Matt Hughes made his professional debut on New Year's Day, 1998. He went on to fight a remarkable 54 times over the next 14 years, winning the UFC welterweight title twice, defending it seven times, and generally cementing one of the greatest legacies in the history of the division.
Hughes, now 39 years old, has remained on the sidelines since a September knockout loss to Josh Koscheck last year, marking the longest period of inactivity in his career. Following the loss, his second in a row and fifth in his last nine fights, Hughes made it clear retirement wasn't in the cards just yet. However, after selling his gym and spending the past 13 months raising his four children, Hughes finds himself slowly warming to the idea.
"I wouldn't say I've closed the door [on my career], but I've got my hand on the door handle," Hughes said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "You know it's been over a year since I've fought, and I've having a good time with my family raising my kids, which I think is a bigger thing than me competing, making sure my family is raised right. So I'm having a good time at home with the family, and kind of, maybe, lost the desire just a little bit to compete. I'm not retired yet, but it is looking like that's where I'm going."
Like many aging UFC legends, Hughes retirement has been met, in part, with some gentle coaxing from UFC President Dana White.
"We have talked and he's voiced his opinion about me," admits Hughes. "He just says I've got nothing to prove, and for Dana to say that, it means something. I think he's taking my best interests to heart. I still think he could make some money off me, put me on a card, but he's looking past the financial side of things, and saying, ‘Hey, you've been here for a long time and you're good to go. You can retire.' With him talking like a father and not a businessman, it really lets it sink in a little deeper than it would the other way.
"My wife, of course, has said, ‘Hey, you need to retire. You've got nothing else to prove.' So with those two saying that, it's kind of leaning on me a little bit. And the fact that, shoot, brother, I just had another birthday. I'm 39 years old. I don't fetch the way I used to. I don't recover the way I used to. I'm not as quick as I used to be. Probably not as strong as I used to be. So, it's funny. For the last ten years, I kept getting older and my opponents kept staying the same age."
For Hughes, the transition to a quieter life has been slow, but one helped by the comfort of his surroundings. His twin brother, Mark, still runs the family farm, and after taking his kids to school, Hughes spends most of his days outside, working with his hands. The adrenaline dumps of walking out to a packed arena filled with thousands of delirious fans are now gone. But after sitting out so long, Hughes is starting to understand White's insistence only came from a place of good intentions.
"A year ago, I was 100-percent go," Hughes recalled. "I wanted to compete, was wanting to know who the next opponent he was thinking of. And now, within a year, it's turned into, maybe [Dana's] right. I am a year older, and don't move the way I used to. I was not very happy a year ago, but after a year I can see what he was saying and now I see why he was saying what he did."
"He's not a Don King. At all. Dana's a fair person, he's a fair businessman. With that being said, he's obviously made some great decisions for the UFC, but personally I've asked his opinion on a few things and he always gave me a straight answer that I knew was coming from his heart and not his business side of things."
All of this isn't to say Hughes is done with mixed marital arts. In fact, Hughes already has a few side projects to keep his motor going.
Hughes' first endeavor has him joining forces with a non-profit organization attempting to land organized MMA into the Olympics. However, it is his second venture that will likely pique the interest of fight fans. Hughes, like many in the community, understands one of the biggest pitfalls of modern MMA is the relentless inconsistency in judging and refereeing. He hopes to work alongside the UFC to create a sort of ‘judging academy' that would define an effective scoring system and train aspiring officials how properly oversee a bout.
"When I'm a judge, I can only help the fighters that are right in front of me," Hughes explained. "I would rather have a piece of a school, or help these judges figure out the best way to judge. Of course, I wouldn't be the lead person. I wouldn't want any financial interest in it whatsoever. But by gosh, these judges need to have some knowledge. They can't go from a boxing atmosphere and think that [MMA] is going to be the same way. You just can't."
"I've judged a lot of matches and I've reffed a lot of matches, and so I think I could help out in figuring out what the best criteria is. My number one criteria when it comes to judging a mixed martial arts fight is damage. Whoever does the most damage probably ought to win the round. If you're on bottom, if you're on top, if you're on your feet, whoever does the cumulative most damage in a round, is probably going to win. And some of these judges think that because one guy was on top the whole five minutes, just because he was on top, they think he should have won the round. The bottom guy could have been throwing great elbows, creating a huge amount of damage, but they just don't see that."