Matt Hughes has a message for the fighters up and down the UFC roster: The ride doesn't last forever.
The two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois had as good a run as any who stepped into the UFC's Octagon. Hughes was the first great welterweight champion in UFC history, losing just once in a 20-fight span which included a pair of UFC title reigns from 2001-06.
Then, just like that, it was over. Hughes has yet to hit the big 4-0 (that happens on Oct. 13), but scant years after he rode high, Hughes is retired, a UFC Hall of Famer, and holds a front-office position with the company.
And it's in that role as UFC vice president of athletic development that Hughes makes his plea to the fighters: Be smart with your money, because this isn't a long-term career.
"Guys, watch out," Hughes said. "The No. 1 downfall of athletes with money is bad investments. I want to help these guys keep their money, so they're not fighting until they're 39 years old."
That's the age at which Hughes formally announced his retirement this spring. But the former champion has it better than many who finish with active competition. With a wife who stayed on his case to put his money away during his prime and invest in the family farm in Hillsborough, Ill., Hughes never took his eye off the ball. And he hopes to use his office role to make sure other fighters do the same during a time in which fighter pay is a big topic of discussion.
"These guys need to realize that the body's going to get old and they're not going to be able to compete," Hughes said. "Financial awareness is something I really want to focus on. I'd like to have these guys, what I'd like to start out with is tax help. Right off the bat, they're getting more of their check by starting a corporation. You need to start as a corporation and not as an individual and you'll see more of your money. They need to get that tax help, and after that, line yourself up with a good financial adviser."
When Hughes' new role was announced, fans seemed to picture it as the UFC's equivalent of a pro wrestling commissioner, who metes out fines for transgressions and orders rematches after controversial bouts.
But in reality, Hughes has settled into an informal role, something of the UFC's official big brother to younger fighters.
"You know what, it's not like I've got so many emails to go through per day," Hughes said. "This stuff comes to my phone and I answer it. If someone needs to reach me, they know where they can find me, I'll talk to anyone."
Such chats can include recognizing when it's time to call it a career. It's something to which Hughes can relate, because he went through it recently.
[Related: Brian Stann decides it's time to retire]
After a magnificent comeback victory over B.J. Penn at UFC 63 capped his run of 19 wins in 20 fights, Hughes was manhandled by Georges St-Pierre to lose the title for good at UFC 65. That began the career-ending run in which Hughes went 4-5 over his final nine fights.
Hughes suffered first-round knockouts in his last two bouts, to Penn and Josh Koscheck. Then he grudgingly admitted it was time to get out while his faculties were still intact.
"I could read the writing on the wall," Hughes said. "My reaction time wasn't as quick as it was. My body's not healing as fast, I feel physically strong, I was always going to have that strength. But man, it takes more than strength. I was happy to get out. Would I have liked to gone out with my hand in the air? Yes. Yes, I would. But we don't always get what we want."
Hughes may have seen his time in the Octagon come and go, but he's not going to be one of those "in my day" old-timers who decry the state of the game today. Rather, Hughes marvels at the sport's rapid development.
In his heyday, Hughes elevated the art of takedowns and ground-and-pound to a state-of-the-art level. His camp, the famed Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa, produced three early Zuffa-era UFC champions: Hughes, inaugural UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver, and two-time heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia.
But when Hughes sees the skill sets of current champions like light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, he appreciates just how fast MMA has evolved.
"I was never as athletic as Jon Jones is," Hughes said. "I just worked harder than everyone else. That guy's got skills everywhere. On the ground, on his feet, wrestling, obviously very talented wrestling. He's a lot different than me. [Jones' success] tells me we've got 13-year-old kids now who are training in all disciplines, and this sport is going to keep growing on that level.
And who knows where it will be in another 10 years?
"Jon Jones and GSP two great examples of great athletes right now," Hughes said. "But, in 10 years? Those guys, that could be the minor leagues. Nothing against them personally, but it keeps going and everyone wants to train. We didn't have that 10 years ago. In 10 years, they may be saying, 'Man, those guys in 2013, they didn't know what they were doing.'"
That ever-shifting landscape brings us back to the subject of taking advantage of the opportunities when they're presented. Hughes recognizes that he was in the right place at the right time when Dana White and the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC as he was an up-and-coming contender. But it's about what you do with the ball when it's handed to you that counts.
"I think I had a great opportunity and was in the right place at the right time," Hughes said. "Zuffa just took over and I jumped in with a title shot and I won the fight. Would anyone else in my situation do different? Probably not, but I was there at the right time at the right place, so I can't take a bunch of that for myself. That's what I want these kids to understand. The window of opportunity only stays open for so long, you have to strike while the iron is hot."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @davedoylemma
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