by Dan Renick – The Daily Eastern News
Before Matt Hughes became a household name around the octagon ring of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the eight-time welter weight champion preferred a more traditional shape to compete on-a circle mat inside Lantz Arena.
And the 5-foot-8, 169-pound wrestler got a sample of the success he would later have in mixed martial arts and the UFC when he was a two-time All-American wrestler at Eastern.
“I never thought athletics would take me this far,” Hughes, 33, said. “Maybe I would wrestle in college, but that was it.”
Hughes didn’t have much time for sports growing up. He lived on his parent’s farm, and he said with all the chores around on the farm, his parents didn’t have time to take him and his twin brother, Mark, into town for sports.
Matt and Mark did whatever two brothers would do in their situation-they competed with each other.
“We lived two to three miles away from the closest neighbor,” Hughes said. “Eventually play turned into competition with me and (Mark)-whether it was chopping wood or running out to the mailbox.”
When Matt entered high school and began playing sports more, the impact was immediate. He qualified for the Illinois state high school wrestling tournament all four years a Hillsboro High School, including an undefeated junior and senior year where he won the state championship, and was an all-conference football player as well.
After high school Hughes wrestled at Belleville Community College and when the wrestling program was cut after his freshman season he transferred to Lincoln Junior College, where he was an All-American.
Eastern head coach Ralph McCausland first found out about the Hughes brothers from a former teammate, Dave Klemm, who ran the program at Lincoln. But McCausland nearly never got the chance to coach who he called “one of the hardest workers” he had seen in 25 years of coaching.
The Eastern wrestling program was cut from the budget after the 1995 season, McCausland began helping the Hughes brothers get on the team at Northern Iowa but when the program was reinstated in 1996 they jumped at the chance to wrestle closer to home.
“The potential was incredible (when Matt first came to Eastern),” McCausland said. “There’s guys that are strong, that can put up a lot of weight, and then there are guys who are powerful, and in all my years, Matt personified power.
“He can put up a lot of weight but there is something unique about him- something uncanny and as he says, even to himself, he’s kind of a freak of nature in the power ratio.”
Just like in high school, Hughes made his presence felt immediately. Wrestling in the 158-pound division, Hughes took 8th place at nationals his junior year and 5th place his senior year.
“From the first day he came he was a natural leader. He’s a kind of a take charge guy ‘Let’s get it done and get it taken care of,’” McCausland said. “As far as work ethic goes bar-none I don’t think I’ve had anybody who has worked as hard and as an intense and as long of a duration as he could.”
That’s one thing that Hughes, who’s now a coach on the reality show The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, learned wrestling under McCausland.
“A lot of what I do comes from a wrestling background,” Hughes said. “People don’t realize the mental toughness (in what I do) as much as the physical part.”
After Hughes graduated he came back to Eastern as a graduate assistant coach and took up mixed martial arts as a way to stay competitive. McCausland remembers Charleston police officers coming and working with Matt on submission holds. A friend, Chris Dwyer, got Hughes to fight for the first time, a match in Chicago with a $100 purse.
Hughes began training with a friend, Pat Miletich, in the Quad Cities and after his sixth fight Hughes was asked to fight overseas and his career has taken him to Hawaii, Australia, Japan and the Persian Gulf.
“I think this was something that (Matt) was just gonna play with and follow it-find out where it leads him,” McCausland said. “He’s got 8 world championships, a video game, endorsements from Polaris and some other sponsors and got spun off on this reality TV show as one of the coaches.
“You know he’s not flamboyant, he’s just Matt.”
Matt admitted that he had no idea the success the mixed martial arts would bring and remembers what his early days were like.
“It used to be if you talked about the UFC nobody knew about it,” Hughes said. “Now if you mention it in a room, most people will know what it is.
“The reality show blew it wide open…I’m getting two to three more times from sponsors than purses.”
But Hughes nearly missed out on one the biggest breaks in his athletic career, the chance to be a coach on The Ultimate Fighter.
“I didn’t want to do (The show) at first. I didn’t want to leave my family for 7 weeks (for taping),” Hughes said. “My wife (Audra) talked me into it.
“It was a pure coaching experience. It was a great facility, everything was taken care of.”
Now six years into his UFC career, with a career record of 38-4, Hughes is still on top of his game. He’s currently training in the Quad Cities for his title defense, a Pay-Per-View match against Joe Riggs at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Hughes said he’s not ready to retire yet, maybe another five years until he settles down.
“I want to go back home and take over the farm with my brother.”