There are few athletes in the entire spectrum of professional sports who have the consistent relevance that UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes has had throughout his entire career. Brett Favre, George Foreman, Martin Brodeur, Randy Johnson. These are just a few of the names that come to mind when attempting to place other athletes in the same discussion.
In the context of mixed martial arts, Randy Couture is the quintessential example of a fighter who continued to find success despite a degradation in his skills from old age. He wasn't wildly successful in the latter stages of his career, but Couture was still able to win at the highest levels of the sport.
When Couture retired at the age of 47 after suffering a knockout defeat at the hands of Lyoto Machida at UFC 129, it was a memorable moment in MMA history. Couture shockingly transcended the generational gap between the earliest fans and the youthful fans of today's era because he was a physical freak of nature. His popularity and, let's be honest, beatdown of Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 created this Captain America persona that he was the greatest despite not being so great inside the Octagon in his career's entirety.
Matt Hughes is a better example. Hughes burst back into the UFC in the fall of 2001, slamming Carlos Newton unconscious at UFC 34 to win the UFC welterweight crown. He defended the title five times before stumbling against B.J. Penn at UFC 46. Two fights later, he defeated rising star Georges St. Pierre to win the title again, defending it two more times and defeating B.J. Penn at UFC 63 in the fall of 2006 to amass a 12-1 record within a five-year span.
It is also important to note that Hughes did all of this during MMA's transition from the basement of professional sports to the boom period brought on by The Ultimate Fighter reality series. He was one of the first fighters that new fans coming into the sport latched onto as a star.
The latter half of the last decade was less successful, sporting a 4-4 record heading into 2011. It's difficult, however, to fault Hughes. He was fighting the very best the division had to offer, including two tilts with champion Georges St. Pierre.
Why is Matt Hughes the less celebrated fighter? His record speaks for itself. When fans wrote him off following his knockout loss to Thiago Alves at UFC 85, Hughes battled back, defeating Matt Serra, Renzo Gracie, and Ricardo Almeida. Not the cream of the crop talent-wise, but legitimate challenges nonetheless.
Hughes' cocky attitude over the course of his career is the biggest reason he's been less celebrated as a legend of the sport. Even in this latter stage of his career, Hughes still has a little venom to spit in the eyes of his opponents. Oh, and that whole bible study thing during season six of The Ultimate Fighter. That wasn't good for his public persona either.
The end of the road is nearing for Matt Hughes. His training camp was a nostalgic trip back to the good ol' days, bringing in Pat Miletich and Jeremy Horn. He also befriended former nemesis B.J. Penn to help prepare for Josh Koscheck this weekend at UFC 135. Hughes' wife says it's time to move on, and Hughes himself believes the end is quickly approaching.
Looking back at the career of Hughes, he played the game with the best of them. He talked the talk, walked the walk, and beat the odds. Even in these late stages of his career in which fans and media propose that the sport passed Hughes by years ago, Hughes finds a way to win with the same strength and wrestling skills that helped him dominate the landscape of the division for years. Whether you love or hate Matt Hughes, he's had a tremendous career, the absolute best of any fighter in the UFC Hall of Fame.