Before the Middleweight era of Anderson Silva... Before the Heavyweight era of Fedor Emelianenko... Before the Light Heavyweight era of Chuck Liddell... There was one champion who stood out from the rest. His accomplishments have since been overlooked by many new fans to the sport, and during his reign, he was greatly overshadowed by his heavier colleagues. But make no mistake. Before all these other dominant champions, there was one man who was considered by many to be the most dominant fighter on the planet. That man was Matt Hughes.
A quick history lesson on Matt Hughes and the Welterweight title shows just how dominant this man was. In a total of 11 title fights, Hughes has only lost, an astounding two times. Compare that to the men who have fought for the championship as much, or almost as much as Hughes (Randy Couture..15 title fights with 9 wins. BJ Penn...11 Title fights with 5 wins. Tito Ortiz....9 title fights with 6 wins) and it reveals how special a fighter Hughes was, especially when it came to when it counted the most. An overlooked fact is that, while holding the UFC WW belt, Hughes also recorded wins over Joe Riggs (who failed to make weight, thus resulting in a non-title fight), and Royce Gracie.
But the thing about Hughes that, in my mind, makes him stand out compared to other fighters at the time, is his wide variety of skills and ways to end fights. By trade, Hughes was a country strong wrestler, with roots in amateur wrestling starting in High School (earning 2 state championships), and into college (2 time JUCO All-American, and 2 Time D1 All-American). But that did not define how Hughes fought. Sure, he might have had an incredible single and double leg, that was almost impossible to stop. And sure, he might have had the ability to lift you up over his head and throw you around with ease. But unlike most of his collegiate wrestling counter parts (Coleman, Randleman, Lindland) Hughes was far from a one trick pony. Of his 45 career wins, 18 have come from submission (including such submissions as a Keylock, Arm Triangle, Armbar, Kimura, RNC, Side Choke). He has also fought in the prestigious ADCC, resulting in a record of 2-2, holding wins over impressive grapplers Jeremy Horn and Ricardo Almeida.
He was a wrestler who could grapple with the best of them, but that means he must have been about as boring as watching grass grow, or paint dry, or Jon Fitch fight...right? Wrong. Absolutely, Hughes has had his share of fights in which people could have complained. But in his prime, Hughes was an exciting wrecking ball, a champion who in a 52 fight career has gone to a decision only a startling 10 times. Vintage Matt Hughes could choke you out, slam you on your head, or beat your body in with vicious Ground'n'Pound.
Who can forget epic battles against elite fighters such as BJ Penn, and Georges St. Pierre, which were always must see fights. Veterans Mach Sakurai, Sean Sherk, and Carlos Newton all fell victim to the most dominant champion of his time. Frank Trigg learned that sometimes its better to Shut up and fight, then to talk trash to such a great fighter.
He truly was a dominant, MIXED martial artist, and a great champion. Yet, when it came time for MMA to storm the globe, Matt Hughes was left of the side of the road.
Champions Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture became the face of the UFC and MMA to the new "TUF" era of fans. Tito Ortiz was play wrestling with the guys at TNA. Rich Franklin was on commercials for the innovative new energy drink Xyience (puke). Matt Hughes was... well Matt Hughes wasn't really a spokesman for the UFC at all in its time of expansion, which probably didn't bother Hughes to much. He just continued to push along and stay dominant in the mixed martial arts world.
Which brings me to my final point. Why is Hughes often over looked? Many may point to the fact that in 3 fights with GSP, he was beaten pretty soundly, even in their first fight (despite pulling out a win via Armbar). Many may point to the fact that BJ Penn, a natural LW, beat him for the Championship (despite that Hughes won the rematch via TKO). Unfortunately, many will probably point to Hughes brash personality. While on The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes often was seen as very self righteous. Was it because he approached Rashad Evans after Evans was showboating and disrespecting an opponent? Could be. Was it because he asked his team to read a passage out of the Bible (which resulted in many people misconstruing a point that Hughes was making. He didn't insist on anyone reading it, just encouraged. He didn't preach. He actually referenced the Old Testament, which is used/read/followed by both Christians and Jews)?
The fact of the matter is, before the era of the current dominant champions...One man was as good as it gets. An innovative fighter, who always brought the fight, Hughes will go down in my book as one of the greatest of all time.
*****Now before I get lambasted, let me defend myself. Yes, Frank Shamrock was a great UFC champion. He could have been the best, most dominant champion of all time for all we know. But what I do know, is that Frank Shamrock defended his belt 4 times, before retiring temporarily from the sport, only to return and fight a plethora of lackluster opponents for the rest of his career. Therefore I took him out of the running. Had Pat Miletich won retired after defending his Welterweight strap 4 times, many people would have probably pointed to him as one of the all time great fighters (instead of all time great trainers) as well.*****