8/1/2010—Illustration by Mike O'Brien
When most people think of Matt Hughes, they think of a fighter, a champion of the most popular forum in Mixed Martial Arts. When fight fans think of Hughes, there's no doubt they recall the prevailing image of his oh-so storied, often-repeated Octagon entrance. It usually goes something like this:
Hank Williams Jr.'s voice blares over the loud speaker singing "A Country Boy Can Survive." Hughes' pace is slowed by the song's melodious rhythm as he moves through the crowd toward the eight-sided cage. He holds his 5-foot-7-inch frame high, ready to pound his opponent into submission. He's a mean man, a certified bad dude. He approaches the ring with a surprising calmness that keeps him steady as he climbs the stairs into the Octagon. The music stops, and the fight is on.
Picture that entrance one more time, and remember what Hughes has done to the many men who have touched gloves with the most decorated welterweight the UFC has ever seen.
Now stop, erase that image from your mind. That’s what he wants you to do.
The nine-time UFC World Welterweight Champion doesn't want to be known only for his days in the Octagon; he's got his priorities straight. He's much more than that, for sure. He's a father, a husband, a hunter and a shooter.
"When they make my headstone for my grave, the last thing I want on there is 'Fought in the UFC' or 'UFC Hall of Famer,'" Hughes said. "I want it to say that I was a good husband and a great father. Those are the things that are important to me."
In fact, after more than 50 fights (45-7) in the MMA game, Hughes says that the biggest thrill of his life came in the deer blind. That is, if you don't count the day he became a Christian six years ago, the day he married his wife and when his three children were born.
Hughes' 11-year-old son Joey shot his first buck two years ago with his dad at his side.
"If you take my son’s deer and compare it to anything I’ve done in the Octagon, I’ve got to say I was more excited for my son." Hughes said. "Just because I’ve been fighting for so long, and maybe I’ve gone stale on my career.
But my son getting his first buck was big for me because I know that he’s going to love doing that for the rest of his life and always remember that hunt with his dad. That’s the exciting thing for me, because he’ll never forget it."
A Country Boy Did Survive
Hughes was born and raised in Hillsboro, Ill., a small town with a population of about 4,500. As youngsters, he and his twin brother Mark spent most of their time on the family farm learning the importance of hard work at the hand of their father. The boys mostly chased small game, hunting rabbits or squirrels on the family's parcel of land.
"I grew up on a 50-acre farm," Hughes said. "I have always been able to grab a gun and go out and shoot whatever I want."
But during his late teens and early 20s Hughes was busy pursuing his career and lost the connection with his humble beginnings in the outdoors.
"When I went to college I kind of got away from the hunting a little bit," Hughes said. "I started doing my profession now, which kept me away, but then when I came back home, I ended up getting married to the former sheriff’s daughter. In a weird way that started my journey back to hunting."
Hughes' eventual father-in-law, Jim Moore, became one of his best friends and encouraged him to hunt and shoot again. He moved back home and began to recultivate his passion for the shooting sports.
"Jim [Moore] got me into hunting uplands, deer and really everything else," he said. "He’s been a big push for me to get out and shoot. We shoot a lot of sporting clays and do a lot of hunting together."
Since then Hughes has developed an intense involvement in the hunting industry and has become the face of some of the sport's most recognizable brands including Browning, Hornady and DPMS. His opportunities to hunt have skyrocketed and are starting to pay off big time. But that doesn't mean he's accomplished all his hunting goals.
"My biggest gun kill was a 171, a whitetail," Hughes said. "And there’s so many things I’ve never shot before. I’ve never shot a mule deer and I’m going on my first elk hunt this year, there’s a bunch of things that I haven't done."
Hughes hasn't faired too badly when chasing Pope & Young whitetails either, his biggest bow kill to date was a rough score of 181. Beyond the big-game pursuits in North America, he hopes to test his mettle on some dangerous game in the near future—an intense hunt where the animal might be "stalking" him. But when it comes down to it, this former wrestler, current MMA fighter and longtime country boy just loves to pull the trigger.
"I’m really looking forward to any time I spend out there. I’m the type of guy that can be happy hunting just about any of it," he said.
Outside of maintaining his fighting and hunting pursuits, Hughes volunteers his time to helping the young people of Hillsboro and has become an active member of The First Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro. He currently lives in his hometown with his wife Audra, son Joey and two daughters Hanna Grace and Katelyn.
For those UFC fans who are still wondering, Hughes' next fight will be Aug. 7 in Oakland, Calif., against Ricardo Almeida. After that bout, Hughes will go back to being a father, a husband and a hunter. Until, that is, it’s time to take that oh-so storied walk to the Octagon again.