Small-town guy is a big-time fighter
By Joe Holleman
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Matt Hughes (left) waits to order lunch with his twin brother Mark at the Park-N-Eat in Hillsboro, Ill.
"Matt Hughes is the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet who could also beat you to death."
That statement — from one of Hughes' best friends — comes razor-close to describing the welterweight star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Hughes makes his home in Hillsboro, Ill., a small town of 4,200 people about 70 miles northeast of St. Louis.
"I live here because I love it," said Hughes, a 1992 graduate of Hillsboro High. "I grew up here, and I want my kids to grow up here. Here, I'm just Matt Hughes from the west side of Hillsboro. I can cash a check and nobody asks me for I.D."
Hughes, 33, and his wife, Audra, 26, live in a tidy ranch home about one mile from the 600-acre Hughes family farm. They have two children: Joey, 7, and Hanna, 6 months.
Hughes has been competing in the vicious arena of mixed martial arts — once called "no holds barred" fighting — for more than 10 years. He has held a championship belt nine times and has a record of 41-4.
He lost his most recent fight, and the UFC welterweight belt, in November to Georges St. Pierre. Now, he trains during the week in Davenport, Iowa, for a March 3 fight against Chris Lytle in Columbus, Ohio. His goal is an eventual rematch with St. Pierre.
"I want to get my (welterweight) belt back from Georges, then I want to fight for the middleweight title," Hughes said. "I'd like to hold both belts at the same time. I'd be the first person in the UFC to do that."
But while Hughes' dreams are big-time, his roots are small-town.
Rich Stewart, the close friend who provided the short description of Hughes, is head football and baseball coach at Hillsboro High.
"I think Matt likes having his friends in town, people he's known a long time," Stewart said. "You get popular and you get a lot of new 'friends.' I think Matt gets tired of that."
Underscoring Stewart's point is a lunch Hughes had recently with his twin brother, Mark, at the Park-N-Eat diner. They ran into high school buddy Darin Spinner. Not a word about the UFC was spoken. The twins spent their time pumping Spinner for information about rebuilding a tractor engine.
"If we need some help, we'll give you a call," Matt Hughes said to Spinner as they parted ways.
Before lunch at Park-N-Eat, Hughes sat for a film crew interviewing him for a training video that will be available at martial-arts stores. He cringed when the producer said there were about 60 questions.
"Oh, man, that's too many," Hughes said, and then asked after every six or seven questions if the interview was over. After an hour, it was.
"That's just not me," Hughes said later. "I don't care for the exposure, and I don't look forward to being recognized."
Competing with twin
One thing Hughes has always looked forward to is fighting.
"I'm not the kind of guy who ever went looking for trouble," Hughes said. "But if trouble came my way, I was never the kind of guy to get out of its way."
His first sparring partner was brother Mark. (They have an older sister, Beth Ulricy.) Matt Hughes is five minutes older than Mark — "I kicked him right out of Mom," Mark Hughes said — and the competition has been nonstop ever since.
Stewart said, "Everything with those two boys is a contest. I used to help them roof houses, and they'd race to see who could nail down the most shingles in an hour."
The twins' fights acclimated their father, Russell Hughes, to the violent ways of Matt's UFC work.
"I've never seen anyone do anything to Matt on those fighting shows that I didn't see Mark do to him a 100 times before," said Russell Hughes, who lives at the farm with Mark and his family.
Matt Hughes was a two-time state wrestling champ at Hillsboro; twice a junior college All-American; and then a two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois University. After college, Hughes went to work on the family farm and did some construction.
In 1996, Hughes was offered $100 to fight in a no-holds-barred contest in Chicago.
"I didn't know what a big payday was, so I took it," he said. "I'd been getting in fights for free, so this was $100 more than that. And I beat the guy in about a minute and a half."
A year later, he got $200 for his second fight.
"They doubled my money," Hughes said. "I slammed the guy and broke three of his ribs."
Getting on Spike
By 1999, Hughes was a regular on the UFC tour. The sport had a following, but its lack of organization and sometimes gruesome outcomes kept it on the low side of TV ratings and the bad side of state athletic commissions.
"But in 2001, UFC was taken over by Zuffa (Corp.), and they really cleaned it up," Hughes said. "They worked with state commissions and came up with rules.
"And when it got on Spike TV, it really exploded."
Viacom's Spike TV caters to a male audience by featuring action movies, crime dramas and sports programs. The UFC has become a top draw on Spike, especially with men 18 to 34 years old. Six of the top 10 series on Spike TV in 2006 were UFC-related series.
Tvweek.com recently reported that UFC packages will be syndicated this year to regular network stations, under the title "UFC Wired."
Increased popularity and higher ratings mean more money for fighters. And Hughes is all about that.
"I've already done more in this sport than I thought was possible 10 years ago." he said. "I've got my house paid for, my vehicles paid for, and Audra doesn't have to work."
Hughes also is pleased with the current state of his soul and doesn't hesitate talking about his Christianity and his membership in Hillsboro's First Presbyterian Church. His defining spiritual moment came two years ago in Mexico, when Mark convinced Matt to accompany Mark and other tradesmen to an orphanage.
"We did a lot of construction work, but they still need so many things down there," Matt Hughes said. "But it was down there that I was saved. I was on a mountain top, and you could see across the border and the lights of El Paso (Texas). And I felt like I could cover that ground in two steps."
Stewart said Hughes' charitable work isn't limited to Mexico.
"I'm not going to tell you who, but Matt has done a lot more than anybody knows for people in this community," Stewart said. "And you'd never hear about it from him."
Hughes also has his own interests in mind.
"My body tells me I've got two years left," he said. "It's getting harder each time to go train. I just want to stay home with Audra, work on the farm and watch the kids grow up.
"Being remembered as a UFC champ is important. But it's more important to be remembered as a good husband and father."