To Wake Up a Champion

Ian Hanes

About a week ago news broke the UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes had been critically injured when his car was struck by a train. In the days following the accident, he has stabilized but remains unresponsive. At the time of writing, he has been transported for evaluation to the nation’s leading hospital for brain trauma. Needless to say, he’s in the best of hands, and we all wish him a full and speedy recovery. Hughes retired from competition in 2011 so I admittedly hadn’t thought much about him in the past few years. After being inducted into the Hall of Fame he was given a position as a VP of Athlete Development and Government Relations with the UFC. In my opinion this job was basically a “thank you for your service” type of deal, similar to my alma mater paying Vince Young six figures to show up for fundraisers and shake hands. But before retreating into relative obscurity he was not only one of the most dominant welterweights in the world, but the participant in perhaps the strangest moment in UFC history.

In the early 2000’s there was one gym in Bettendorf, Iowa that was known for producing the best fighters on the scene. Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) produced 5 different UFC champions at a time where there were only 6 divisions (as opposed to the 11 the organization owns today). In 1998 Pat Miletich, the founder of MFS, won the inaugural UFC welterweight title by way of a controversial split decision. Despite the contentious start to his UFC tenure, his next four title defenses were dominant. He erased any doubt that was conjured from the night he claimed his crown. While reigning over the UFC’s 170-pound division, he was also training elite fighters like Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver, and Robbie Lawler (all of whom would go on to hold a UFC title). Despite training partners of that caliber, Miletich would lose his welterweight belt in 2001 to Carlos Newton. Newton was a 3rd degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and was always both a fan favorite and submission master. In fact, he submitted Miletich with a bulldog choke, a submission that no other fighter has landed inside the octagon before or since. Fortunately for Miletich, he would quickly get the chance for retribution through his protégé Matt Hughes.

Six months after defeating Miletich and capturing 12 pounds of UFC gold, Newton squared off against Matt Hughes, a fighter who was primarily a wrestler. Many thought that because Hughes had such a propensity to put his opponents on their backs Newton would have every opportunity to catch him in a submission. After a dominant first round for Hughes, that’s exactly what happened. To open the second frame, Hughes quickly took Newton down and landed in his guard. One minute later Newton had secured a triangle choke, but this is where things get weird. In a display of extraordinary strength, Hughes picked up Newton (who was still executing the choke) and walked him over to the side of the cage. Hughes leaned Newton’s back on the cage and stood strong for about fifteen seconds before he collapsed. Hughes had been choked unconscious. Newton had successfully defended his title.

Or at least that’s what should’ve happened. Hughes did collapse. He was choked out. But when his legs gave out, Newton’s head bounced against the mat on his way down. Immediately he released the choke. Newton had been knocked out. Initially, fans assumed that Hughes had picked up and slammed Newton. Referee Big John McCarthy (widely regarded as the best referee in MMA) probably thought the same thing. The one thing fans knew for sure was that Newton was knocked out; the announcers shouted, “He’s out! He’s out! Matt Hughes has knocked out Carlos Newton!” But here’s where things get controversial, Matt Hughes did not get up and celebrate like you would expect. In fact he didn’t do anything. Big John had to wake Hughes up and physically move him off Newton. In fact, for about 10 seconds after the fight, Hughes glanced around with a thousand yard stare having no idea what had just happened. What happened was the most bizarre ending to a fight in the history of the UFC. Matt Hughes went to sleep and woke up a champion.

The two would fight again less than a year later, this time without controversy (Hughes won by TKO in the 4th round). Hughes would go on to be a seven time Champion (with 5 defenses coming consecutively) while beating some of the best fighters the sport has ever seen (such as BJ Penn, Georges St Pierre, and Royce Gracie) before being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame and retiring with a record of 45 wins and 9 losses. Newton would continue to be a fan favorite but ultimately see mixed amounts of success before retiring in 2010.

While both men were instrumental in shaping the landscape of MMA in its early stages, both are largely remembered for things other than their fight, which I think is a bit of a disservice to their fans. Certainly this fight is not the greatest achievement for either man, but it is without a doubt one of the most curious endings the sport has ever seen.