Commentary

Hughes can walk away with head high

Originally Published: September 25, 2011
By Josh Gross | ESPN.com

You never know where you'll be when it happens. Pat Miletich, for instance, was sharing a ride to the airport.

After taping an episode of "MMA Live" late last year, Miletich, the former UFC champion, long regarded as one of the sport's best trainers, headed to yet another dance with the TSA in Hartford, Conn. He spoke with his girls in Iowa and recited his eagerness to make them breakfast before school. Brian Stann, the rising UFC middleweight contender and highly decorated Marine honored for his service in Iraq, sat nearby and couldn't help but overhear.

When Miletich hung up his cell, Stann, who spent the past couple of days trying to learn as much as he could from the trainer while they worked together at ESPN, thought it was the right time to offer up some wisdom of his own.

"With bullets flying over his head ... he'd sit in the middle of firefights and wonder what life is all about," Miletich said. "It really struck home with me when he said the most impact a guy can have in his life, the best thing he can do in his life, is raise his kids the best he can and leave them with a strong foundation before they go on with their lives.

"That's all I needed to hear at that point because I was on the edge of making a decision anyway. Literally -- right then, at that moment, I decided."

Stann didn't know what to make of it at the time, but he recalled seeing Miletich "pause for a second and kind of stare off."

"I didn't know if he agreed, disagreed, was reflecting on something, or if he was wondering about me as a person and kind of digesting what I said," Stann remembered. "But he did pause for a second and I didn't realize that's when he made that decision."

If Matt Hughes hasn't experienced the pause that accompanies coming to terms with not fighting anymore, he will soon. The question in front of him now is the same one Miletich, his mentor, contemplated at the end of his career.

Standing among the most successful mixed martial artists ever to grace the Octagon, Hughes finished the final bout on his UFC contract by suffering the ninth loss of his career. That's first-round knockouts in back-to-back fights, and a sure sign that he doesn't have it anymore. But that may not matter much when it comes to his decision on walking away.

[+] EnlargeHughes
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comMatt Hughes, facing, looked like the old Matt Hughes of old against Josh Koscheck -- at least, for a few minutes.

"You look how Chuck [Liddell] and Randy [Couture] retired, and even Royce [Gracie], they walked out with losses and I really don't want to do that," Hughes said in the days leading up to the card in Denver, the first for the city since UFC 2 in 1994. "In a perfect world I go out with my hand raised and I'm done. The problem is we're all competitors. You get that win and you just want another one and another one. It's a sickness. You just want to compete. There's no doubt about it."

Losing isn't necessarily a cure for the sickness. Fighters lose, but stick around well past their sell-by date all the time. Why? The inability to say no to a fight. It's about temptation. A decision to compete again could be determined by the UFC. Simply declining to offer Hughes a bout, like Zuffa did with Liddell, might be enough to keep him away.

"Matt never hand-picked any opponents," Miletich said. "He took whomever they put in front of him, he fought them, and beat 95 percent of them. There's something to be said. Out of the thousands of people who tried, he's one of the very few that's done it."

If Josh Koscheck is indeed Hughes' final challenge in the UFC, a span of 25 fights, the wrestler went out boxing. In a cage Hughes dominated from 2002 through 2006 (12 of his 14 fights during this stretch were for the title) the country boy, much to his chagrin, joined up with those losers Liddell, Couture and Gracie.

Hughes considers himself "on the shelf," not "retired," and told UFC president Dana White in the catacombs of the Pepsi Center that he'll visit Las Vegas in a month or so to talk about the future.

Hughes is 37 years old and his body doesn't churn out power like it used to. He has all the money he needs, and is guaranteed entry into the UFC Hall of Fame VIP lounge, where, Liddell can tell you, "getting paid to do nothing" is the only membership criteria.

"I'm pretty sure he's going to hang it up without saying 'retiring,'" surmised White.

Saying the word doesn't mean much, either. As a poor example, Miletich made an unassuming comeback of his own on Saturday. Flanked by Robbie Lawler, Jeremy Horn and Matt Pena, Miletich helped coach Hughes from the corner for the first time in years. Long removed from the days when Bettendorf, Iowa, was the center of the MMA universe.

Weeks earlier, Hughes invited Miletich to Hillsboro, Ill., which long ago recognized the former welterweight champion with a billboard of his own. It was like old times in the gym and familiar feelings from those championship days fueled practice.

"You miss the camaraderie and the intensity of it all," Miletich said before the fight. "Those are the best things about it. It's the one thing I've always missed and it will be good to feel that again."

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.

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