When Matt Hughes was working the farm in Hillsboro, Illinois in the 1970s, there is no way he could have known the stardom he’d one day reach. In his youth, he would spend numerous hours a day doing hard labor. It’s clear the work ethic that this instilled in Hughes early on. It was that work ethic that made allowed him to go 131-2 as a high school wrestler. It was that work ethic that pushed to be a nationally ranked collegiate athlete. It was that work ethic that made him one of the greatest and most dominant fighters the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen.
For this week’s top five list, let’s take a look back at the illustrious career of Matt Hughes.
Matt Hughes was 29-3 when he went into his first title bout at UFC 34. He was facing Carlos “The Ronin” Newton, a dangerous jiujitsu specialist who had just beaten Hughes’ mentor Pat Miletich for the welterweight title. The bout was an exciting back and forth affair. The two athletes had some great grappling exchanges where Hughes landed some big slams and Newton hit some nice sweeps to get the farm strong wrestler off of him. In the second round, Newton locked up a triangle choke and Hughes immediately stood up and lifted Newton high over his head with choke still locked on. Hughes set Newton against the top of the octagon and the two stayed there for a number of seconds. Then Hughes would slam Newton down with a fury. Newton went unconscious due to the impact and a confused Hughes would become the welterweight champion.
Why was Hughes confused? Well, Newton and many others claimed that Newton had actually choked Hughes unconscious and as Hughes fell, he subsequently dropped Newton on his head. Hughes would dominate his next two opponents before rematching Newton the following year. It was here that Hughes would alleviate any controversy that existed from their first bout. Hughes dominated the fight for four rounds until he got Newton in a crucifix hold and landed elbows and punches forcing “Big” John McCarthy to step in and stop the fight in the fourth round.
#4. Legends Collide
In 2006, at UFC 60, Matt Hughes would get a chance to take on the man that helped put MMA and jiujitsu on the map. Royce Gracie had gone 11-0-1 in the organization more than a decade before. He had continued fighting in Japan over the years where he lost to the legendary Kazushi Sakuraba and had a couple of draws due to competing in “special rules” matches.
The fight was the ultimate old school vs. new school matchup and fans were excited about the return of Gracie. Despite Hughes’ absolute dominance in the organization, many were picking Gracie to win. People still believed in the mystique of Gracie JiuJitsu. They believed Hughes would take him down and get caught in some sort other-wordly submission. They were wrong.
Hughes took down Gracie and imposed his will on him. He put a straight armbar on the Brazilian and badly hyper-extended his arm. It became clear to Hughes that Gracie would let his arm shatter before he tapped and Hughes let go. He then transitioned and went on to pound on Gracie until the referee stopped the fight. The bout represented both the passing of the torch from the early days and the evolution of mixed martial arts.
#3.The BJ Penn Rematch
Lightweight great, BJ Penn was known for his willingness to fight anyone at any weight. He moved up to welterweight in his return bout in the UFC in 2004 to battle Hughes for his welterweight strap. Hughes had the obvious size advantage but would be easily controlled and choked out by Penn in the first round. The two would rematch two years later and the outcome would be much different.
The first round was a stand-up affair that saw Penn stuff Hughes’ takedowns. The second round was more of a grappling match that had good moments for both guys and ended with Penn having a tight triangle choke locked in on Hughes. Going into the third, it appeared as though Penn was up two rounds. Yet, Penn was obviously fatigued at the beginning of the round. Hughes, being a cardio machine, took down the exhausted Penn and got him into the same crucifix position he had caught Newton in years earlier. From here, he rained down blows until the referee stepped in to save Penn.
Hughes had retained his title and avenged a loss to one of the greatest of all time.
#2. The Comeback
Frank Trigg was 9-1 in MMA and a bad matchup for Hughes on paper. A strong wrestler in his own right, many felt Trigg could be the man to defeat the welterweight champion. The two clashed at UFC 45 for the belt. Their fight was full of frantic wrestling scrambles that ended in Hughes taking Trigg’s back in the first round catching him with a standing rear-naked choke.
The two would meet again at UFC 52 two years later. Early in the first, Trigg landed a low blow on Hughes that hurt him badly. The referee didn’t see the blow and allowed the fight to continue. Trigg took advantage of the groin strike and went on the attack against Hughes. He landed heavy shots, dropping Hughes and then mounting him. It appeared the fight was about to be stopped and a new champion crowned. Hughes gave up his back and Trigg looked to lock in a rear-naked choke. Hughes’ face was turning purple and looked to be moments away from going out.
Once again displaying the heart of a champion, Hughes shook Trigg off, turned into him and hoisted him high onto his shoulder. He then charged the length of the octagon and attempted to drive Trigg through the mat with a massive slam. Now on top, Hughes would beat on Trigg until he gave up his back and was choked out by the champ once again.
Hughes had mounted one of the greatest comebacks of all time and showed his resilience again in the face of adversity.
#1. A Country Boy Can Survive
In June of last year, Hughes suffered severe head trauma when a train slammed into his truck in Illinois. The welterweight great was comatose and unresponsive. The prognosis was not good for the UFC Hall of Famer.
Weeks later, it was announced that Hughes had woken up from the coma. News was sparse on his condition over the next few months.
Then, last Sunday, at the UFC Fight Night in St. Louis, an announcer came over the arena speakers and began to speak. He spoke of a legend to whom a terrible tragedy had befallen. Then, Matt Hughes’ entrance music, “A Country Boy Can Survive” began to blare.
The former champion made the walk from the back of the arena, down the entrance ramp to cageside on his own accord. The moment was emotional, bringing many in the arena and those watching around the world to tears.
Matt Hughes had once again proven he was one of the toughest men to ever grace the octagon and that he would continue to overcome any obstacle put in front of him.