LAS VEGAS – Matt Hughes sat ringside at an Ultimate Fight Night show at the Palms Hotel & Casino and stared at the ground. He was in the midst of taping Season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter, a task he clearly was not enjoying.
He knew he wouldn't enjoy the job. In 2005, he served as a coach in Season 2 of the UFC's uber-successful reality series.
He didn't enjoy it then and knew that nothing that had transpired in the interim two years would make him enjoy Season 6 any more.
But he did it, as he has done pretty much everything the UFC management has needed him to do over the last six years.
And for that, on Saturday, UFC president Dana White should ensure that Hughes never forgets his final night as a part of The Ultimate Fighter.
White should announce to the crowd at the Palms that he's making Hughes the fifth choice for the UFC's Hall of Fame.
The UFC has already inducted Dan Severn, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie into its Hall of Fame. All four have fought within the last 14 months, the 53-year-old Severn as recently as three weeks ago.
It's not as if there isn't precedence for naming active fighters.
And no one can argue that Hughes isn't deserving. He's arguably the most successful fighter of the Zuffa Era of the UFC, when White and the Fertitta brothers have owned the company and moved it inexorably toward mainstream acceptance.
He's had two stints as the UFC's welterweight champion and has run up a 9-2 record in title fights while taking on the finest mixed martial artists of his era.
But even more significant than his exploits in the cage are his actions outside of it. Thanks to Hughes, UFC 79 will be the company's biggest event of the year.
When Matt Serra, Hughes' antagonist and opposite number on The Ultimate Fighter, herniated two discs in his back just prior to Thanksgiving, it could have had a significantly deleterious impact upon what the UFC was hoping would be a momentum-building card.
For all the talk at the end of 2006 that the UFC had surpassed boxing, it's sobering to note that in 2007, welterweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. will likely gross more in pay-per-view revenue in his two fights than the UFC will all year from its.
The UFC has tried to make its New Year's Eve weekend card one of its most special, but it would have lost a lot had Hughes opted not to fight after Serra had to pull out.
It would have been hard to blame him. He's 34, has fought 46 times and is a lot closer to the end of his career than anyone over on Sahara Avenue dares to think about.
The title fight was extremely important to him, as was simply getting a win over a top-level competitor.
But when White, in attempting to salvage the card, offered him Georges St. Pierre, it would have been easy for Hughes to decline. He'd trained for Serra – or, at least he had the excuse, had he wanted to use it – and St. Pierre offered a completely different set of problems.
Hughes, though, never hesitated. He accepted and the card not only remained on, it increased in luster.
"Obviously, it was brutal news over Thanksgiving weekend that Matt Serra was injured and could not fight Matt Hughes," White said. "We didn't know what we were going to do. Thank God that that's not only the way that this sport is, but the athletes are amazing human beings. Georges St. Pierre steps up and takes the fight and Matt Hughes accepts the fight.
"If this was boxing, this fight would have been cancelled and we would have had to make the Hughes-Serra fight later. I have nothing but respect for these two for stepping up to the plate and accepting this fight."
It's what Hughes has consistently done since he became a full-time UFC fighter in 2001. Hughes, along with light heavyweight Chuck Liddell, has been the company's most loyal soldier and one of its elite fighters.
It's kind of become the hip thing in MMA circles to dog Hughes. Serra repeatedly referred to Hughes by using a crude slang word for a male body part during the filming of TUF 6. Other fighters, including Joe Riggs, have spoken similarly of Hughes.
Maybe they have justification for their anger, though Hughes says he's mystified about Serra's reaction toward him.
But Hughes has consistently set a high standard in the way he's conducted himself publicly, for his willingness to fight all comers and to tackle any challenge that would help promote the sport.
He could simply have passed on fighting at UFC 79 and thus greatly weakened the card. He could have asked to fight someone like Jon Fitch or Diego Sanchez, bouts that wouldn't have had the market appeal that the one with St. Pierre would.
He made the right decision by taking St. Pierre, but it was the way he came to that decision that makes Hughes special.
"I had a big decision and, finally, I just kind of said, 'What's good for me? What's good for the UFC? What's good for the people watching the sport?' " Hughes said. "And it was easy. Georges was it."
And it should be equally as easy for White to make the call that now is the time to announce that Hughes is heading to the UFC Hall of Fame. He deserves the chance to walk to the cage and have the crowd welcome him as a Hall of Famer.
There are few who have been as integral to the growth of MMA and the UFC as Matt Hughes.
He deserves to be recognized for that on Saturday in the most special way possible.
- Matt Hughes
- Matt Serra