The Decorated Fighting Career of UFC Legend Matt Hughes
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) wasn’t always sitting pretty on top of the combat sports empire. Following the tournament era in the 1990s, the promotion struggled to keep the lights on, and many expected – and prayed for – its eventual closure.
The company desperately needed fighters to assist with their declining demand and interest. During the pre-Ultimate Fighter era (1999-2005), Matt Hughes became that guy. As the UFC’s fan base at the time was still figuring out the alternative weight classes and the champions of each division, Matt Hughes evolved into the most dominant titleholder they’d ever signed.
Whenever a debate involving a list of the all-time greats is presented, it simply isn’t complete without the name Matt Hughes. Join us in looking back over the UFC Hall of Famers’ decorated pro-MMA career.
Matt Hughes: The Beginning
Born and raised in Hillsboro, Illinois, physical activity was bred into Hughes’ life from early. During high school, he played football and joined the wrestling team. Wrestling is where he excelled, collecting the 145lb IHSA (Illinois High School Association) Class A state wrestling championship on two occasions.
Hughes was destined to become an elite-level wrestler when considering his high school achievements in the sport. His junior and senior years boasted an undefeated record as he won consecutive state championships. And in his final three years of high school, he accumulated 131 victories with a mere two losses.
This was just the beginning, as Hughes would only excel on the wrestling mats to new heights during his college years. Beginning his college years at Southwestern Illinois College, he placed fifth in the country at 158lbs, but he was forced to move to Lincoln college when Southwestern suspended its college program.
A 33-3 record for the Lynx positioned him as the No.3 ranked wrestler in the nation, and following his graduation, he would extend his wrestling career at Eastern Illinois University. Hughes achieved one of the highest accolades in wrestling when becoming a two-two NCAA Division I All-American, completing his wrestling career at Eastern Illinois University with an 80-15 record.
One year after his schooling years were behind him, Hughes made his MMA debut in 1998. His first two contests within the Illinois regional scene were a success, and Hughes had discovered a potential career path. A 15-second power slam KO in his debut was convincing enough to give Hughes the self-belief in his ability.
In step Dennis Hallman, the name that continued to haunt Hughes throughout his career. Hallman defeated Hughes in his third MMA bout, which triggered a 20-fight win streak that ultimately put Hughes’ name on the map.
Matt Hughes: The Middle
Tasting defeat undoubtedly lit a fire under Hughes, and his dominant win streak in response to losing caught the attention of the UFC. However, the UFC rarely offered multiple-fight contracts during their early days, so when Hughes debuted at UFC 22: ‘Only One Can be Champion’ in 1999 – despite winning – he returned to the regional scene to remain active.
Hughes was invited back to the octagon a year later at UFC 26: Ultimate Field of Dreams, as he’d won another eight fights since his first time fighting under the UFC banner. However, Hughes left nothing to the judges’ this time around, finishing Marcelo Aguiar in the first round due to a nasty cut.
Once again, Hughes returned to the regional scene and kept his incredible win streak unbroken until a ghost from the past came to haunt him.
At UFC 29: Defense of the Belts, Dennis Hallman vs. Matt Hughes was booked, and a young Hughes was eager to avenge his only career loss. However, after lifting Hallman and slamming him to the ground from the open bell, Hallman caught Hughes in an armbar, and the fight was over in 20 seconds.
It would take another twelve months of regional success before the UFC has Hughes a permanent platform under their banner. November 2001, Hughes appeared at UFC 24: High Voltage to compete for the welterweight championship and would slam Carlos Newton into lifelessness and become the newly crowned 170lb champ.
At this time, the world of sports betting was illegal and underground. Still, I know anyone supporting their Illinois boy Matt Hughes would have made enemies with their bookie because his winning streaks were almost unstoppable during this time.
The good news is it’s 2022, and BetMGM Illinois sportsbooks offer some of the best and completely legal opportunities to back local fighters. While you won’t have the chance to put Matt Hughes on your ticket, the generation of Illinois fighters following in his footsteps is endless.
Matt Hughes: The End
With championship gold dripping around his waist, Hughes defended his title on six occasions until fellow legend BJ Penn locked a rear-naked choke at UFC 46 to dethrone the champ.
Hughes had already etched his name in the history books, but he wasn’t finished yet. He won the vacated title at UFC 50 versus the greatest of all time, George St-Pierre, to then defend the belt on another four occasions before GSP got his revenge on Hughes and began his own legacy.
The final years of Hughes’ career saw trilogy bouts with GSP and BJ Penn, where he unfortunately lost. However, he still won in 2010, and despite losing his last ever fight, he undoubtedly left the sport on top.
The professional mixed martial arts – and wrestling – accolades and achievements of Matt Hughes are simply too long to list. However, he still owns the second most finishes in UFC title fights (8), the second most fights in UFC history (25), and is tied with Jim Miller for the fifth-most wins in UFC history (18). Nobody in the welterweight division has more finishes than Hughes (11).
Hughes has been inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on two occasions for the Pioneer Wing in 2010 and also for the Fight Wing in 2015 for his contest with Frank Tigg at UFC 52.
Royce Gracie, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, BJ Penn, George St-Pierre, Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, and of course Matt Hughes, a generation of talent that paved the way for modern-day MMA.
Follow us on Twitter: @BodyslamNet