MMA training is hard enough on its own. For Jeff Hughes, there was a time when he had to deal with something just as grueling in addition to that.
Hughes, now a UFC heavyweight, had a day job doing roof shingle deliveries in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, up until last summer. The worst part of that gig? Working in the hot, sticky Midwestern summer bare-chested for 13 hours and then having to head over to practice.
“I’m a pretty pasty guy,” Hughes told MMA Fighting. “So at the beginning of the season, you get pretty red and your back starts to burn. There’d be days where we’d be working on jiu-jitsu or something and I’d be like, I am not getting put on my back today. That was the goal. It wasn’t to submit anybody, it was to not get put on your back.”
That did not always work out for Hughes. But it’s clear a lot has. “Lights Out” will make his UFC debut against Maurice Greene at UFC Wichita on Saturday night in Kansas. It is a rematch of Hughes’ LFA heavyweight title defense in April of last year, which Hughes won by unanimous decision.
Hughes, 30, earned his UFC contract last July with a first-round TKO of Josh Appelt on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. His boss at the shingle delivery business traveled to Las Vegas to watch Hughes compete that night. At the celebration dinner, Hughes passed on some news — it was time for him to focus on MMA as a full-time job.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Well, you can consider this my two-week notice,’” Hughes said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I figured it was gonna go that way.’ He’s one of my biggest fans.”
Hughes (10-1) won’t miss that lifestyle. He said being able to do two-a-days at Strong Style Fight Team in Independence, where he trains alongside former UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, has already paid dividends.
“You’re out on the roof, 90-degree days in Ohio,” Hughes said of shingle delivery. “It’s not fun. I’d have to juggle that and going to training every day. I was putting in 13-hour days of hard work. It was beneficial — it made you tough. But man, it broke your body down quick.
“There’s some days where your feet were burning so bad from being on a steep roof and the last thing you wanted to do was go wrestle for two hours. But you have to do it.”
He knows it’s a cliche, but Hughes said this is the best he’s ever felt and he’ll be walking into UFC Wichita as the best fighter he’s ever been. Hughes picked up a job as a math teacher aid at a local middle school in the fall to make ends meet. But otherwise, it’s all about MMA training now.
“We get our work in in the morning and at night now,” Hughes said. “So, I can concentrate. On Thursdays, we know it’s our sparring day, so we come in in the morning and we beat the crap out of each other. And at night, we do more cardio and recovery. Man, instead of doing it all in one shot, it’s been really beneficial to have that opportunity to spread it out throughout the day. The biggest thing is recovery, man. Your body feels like it’s dying when you’re in camp sometimes and the little naps in between or whatever have really helped.”
Of course, working with Miocic has been significant, Hughes said.
“I can’t even describe how much he’s helped me out, especially this camp,” Hughes said. “Yeah, I’m not winning these rounds. I’ll be honest with you. I’m not winning our sparring rounds, our grappling rounds or anything like that. But I’m staying in there and I’m giving him my best. It’s not like he’s just walking all over me. I know if I can go with him for 15 minutes, I can go with anybody in the world for 15 minutes. It’s a huge confidence boost.”
Hughes said his dream as a teenager was to be in the UFC and how he’s getting to live it. The manual labor jobs — and there were others before delivering shingles — are in the past. Hughes thinks perhaps he might have a future when his fighting career is through. But he doesn’t think that’ll happen any time soon.
Hughes is right at the cusp now of everything he wanted. And he won’t even have to fight Saturday night with a bad sunburn.
“This was my goal to start off, to be a UFC fighter, when I was 17,” Hughes said. “And I’m here. But now my goal is to win. A lot of the pressure is off me to get here, but the pressure is on to fight and to win now. So, it has become a little bit easier focusing on MMA, though. This is my job now, not just a hobby.”