(Kevin Marshall's opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Spike.)
"I've not announced my retirement, but right now it looks like I'm fully retired."
This was the response Matt Hughes gave when asked in a recent interview with the Iowa Daily Gate
whether or not he was done fighting.
Then, in typical fighter fashion, he took back those words less than a week later in an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA hour
. "I wouldn't say I closed the door on my MMA career," he told Helwani, "but I got my hand on the door handle."
In other words, his official position on retirement is that he has no position.
One thing you can take him at his word for, though, is that the end of his career is at least in his line of sight. It's probably not so much a visible horizon as it is an oncoming truck hurtling towards him at sixty miles an hour. Hughes is, after all, a 39-year-old who has been fighting for fourteen years and before that competed at the highest levels of amateur wrestling in high school and college. For him, the prospect of not competing again isn't anything like what retirement or leaving a job would be for the rest of us. For the average person, there's an ennui that hangs in the air after being given a gold watch and sent on their way. But despite what we might tell others, most of us won't know what it is to fully devote ourselves to a passion and make it not just our livelihood but our way of life. For fighters, retiring or even worse being told you're retiring is akin to losing a limb or being told from now on that you can only breathe half as often than you used to. Which is why fighters have such a hard time saying they're retired, and even if they do, actually staying retired.
An end, though, is inevitable, and the combination of a long career and a young sport that's still evolving at a breakneck pace has Matt Hughes acknowledging that his days as a top tier competitor are behind him. He hasn't fought since his knockout loss to Josh Koscheck in September of 2011 and hasn't signed for or even speculated on his next fight. This and other circumstances have him examining and preparing for the prospect of life after MMA.
The speculation for fans, then, isn't on when his next fight will be but what exactly his legacy in the sport is and where to place him among the best fighters of all time.
When it comes to Welterweights, his only peer is his former arch-nemesis Georges St-Pierre, another fighter who has dominated the division. Over the course of five years, Hughes was only once unseated as champion in a loss to BJ Penn but otherwise dominated a highly competitive Welterweight division, even beating a still up-and-coming GSP to regain the championship title belt that might as well had his name in place of the UFC logo.
His popularity, however, took a hit with the arrival of reality television as a conduit for MMA promotion. He hosted a season of The Ultimate Fighter and immediately the fans started turning on him. The more they saw and heard Matt Hughes outside the Octagon, the more they disliked him. His image was tarnished by a combination of selective television editing and his own brash attitude and arrogance, a byproduct left over from the Iowa wrestling culture he came up in. The absence of self-doubt is part of what made him so great, but also made it hard to tolerate watching him sit at a dinner table with other fighters. But while MMA pay-per-view buys and television ratings are made on personalities, judging Hughes by his performance requires us to separate his accomplishments in the cage from the idea that we probably wouldn't be friends with the guy.
The only people who could dismiss Hughes as a contender for the best Welterweight fighter of all time are historical revisionists and newer fans who don't have a sense of context. The former aren't necessarily the same people who argue Fedor wasn't at one time the best heavyweight in the world, but it comes from the same view of MMA as existing in a vacuum. Hughes fought in a different era; one where the sport and especially its strategies were nothing like what we see today. When he burst onto the scene, he brought an arguably unmatched work ethic and inarguable advantage in grappling techniques. In fact, the way that grappling in general has been integrated into the overall MMA game plan is largely due to Matt Hughes's performance and dominance in the cage. At the time, watching Matt Hughes casually slam his competition around the mat is akin to watching Jon Jones now and the way he dominates the Light Heavyweight division with his freakish reach and unique style of fighting. It wasn't that his opponents didn't know what he was doing or how to counter it. They just couldn't.
In that sense, it can be argued – convincingly – that Matt Hughes is the greatest Welterweight fighter of all time and among the best pound for pound fighters of all time, joining company such as Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, and yes, his nemesis Georges St-Pierre.
If Matt Hughes does fight again and hangs on for much longer, there will be those who will say he's tarnishing his legacy. His best days are, undoubtedly, behind him. And yet what he does and says from here on in cannot, or at least should not, detract from what he accomplished and how he changed the game. Because if you're looking at it as a sport, him taking two or three fights too many and being cast as the villain on a reality show doesn't register as being nearly as important as the five year period where he had one of the most dominant runs in the history of combat sports. In terms of both what he did and how he did it, he's the best fighter to ever step into a cage at 170.
Or, depending on when you ask and what mood I'm in, I might say it's Georges St-Pierre. I haven't closed my door on the possibility. But I got my hand is on the door handle.
Image Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Zuffa LLC/ Getty Images