When Chuck Liddell tore a hamstring while training for a June 7 bout in London, UFC president Dana White called Matt Hughes and asked if he'd be willing to step in on short notice.
"We're alike in that we always do what the UFC wants," Hughes, 34, said of him and Liddell. "Chuck didn't even want to pull out of the fight and Dana made him."
Fighting 24-year-old Thiago Alves (14-3), a rising welterweight representing American Top Team, Hughes said he wanted to help his promoter's latest pay-per-view, which airs live in the United States on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
Speaking over the phone Monday while driving from his hometown of Hillsboro, Ill., to St. Louis, Miss., where in just a few short hours Hughes (42-6) was departing for the United Kingdom, the multiple-time 170-pound champion said he liked the idea of fighting Alves. "That's why I took the fight," Hughes said.
Gross: Had you ever considered Thiago Alves as an opponent?
Hughes: No, I've never considered him as an opponent, but to be honest, I really don't consider anybody an opponent. Whatever the UFC wants to do.
Gross: You've never been compelled to fight anybody?
Hughes: No, I don't think so. I do want to fight [Matt] Serra because we've not fought since the reality show, and they know that, so I think that's next. But, no, I've never really asked for anybody.
Gross: Did it make it easier to take this fight against Alves knowing you were going to get Serra either way?
Hughes: Yeah, definitely. And that's the first thing I asked, "Hey, do I get Serra after this?" And Dana said yes. So that eased my mind.
Gross: What's interesting to you about fighting Serra?
Hughes: Just more unfinished business. It's the fight people want to see. I always get people telling me they want to see me kick Matt Serra's butt. And I don't like the fact what I heard and saw on the reality show [The Ultimate Fighter] either. I guess I've got an interest in fighting.
Gross: You've seen the evolution and the growth of this game. What have been some of the best things in terms of the sport's growth for you personally, and some of the negatives?
Hughes: Well, the growth is definitely [bringing] a broader spectrum of fans, which means I have more fans for me, more fans against me. There's more people paying for the UFC, which, in turn, puts more money in my pocket. So those are all positives. There's more money to be made now by not fighting, by sponsorships, endorsements, appearances, Web site sales, stuff like that. The bad thing is I'm not used to leaving my family or my hometown.
Gross: Does it amaze you how much the fans strive to get close to you, how much interest there is? Does that impress you at all?
Hughes: It doesn't impress me. I'm still kind of scratching my head about it because I always just see myself as the kid from Hillsboro that grew up on the west side of town on the farm. There's nothing really special about me. I seem to be good at my occupation and people want to see what makes me good, but I'm light. I'm just like everybody else.
Gross: Do you really enjoy this now?
Hughes: Yes, I do enjoy it because I'm around a good group of guys. So when I'm traveling, I'm with them, so that's very pleasurable to me. But I don't care about the record books or what I've done. I do care about what my kids are going to read when they get older, and what they're going to watch on TV. So that's a driving force behind me. I've got a 21-month-old little baby girl that when she turns 4 or 5 she's gonna start to understand what daddy did, and I'd like that to be very positive.
Gross: What's driving you to continue fighting?
Hughes: That's what I do. I'm a fighter, and I'm not really concerned with retirement right now. It hasn't really crossed my mind that much. I've got two more fights left on this contract, and for sure I'll fight these two fights out and probably do more of that. I've always had the idea of bumping up to 185 to face Anderson [Silva]. So if I win these next two fights, there's a chance I will bump up.
Gross: What do you think about the fighters who have voiced their displeasure with the UFC and haven't had, necessarily, the kind of relationship you have with Dana?
Hughes: The UFC wouldn't be where it's at without this reality show they've got. But also it's shown fighters that there's an easy way into the UFC. Now you've got fighters with less than 10 fights in the UFC, and before that was just kind of unheard of. I had 27 fights before I got in the UFC and knew my hard work got me there. Now fighters are somewhat inexperienced and young and immature in the sport.
Gross: If you want to elaborate on that ...
Hughes: Society is getting lazier and lazier. And you're getting more of the computer-aged kids the parents are getting them whatever they want. If you drive through my high school parking lot, right now you're going to see better vehicles than I drive. Back when I was going to school I drove a 15-year-old truck that had three or four dents in it, and wasn't anything to look at. So, society is just changing on us: Lazier and pampered.
Gross: And you see a similarity with some of the younger fighters coming up, that they expect to make the big payday, that all of that should be there for them already?
Hughes: I've never been the guy that said "Chuck Liddell is making this, I need this." I never said "Tito's getting this, I want this." I never said "Randy's getting this, I want this." Whatever other people made, I didn't care. I didn't want my paycheck to be a reflection on whatever they're making. I'm a totally different fighter than they were, in a different weigh class than they were, so I understand And I think a lot of the fighters now are comparing what some of us are getting and wanting that as well.
Gross: So if it's not measured by what your peers are making, how do you define your worth when you're out there looking for a deal?
Hughes: The first contract in the UFC, I took whatever they gave me. That was around the first Carlos [Newton] fight, and from then on I just built up. Lucky for me I put some good wins in there, so after every contract I went up and up and up. I got to where I'm at through hard work, not through begging and pleading for it. I pretty much went in there and offered a deal and they said yes.
Gross: In terms of Thiago Alves: pretty good striker, maybe a decent sprawl, but I would expect that you feel your advantages are in the wrestling and takedown game.
Hughes: I definitely think my advantage will be takedowns and the ground game. He is an eight-point striker, that is quick. It's one of those where I've fought this type of guy a thousand times. ... This seems to be a style I do well against.
Gross: Do you see any similarities between him and St. Pierre, or are they totally different?
Hughes: I think they're totally different in that St. Pierre's wrestling is so much better. What St. Pierre does a really good job with is mixing his wrestling with his striking, so there's no one in the sport that does it as well as St. Pierre.
Gross: Physically, how have you held up? How do you feel your body will hold up as you start considering walking away and doing other things with your life?
Hughes: Right now I'm extremely healthy. I've been lifting a lot of weights. Been doing cardio like I should. For this fight I've trained three times a day instead of just twice. I'm now finding that I'm training smarter rather than harder. I'm getting a lot more progress. When I get a break between fights I take some time off. I let my body heal. I don't spar in those breaks. To be honest, I don't spar a whole lot. I do hit a lot of pads and spar a little bit, I just don't want those bumps and bruises that you get from sparring hard.
Gross: Do you think you miss something from not sparring?
Hughes: I think I do probably miss a little bit, but you've got to remember my roots are G&P, so I just don't want to trick myself into becoming a stand-up artist. I want to know where I'm at, who I am, and what I'm going to do in there.
Gross: Training and creating professional fighters at your gym in Granite City, Ill., is that something you're interested in doing moving forward?
Hughes: I like to coach. I like to try and help guys out. If I had a space that rented for free, I'd probably hold classes -- if I didn't have a gym, I just had a space -- I would probably hold classes for free because I like to help people get better.