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Altering the Perception

Many UFC fighters such as Hughes still find themselves defending the image of their sport as it tries to move into the mainstream

September 22, 2006|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Matt Hughes made a pre-fight appearance earlier this week at the Arrowhead Pond, the site of his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title bout Saturday night against B.J. Penn. He donned a personalized hockey jersey before the start of the Ducks' exhibition game, dropped the honorary first puck and stayed around to sign autographs during the first intermission.

Some fans had to be turned away before they could secure a personal keepsake from Hughes, the longest-reigning champion in the UFC, while others wondered what all the fuss was about.

"I didn't know they could write their names," joked Stan Shapiro, 66, of Huntington Beach, a longtime season ticket-holder for the Ducks.

Yes, fighters such as Hughes still find themselves defending the sport's image against stereotypes established during UFC's initial years in the early 1990s. Hughes said he was aware that mixed-martial arts delivers its share of mixed signals, creating a rainbow of opinions that can usually be sorted by age group. But Hughes says the sport would be more popular with older mainstream fans if they simply watched a fight, which features barefoot combatants wearing beach-style shorts, small fingerless gloves, a mouth guard and cup.

"There's a lot of people out there who just don't understand the sport," said Hughes, who has held the welterweight title since June 19, 2004. "My answer to that is, 'Don't take it for what you hear, why don't you go ahead and watch an event and just see how much technique is actually out there?' "

UFC fights take place inside an eight-sided steel cage known as the Octagon and incorporate different styles of self defense, including wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, karate and jiu-jitsu. Preliminary bouts consist of three five-minute rounds; championships fights are scheduled for five rounds. Competitors can end their match sooner via knockout or submission hold.

In January, the UFC announced its first event in California. The April card at the Pond sold out in a week. One employee who has worked at the arena for eight years said it was the most energy she had experienced inside the 18,000-seat facility.

When Hughes defeated one of the sport's original legends, Royce Gracie, at Staples Center in May, the fight reportedly raked in nearly $3 million at the door and $24 million in pay-per-view revenue. This type of success has opened the door for a handful of fighters to build lucrative careers, one choke hold at a time.

"Even when I started fighting small-time in '96, I never envisioned being on TV, being a world champion, making as much money as I do," said Hughes, who lives on the same family farm where he grew up in Hillsboro, Ill. "To me, I got into the sport for the mere reason of competition ... that competition led me down the road and here I am on a major highway."

Like Hughes, who was a two-time Division I All-American wrestler at Eastern Illinois, many fighters in the UFC honed their ground skills while wrestling in college. Some began building a base for their careers while still in their youth.

Hughes said he never would have developed the skills required to be a longtime world champion if not for the competitiveness that was stoked while growing up alongside his twin brother, Mark, and the mental and physical toughness he developed on the family farm.

Matt and Mark would often return to the farm after attending school and wrestling practice, pitch bales of hay until dark and then ride a stationary bike for half an hour, all under the watchful eye of their father. When the boys ran out of work, their father usually loaned them to neighbors, where they would sometimes pitch up to 1,500 bales a day.

"I wouldn't say my dad was a slave driver, but he wanted the best for us," Hughes said.

The long days paid off on the mat. In the back of their minds, the brothers knew their rivals would never outwork them.

"All [my opponents] did was go to wrestling practice," Hughes said.

Roger Huerta, a 23-year-old college senior from Minneapolis who will be making his pro debut Saturday night in a preliminary bout, was abandoned by his parents at a young age, sold candy to tourists on the streets of Mexico and eventually began living on his own at age 12.

"I had nothing growing up," said Huerta, who will fight fellow lightweight Jason Dent.

After bouncing from home to home, Huerta finally settled in Austin, Texas. He eventually was adopted by one of his high school teachers and earned a wrestling scholarship to Augsburg College, where he began establishing the foundation for his career.

"Basically," he said. "I took all that anger and aggression and turned it into a positive life."

Dr. Michael Masucci, a professor in the sports psychology department at San Jose State who is writing a research paper on mixed-martial arts, says it's not surprising that once the sport became regulated, it attracted athletes who acted like professionals.

"These guys are trained at the highest level using the latest technology," Masucci said. "They're not just putting their beer down and walloping on people."

Hughes says he's unsure what he'll be doing 10 years from now. He bought the family farm and stays on top of its responsibilities. Though commitments with the UFC and his sponsors keep him on the road often, he realizes the treasure he has found.

"There's nothing I can do in Hillsboro that can compare to the money I'm making in the UFC," he said. "My fame in this sport is not going to last forever, so I've got to make the money while I can still do it."

Now that sounds like a professional.

dan.arritt@latimes.com

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