipating his opponent’s attack, running and leaping out of the way as a large rubber ball whizzes past him. Matt Hughes is playing dodgeball.

This is how the pros warm up before practice at H.I.T. Squad, at least when Hughes is here. The rules are arcane and extremely important, and Hughes transitions seamlessly from player to referee, calling infractions from the side while he waits to return to the game. Dodgeball is chaotic when played by children, but when grown men—especially professional fi ghters—chase each other down, serious injury seems inevitable.

The game reveals quite a bit about Hughes’s cutthroat competitive streak and about his orderly, principled worldview. But nothing is so revealing as the jarring moment when the smile leaves his lips and he shouts, “Break! Get a drink, hurry up, I wanna go over some things.” Game over. Matt Hughes is ready to work.

Hughes runs hot and cold. One minute aloof, the next warm and friendly. His personality can be abrasive, his opinions leave little room for debate, and his wholesome, country boy image has suffered as a result. He lost his last two fi ghts by TKO, to current welterweight champion Georges “Rush” St. Pierre and then to hard-charging challenger Thiago “Pitbull” Alves. But one could argue that, in recent years, he has suffered his worst beatings in the realm of public opinion.

While serving as a coach on the second and sixth seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes was portrayed fi rst as the villain opposite nice guy Rich Franklin, and later as the rural counterpoint to brash New Yorker Matt Serra. Made in America, his autobiography published in 2008, is fi lled with stories of loutish behavior that have given ammunition to his harshest critics. On television and in print, Hughes came off like a bully, the kind of guy who says whatever he wants to, partly because he believes it and partly because, hey, what are you going to do about it?

But Hughes seems unfazed by the tidal shift in the way he’s perceived, unconcerned by the opinions of people who don’t know him fi rsthand. If you want to get to know Matt Hughes fi rsthand, you have to go to Hillsboro. Matt Hughes is not amused.

The greatest UFC champion to date glowers as he leans over his kitchen counter in socks, sweats, and a One More Round t-shirt, eating bits of dry ramen from a bowl. “Eat your muffi n,” he says. Two-and-a-half-year-old Hanna Hughes is as obstinate as her father, preferring his bowl of crunchy noodles to the muffi n she demanded just a few minutes ago. Hughes lowers his head, locking eyes with his daughter. She tilts her head forward, looking up through locks of hair to meet her daddy’s gaze in a weigh-in quality stare down.

Located about an hour and change northeast of St. Louis, Hillsboro, Illinois, is home to approximately 5,000 people. The Hughes home is a modest ranch house over the hill from State Route 127, the main drag through town. An American fl ag hangs from a front porch post, and the interior décor is contemporary country, well suited for a young family less than a generation separated from life on the farm. The fridge is covered in magnets and family photos, the mudroom a mess of shoes belonging to kids and adults. A family portrait including Matt, Audra, and Hanna, as well as Brandon, seven, and Joey, nine (the couple’s sons from previous relationships) sits on the mantle. The only indications of Hughes’s career and success are found in the fourcar garage.

Home to a ’56 Chevy truck, custom built atop an ’06 frame; a black ’06 Shelby Cobra; a 2008 Harley-Davidson Road King; and a Ford F-250 Super Duty XLT V8 turbo diesel pickup—this is clearly Matt’s domain. A mounted buck’s head greets visitors at one door and a large black gun safe looms nearby. Posters for TUF 2, Hughes vs. Gracie, and Hughes vs. St. Pierre adorn the walls, alongside banners advertising Tapout, DPMS Panther Arms, Winchester, and Hornady ordnance.

Back in the kitchen, Hughes is polite, if not friendly. Partially absent, he shuffl es around the room, talking without making much eye contact. Having called a truce with Hanna, he prepares to leave for his morning workout. He walks down a hall way towards a room where Audra is on the phone with a family friend, making plans for a trip to Florida.

“Hurry up and get off the phone so I can talk to you,” he says. The comment isn’t offensive, but his tone and delivery are cringe-inducing. This is the imperious, bullying Matt Hughes that America saw on reality television. It’s a sound bite that, taken out of context, would support the claims that he is a jerk. But Audra gives as good as she gets, hanging up only after telling her friend sarcastically that Matt had something really important to tell her. They talk out of sight for a moment while Hanna drags wet laundry into the kitchen, her half-eaten muffi n lying on the kitchen counter. “I love you, momma,” Matt says to Audra as he walks out the door.

Hillsboro High School sits on a large, hilly campus about a mile from Hughes’s home. Matt and his fraternal twin, Mark, graduated from the school in 1992, and Matt returns a couple of days each week to lift weights. At fi rst, it seems odd when Hughes parks his massive truck behind the gym and walks into the building, his sneakers squeaking loudly, with no one stopping him. Most unaccompanied adults would be escorted out of a school building by security, but Hughes has a special relationship with his alma mater. He says that he is welcome to lift weights here because “I bought most of the equipment.”

That equipment lives in the school’s basement, where you’ll also fi nd the varsity and PE locker rooms. Tapout and One More Round stickers are affi xed to the athletic offi ce door, next to a callout fl yer for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Inside, Bob Allen, Hillsboro High’s driver education teacher and a four-sport coach in nearby Litchfi eld, pops Billy Madison in the DVD player and fl ips open a box of pizza.

A crowd of kids stream into the adjoining locker room, followed by Brent Stewart, Hillsboro’s head football and assistant basketball coach. Allen, Hughes, and Stewart razz each other and lament the poor physical condition of that day’s class, most of whom are 20 pounds overor underweight. The coaches express wonder at the long, androgynous hairstyles favored by some of the boys. Hughes explains that, in recent years, Hillsboro has become a bedroom community for professionals who commute south to St. Louis or north to Springfi eld and Decatur, Illinois. “The corn-fed country boys ain’t around anymore,” Hughes says.

Rich Stewart (no relation to Brent Stewart) arrives a few minutes later covered in drywall dust from a remodeling job. This large, gregarious 57-year-old man is Hughes’s lifting partner. The odd couple heads toward the weight room, where Hughes explains their connection. “He was the zero-hour weight lifting instructor,” Hughes says, the guy who oversaw his early morning workouts. Thick as thieves now, the two did not get along at fi rst. “He was exactly like me when I was a kid,” Stewart says. “A smart-ass.”

Hughes warms up around Stewart, joking a bit and answering questions more freely. “We come from the same mold. We’re both ugly and competitive,” Hughes says about Stewart. “How many guys like you,” the coach asks his younger friend. “I can count ’em on my fi ngers,” Hughes says with a laugh.

The two encourage and cajole each other, challenging rep counts as steel bars clang against racks at various stations around the room. It’s old school, grind-it-out weight lifting, a far cry from the explosive, circuit-based training now favored by most elite fi ghters. “I’m gonna be the strongest guy in the nursing home,” Stewart says. After the workout, the two sit down in the athletic offi ce to discuss the difference between reality and reality television.

Fully aware that his stints on The Ultimate Fighter did more harm than good to his image, Hughes’s only complaint is that his words and actions were presented out of context by the show’s producers. “In the reality show in season two, they showed me playin’ cards as the guy is warmin’ up. I was playing cards after the fi ght happened,” Hughes says. As for his aggressive teasing and sharp tongue, Hughes offers no apology.

“If you are going to be around Matt for very long, you better have thick skin and you better be quick,” Stewart says. “He’s so competitive and so sharp with sarcasm that you gotta be careful. He can hurt ya.” Hughes listens with his head down while his friend plays character witness. Stewart, the head football coach at Greenville College, a local Division III Christian school, argues that Hughes became a target the moment he professed his faith on television, that he’s held to an unfair standard because he was “weak enough to admit that he needed help.”

“He’s not some superstar prima donna. He’s just a guy,” Stewart says. He turns to face Hughes and continues, “I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t like you besides me and your family, and we got reasons.” The two share a laugh as Hughes heads out the door.

Hughes is skeptical of big talkers. He is a doer, more comfortable demonstrating who he is and what he believes than discussing it. He’s better understood in context than in sound bites or abbreviated Q & As. “Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are,” he says. Hughes drives toward a guy burning leaves in his front yard dressed head to toe in camo, a large Tapout sticker in the rear windshield of his truck. Hughes waves as he passes by. He seems to know everyone in Hillsboro, honking and waving his way through town.

He pulls into a pitted gravel lot next to a dilapidated trailer that houses Park-N-Eat, the favored lunch counter of Hillsboro’s retirees and laborers. “We used to call it the Park-N-Puke when I was a kid. I dunno why,” Hughes says. He helps an elderly gentleman out of his car and into the diner, where all the linoleum and Formica has been beaten to hell by years of use. Hughes sits and talks about land auctions with a friend, a respected local businessman named Bill Jenkins. The fi ghter listens attentively, behaving more like a well-mannered kid than a star athlete.

Two guys in full camo walk in and sit down at the counter. It’s obvious that they recognize Hughes. One of them has a young daughter in tow, and she steps back from her stool and stares at Hillsboro’s resident celebrity. Her father nudges her from behind. “Get him,” he says. Hughes laughs and buys the little girl a small strawberry shake on his way out the door.

He then heads to the Hillsboro post offi ce to mail a shirt, photo, Round 5 fi gure, and an autographed copy of his book to a family friend. The mustached, middle-aged clerk nods and greets him by name. “What’s up, Max?” Hughes asks, and they chat about the weather while Max processes the package.

Pulling away from the post offi ce and driving towards home, Hughes says, “I’m really bad with names, but I’m a people person. I was raised poor, I was basically my dad’s farmhand,” he says. He makes it a point to talk to working stiffs wherever he goes. “That’s who I relate to. That’s who I should be, the guy taking out the trash,” Hughes says. “I just happened to be good at a sport.”

Hughes wasn’t just good at a sport, he was great, nearly invincible between 2001 and 2007. He won the UFC welterweight title on two separate occasions and defended it seven times altogether. If Joe Riggs had made weight for his bout with Hughes at UFC 56: Full Force, a victory for Hughes would have added an eighth title defense to his resume. But the fi ghter many in Hillsboro still call “Champ” is not the athlete he once was, and a generation of fi ghters inspired by him are now passing him by. Since his last successful title defense, against BJ Penn at UFC 63, Hughes has dropped three of four, losing his belt to St. Pierre at UFC 65, taking a decision over Chris Lytle at UFC 68, losing to St. Pierre again, and then suffering a brutal knockout at the hands of Thiago Alves at UFC 85.

Once able to use his wrestling to control opponents, an aging Hughes has lost his shot and thus his ability to dictate where the fi ght goes. “My body isn’t as fl exible. I’m not as quick as I used to be. I can accept that,” Hughes says. He sits on a couch in his living room, playing with Audra’s hair as she naps, her head resting on his leg.

“In a way, I wish it was the 28-year-old Matt Hughes facing GSP, but there’s no point in thinkin’ that because I’m not 28. I’m 35 now. I’ve got to fi gure out the way my body is functioning now and win with that,” he says.

Hughes knows that his days as champion are over, but he believes he can still be competitive in the welterweight division. That said, the lure of staying at home to raise Hanna and be an active father to the boys while he still has his health is outweighing his desire to continue competing after his fi ght against Serra at UFC 98. “The biggest percentage is that I’m gonna retire, but I just don’t know.”

It will be a small tragedy if Hughes’s career ends on the sour note of a grudge match that’s been hyped for so long that fans are less eager to see the fi ght than they are to just see it over with. Well over a year after the original fi ght was booked, even Hughes seems to have to talk himself into caring about it.

“He’s a former world champion, whether he got lucky or not, he still gets to call himself champion. So there’s that: two former champions in the same weight division going at each other,” Hughes says. “So there’s a little bit of interest there without the bad blood. But I agree, most of it is the reality show and what he said against me.”

Relaxing next to his wife, their daughter now put down for her afternoon nap, Hughes attempts to address the question posed to him earlier in the day. “I think there’s a big difference between the way I’m perceived and the way I really am. I think it has a lot to do with my sense of humor. My wife would probably tell you it’s a twisted sense of humor. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it’s the way I am. It’s not twisted to me,” he says. “If people would just relax, they’d realize it’s all in good fun.”

But people haven’t always been in on the fun. In his autobiography, Hughes insults a former girlfriend; tells of friction between him and Randy Couture when he bad-mouthed Couture’s thengirlfriend, Kim Holderman; and jokes about embarrassing Joe Riggs in front of Riggs’s wife. He voices distaste for several acquaintances, opponents, and former teammates, and generally comes off like a bad guy in most of the book.

Hughes-haters view Made in America as corroboration for the reality shows. But Hughes didn’t include all those dirty details because he was proud of them. According to the fi ghter, he put everything on the table because he “wanted to show a defi nite change” in his attitude and behavior since he had become a Christian.

The fi ghter gets up to make a sandwich as Audra turns over and opens her eyes. “When he fi ghts and gets booed, I hate that,” she says. But her husband has cultivated the appearance of indifference for so long that, even if it did bother him, he probably couldn’t admit it. “

Tonight’s pro workout is light on seasoned vets, so Hughes drills takedowns and submission grappling with decorated middleweight Robbie Lawler and 155- pound prospect Kyle Watson. H.I.T. Squad occupies a warehouse on a decommissioned Army base in Granite City, within sight of the St. Louis skyline across the Mississippi River.

With exposed beams, ventilation, and insulation overhead, the gym sports a large weight lifting area surrounded by a hip-high chain link fence. Four Samsung fl at-panel televisions surround the weight room, and camoufl age netting covers an entire wall. A boxing ring and punching bags sit at one end of the room, with treadmills and stationary bikes on a balcony above them. One third of the room is devoted to a desert camo-covered grappling mat, enclosed by a six-foot-high cage wall. The Octagon canvas from “The Ultimate Fighter: Hughes vs. Serra Finale” hangs on the wall.

The level of competition at H.I.T. Squad doesn’t compare to the meat grinder Pat Miletich ran during his gym’s heyday, but Hughes is OK with that. “If you’re looking at just fi ghting, yeah, [Miletich Fighting Systems] was a good place to train. But fi ghting’s not the most important thing in my life,” he says. The trade-off of owning his own gym while getting to spend more time with his family is worth it to Hughes, who is traveling more to fi nd top-level training partners. He recently returned from a training trip to Jeremy Horn’s gym in Salt Lake City, and is considering traveling to Minnesota to train with Sean Sherk.

Hughes’s friends are tight and loyal. When he decided to move on, he took his closest friends with him. Lawler left MFS with Hughes in 2007 to open this gym in 2008, along with wrestling coach Marc Fiore. Lawler doesn’t care to defend Hughes, saying simply that “if you don’t like Matt, you probably don’t know him that well.” Fiore also defl ects blame for Hughes’s tarnished image away from the fi ghter: “Matt speaks his mind, he says it how it is and people don’t like that.”

A man has been standing near one of the entrances to the mat with his son and two of his son’s friends for the duration of the pro workout. The boys watch Hughes collapse against the cage wall and peel off the brace he wears to support ligaments torn and sprained in his left knee during the Alves fi ght. They look at him wide-eyed and awe-struck, amazed to be so close to the former champ. As practice draws to a close, the father leans in to ask if Hughes will sign something for the boys. Smiling broadly, he agrees.

This moment is precisely why Hughes tries not to swear on television, why he is careful to project an image of who he wants to be that may at times confl ict with who he really is. But who is the real Matt Hughes? Is he Hanna’s doting father or the judgmental jerk of his autobiography? Is he the manners-minding gentleman or the reality show bully? Maybe the complicated truth is that he’s somewhere between who he’s been and who he wants to be. You’ll never know unless you get it fi rsthand, and to get to know Matt Hughes fi rsthand, you have to go to Hillsboro.

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