Matt Hughes makes the move from the octagon to the front office
UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes will be the first to say he's a jeans and work boots, dirt-under-his-fingernails, kind of guy. But late last month, the farm boy-turned-fighter retired from the cage (with a 45-9 record) and announced he'd accepted a job as the UFC's Vice President of Athlete Development and Government Relations. It's a slick title but the former welterweight tells SI.com why it's hard for him to talk retirement (he's still not sold on the idea), how he plans to approach fighters about thorny topics, and why the UFC's corporate dress code suits him just fine.
Some content has been edited for clarity.
SI: How did the UFC approach you about a corporate job?
Matt Hughes: About a year ago, my wife and I had dinner with [UFC president] Dana [White]. I went in with the idea of talking to Dana about who my next opponent was and maybe get a bearing about when he thought I should fight again. . . He kinda surprised me. He said, 'You know what, you just don't need to fight. We're going to have a position available for you coming soon. You just don't need to fight anymore.' My wife was real happy to hear that. I wasn't real happy to hear that but then I realized that I don't move as quick as I used to, I don't have the reaction time, the recoup time, the training's just not like it used to be. I just can't bend over and touch my toes like I used to. I was fine with that. He didn't disclose anything at the time. Then several months ago, I flew out to Vegas and started asking some questions and they brought this to my attention, that this is what I was going to be doing.
SI: What convinced you that your fighting career was over?
MH: [Laughs.] That's a hard question to answer because I went into that meeting fully expecting to fight again. I don't know if I could sit here and tell you honestly that I don't have the desire to fight again because I really do. But my last two [fights] haven't gone the way I thought they would [Opponents BJ Penn and Josh Koscheck knocked him out in 2010 and 2011, respectively]. At some point, you've got to retire. So I'm just going to listen to the people I think have my best interests at heart and go from there. I've never considered myself the smartest guy in the world but I figured I was smart enough to put good people around me and they'll tell me what to do.
SI: You have a fancy new title, Vice President of Athlete Development and Government Relations. How would you describe your new role?
MH: The government relations side is something I've been doing for several years. Anytime there's a state legislature where they're having a problem where somebody's trying to pass a bill that's going to be against fighting or they're trying to legalize it, I've went in and talked to them and answered any questions they may have had from a fighter's perspective. I've been doing that for quite a little while.
The athletic development part is more of giving the UFC an understanding of what goes on in a fighter's mind. If a problem should arise, I can always field any questions that one of the execs have on what could be going through the fighter's mind -- why he's doesn't want to do this or why he's wanting to this.
SI: What are some of your goals in this position?
MH: Number one, to be legalized throughout the country. There are still several states where it's not. [Connecticut and New York do not sanction professional mixed martial arts]. Number two, I'd love to help out with the judging. If there's a weak point in the fighting world, it would be the judging. You never know what you're going to come up with. I'd love to see a more unified, more of an umbrella-type of administration where they govern the judging a little bit better. The third thing would be better communication between the fighters and the UFC.
SI: What's the best pitch you could give to lawmakers in, say, New York, so that they legalized professional mixed martial arts?
MH: If they look at the numbers, we are the safest sport out there. We've never had a death, never had a serious injury in the UFC. [No one] else could say that. Even WWE wrestling can't say that. . . NASCAR, football, even soccer has had several deaths. We don't have any. We're actually pretty safe. The ref's No. 1 goal is to make sure there's an even playing field. The cage makes it very safe compared to a boxing ring, where fighters go over the ropes, through the ropes, or under the ropes. In New York, it's legal to box there but's it's not legal to fight [pro mixed martial arts] there. Probably one of the worst things you can do to the human body is go out and box 12 rounds because you're continually taking that punishment and we don't have that punishment here in the UFC.
SI: How can the judging process improve?
MH: A lot of these judges are coming straight from boxing, which is a totally different sport. You can't take a judge from soccer and put him on a football field. That's kind of what they're doing with us. I'd love to see some type of school where you have to qualify to be a judge.
SI: You mentioned improving the communication between the UFC and fighters. Where is that need most acute?
MH: There are a lot of fighters out there that when they go to get their next fight, they don't want to [fight who] the UFC wants them to compete against. I could step in and I could go to somebody and say, 'Hey, you know the UFC has your best interest at heart. It's an even match. You guys weigh the same, the same record. You both beat the same guys. You both lost to the same guys. It's a good fight for you.' Or I could look at the matchup and say, 'You know what, guys, I don't blame Johnny and if I were him, I wouldn't take this fight either.'
SI: What's your approach to discipline? Tough love? Good cop?
MH: I was a fighter so I know how I would term things best for a fighter to hear it. I'm a pretty straight shooter. I think that's why the UFC put me in this position. They know what I'm going to tell them is going to be the truth and they know the fighters are going to believe what I say because I always tell what's on my mind and what I believe. People don't have to worry about what I'm going to say. I'm always going to tell them the truth.
SI: How do you plan to handle the resistance you might face in your position?
MH: Back when I was first in the UFC, I was a younger guy, pretty immature and now I'm 39. I'm not saying I'm the most mature person, especially if you talk to my wife. She'll say I'm the worst kid that she's trying to raise right now. But I know how to deal with these guys. There's going to be an instance where I've had history with some of these older guys and they're not going to want to hear that. But as time goes by, I'm going to get older, these fighters are going to get newer and newer, and they're just going to accept it more and more. It could be rough here at the beginning but I look down the road and it'll get easier and easier.
SI: What are the biggest worries about fighters now? Social media?
MH: I'm not a policeman for the UFC. The UFC has a whole legal team that can deal with that. Now, if there's a situation that comes up on Twitter or Facebook or some type of public community, I could get called in, but as of right now I'm not going to worry about it. The UFC legal team can worry about it. Twitter is one of those things where you have to express your feeling in just a few characters, letters and words. Some people, it just gets carried away what they say. We had a couple of problems with Twitter. Some things just come out wrong because you don't get a lot of time to explain what they're wanting to say. Twitter would be a bad one if I had to sit and worry about something.
SI: What has surprised you most about your new job?
MH: I am surprised in the fact that I grew up on a farm with my twin brother. I should be working with a hammer or have a shovel in my hand, building a house or digging a ditch or something. I'm not a business suit type of a guy. I'm very happy that I have a job where I don't have to break my back everyday but it's kind of not me. The good thing is that when you go to the UFC offices and you see Dana White walking around, he's probably going to have a T-shirt on. . . I could go in there with a hoodie on and nobody's going to think anything about it or a T-shirt and tennis shoes and I don't have to worry about being in the proper VP attire. If I have to be a VP of something, I'm glad it's with the UFC, where they're so laid back. I couldn't even tie a tie if I had to. I don't own a tie and I don't own a suit. If I ever have to get dressed up for something, I've got to go out and borrow clothes from my buddies or my brother . . . Now that I've got this position, I probably will go out and buy a couple of nice suits because I'm going to need them.