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During his reign in the UFC at the turn of the century, Matt Hughes served as the No. 1 pound-for-pound mixed martial artist in the world. He held the welterweight title for four years and set a UFC record defending his title seven times. 

Hughes was so respected, he was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2010 before he officially retired in 2013. Then, in 2017, a train accident left Hughes in a coma and near death. Three years later, the ultimate fighter has fought back and made a miraculous recovery.

Matt Hughes had one of the best careers in UFC history

Retired UFC fighter Matt Hughes speaks during a panel discussion at the 2016 UFC Fan Expo
UFC fighter Matt Hughes in 2016 | David Becker/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Hughes made his MMA professional debut in 1998. He suffered his first defeat that same year but didn’t lose again for another two years. One of those losses came in 2000 during Hughes’ UFC debut at UFC 29. It was a bad first impression. 

The Hillsboro, Illinois native made up for his poor first performance almost a year later as he captured the UFC Welterweight Championship in UFC 34, defeating Carlos Newton via a second-round knockout. Hughes took on all comers and defended his welterweight title five times in the next three years. 

After losing his title to B.J. Penn in early 2004, Matt Hughes reclaimed the welterweight title later that year. He proceeded to defend it a couple of more times late into 2006. As is often the case for aging fighters, Hughes struggled toward the end of his career. Although he retired in 2013, his official last fight happened in 2011. Hughes finished his career with an impressive 45-9 record.

The accident that changed Matt Hughes’ life forever

On June 16, 2017, Matt Hughes was driving down a backcountry road in Raymond, Illinois. As Hughes attempted to cross a railroad track just before 11 am, reports, a train slammed into the passenger side of his truck. Medics airlifted Hughes from the accident scene to a hospital in Springfield, Illinois, where UFC President Dana White indicated the UFC fighter had suffered a “severe head trauma.”

At the hospital, doctors put Hughes in a medically-induced coma because his brain was bleeding. He remained hospitalized for almost a month as he recovered from his injuries. Hughes later learned from doctors that he should’ve died or had what’s known as “locked-in syndrome,” a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for vertical eye movements and blinking.

After defying death, Hughes began the slow recovery process, which included learning how to perform daily functions like brushing his teeth and walking.

Hughes updates fans on his recovery


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On the three-year anniversary of the accident, Hughes provided a status update on Instagram, comparing his condition just days after the accident to where he is today. His thoughtful message explained what he endured the last several years. Although he was improving, Hughes said it was a daily struggle — not uncommon for those who suffer a traumatic brain injury. “I got complacent. I wasn’t noticing any big improvements. I was depressed, I felt like a burden, I felt worthless, and I would pray for God to take me,” he wrote. 

As a top world-class athlete, Hughes said he knew his body well but had no knowledge of the brain and all its intricacies:

“I still have a long way to go and I still have days where I get extremely sad and down, but I refuse to accept ‘this is as good as it’s going to get.’ If you are caring for someone with a brain injury, please be patient with them. Please don’t pick arguments or be overly critical. Educate yourself about the injury before you assume we are just being difficult for no reason.”

These days, Hughes trains his young-adult son in MMA fighting. It’s not clear if he is still married to his wife with whom he shares two daughters. His Instagram contains no pictures of her, but it does show off the many events and people Hughes has met on his way back to full health.