Featherweight prospect Paul Hughes, at just twenty years of age, is a man on a mission. Following a show stealing performance on Belfast’s BAMMA 28, Hughes has emerged as one of the most exciting prospects from the island of Ireland, in addition to being a full-time student and working part-time in the service industry. Hughes has set himself a goal of being a champion on the European MMA scene in the next two to three years, and even from our brief chat it is obvious that Hughes has the mind-set needed to bring that goal to fruition.
Hughes took his most recent fight in BAMMA against undefeated Polish prospect Adam Gustab on just two weeks’ notice and delivered a stunning knockout in just one minute and 32 seconds. His performance caught the attention of media members and fans alike, and it was clear from several conversations overheard that MMA fans were excited by Hughes’ performance. Hughes called his BAMMA debut ‘a dream come true.’ Hughes added that ‘It couldn’t have went better. I’m very happy with the performance.’ When first asked by Head Coach Dave Patterson if was he ready for the bout Hughes gave a firm answer, ‘You’re damn right I’m ready. It was everything I was working for. The big arena show, and the European show suits me to the tee. I absolutely thrive on the audience and the hype. The more hype, the better I perform. There’s plenty more to come.’
‘I’ve always loved watching boxing and MMA growing up, and I’ve always just loved combat.’
Like most of the current Third Wave of Irish MMA fighters, Hughes was able to begin training in specialised MMA classes; ‘I started straight into MMA when I was fifteen.’ Hughes credited a firm work ethic as the base for such a spectacular debut:
I have a growth mindset and I would just improve and improve as much as I could. I would put in extra hours. I would outwork other people and my opponents.
Hughes spoke about his love of all combat sports: ‘I’ve always loved watching boxing and MMA growing up, and I’ve always just loved combat.’ The featherweight also echoed many successful fighters with his love of and passion for the many disciplines involved with MMA: ‘It’s always on my mind. Whenever I’m not training I’m thinking about training.’ When asked about his training, Hughes points to a strong bond with Dave Patterson, a member of the First Wave of Irish MMA, and James McErlean, Hughes’ training partner who featured on the Bellator MMA 173 card on the same night in Belfast.
When asked about his current regimen, Hughes expounded on an emphasis on mutual progression, that everyone on the mats or in the ring can benefit each other. Hughes said he is concentrating ‘how I can improve and be more efficient and more effective in my training.’ When the conversation switches to the topic of fight camps, Hughes was adamant about constant development and year round training:
People that train full time, all the time and dedicate their lives to it are those who are truly passionate about it. And those are the people that will get to the top. When you’re not in a fight camp, you’ve got to expand your arsenal in that time.
Hughes emphasised his work ethic and expounded on the need for smart training. Hughes, who is studying a degree in Sport’s Science, has made it his ambition to become as well-informed on human anatomy as possible. Hughes has organised a training regimen that is benefiting his team-mates as well as himself:
There’s absolutely no such thing as talent when it comes to mixed martial arts. There are physical capabilities that you may be born with … tall or with fast twitch muscle fibres that mean you can punch harder, but apart from physical capabilities everyone is the same. It’s just hard work. People say you’re talented, but no. I put the work in. I work harder than anyone else. That’s the only key ingredient to success in mixed martial arts is hard work. There’s no secret formula.
Preparing the Mind
“I’ll never be mentally broken in a fight, ever. I train too hard for it; push myself too hard.”
From his previous bout with Gustab, it is clear to see that Hughes has well-developed cardio and a finely tuned striking game; his arsenal of accurate combinations, clinch work and devastating knees made short work of an opponent who was seven years his elder.
Despite his tender years, Hughes has developed his own philosophy and mental regimen for preparing for competition:
The main probable cause of error in sport is doubt. So I try to eliminate doubt in every shape and way possible from my mind. And that’s not just fight day, that’s every day. I never once doubt myself.
When asked about his mental preparation, Hughes talked about his consistent use of quiet time for introspective thought: ‘Using techniques like visualisation and I’m a frequent meditator as well. I like to go deep into my thoughts, and understand thoughts; how you can manipulate thoughts.’ As an advocate of cognitive exercises Hughes highlighted the value of visualisation:
Always visualise walking out, having fun on the walk out, and visualising my hand being raised. Whatever happens in there, happens in there. There’s no time to think in there, it’s your subconscious working in there. You’ve just got to believe in the technique that you’re working to get you that win.
When asked whether he had doubts about facing a man seven years his elder, Hughes spoke extensively about his mental toughness: ‘I’m never going to break mentally in there ever, and that’s a great thing to have in the back of your head. No matter what happens, I will not give up.’
The Hughes Method
“I’m a true advocate for the power of positivity in life, and I find MMA is my vehicle for achieving it and other things in life. When my training is going well and I’m performing well, everything else in my life is well.”
During our phone call, Hughes referred to the influence of Gary Vaynerchuk. Hughes, who was happy to discuss the influence of marketing and connecting with fans and the wider public via social media. Hughes’ training regime and daily life can be reached on Twitter (https://twitter.com/paulhughesmma?lang=en) , Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/paulhughesmma/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/paulhughesmma/). Hughes spoke about each fighter’s own responsibility to get noticed by fans (both ardent MMA and casual) and to get people emotionally involved in his journey. His aim at the moment ‘is to create a personal brand and to grow my following on social media. People that are watching this. I want to inspire people through the journey and to motivate people.’
For a fighter to become financially stable they need fans’ backing, and Hughes has realised this at a young age and has developed a sound method for documenting his rise:
And so with my documentation people become emotionally invested in you when they see your content of your journey, they follow you to the top.
It’s a different feeling. If you’ve been following someone for years and they become world champion you’re gonna feel incredibly happy for them. The way I see it is at the end of the day is fighting only gets you so far. You’ve got to have your own brand, you have to be able to market yourself.
Shows are looking for people that are able to market themselves, and make them money. They (the fighters) can increase traffic to their (the promotion’s) audience.
Hughes has implemented a social media strategy that engages MMA and non-MMA fans alike. Hughes spoke extensively about the positive reaction he has received from both fans of MMA and regular gym goers:
I would get messages most days from people, about books, my mind-set and the things I put up on social media pages. I’m documenting my journey to the top. People have become very interested in that. Team-mates as well, as they see my success and they want to know how it’s done.
Hughes comes across increasingly genuine and charismatic as our conversation continues. Hughes highlights his journey as being two-fold, one of personal success and the other is to benefit supporters:
I think it’s (positive mental health practices) something that I want to push on my journey. I want to use my position to influence other people. That’s one of my main goals. World champion is the main goal, but influencing people along the journey by bringing positivity to other people’s lives is something that means a lot to me.
As someone who works with teenagers, I have become more interested in the positive stories and perspectives that fighters bring. Hughes’ practices and mind-set cannot come at a better time for a country that is still reeling from the recession of 2008 to 2014. A recent report conducted by Claire O’Sullivan in the Irish Examiner highlighted that on the island of Ireland, sixty-two percent of teenagers surveyed would rate their current mental health as ‘average’, ‘poor’ or very poor’. It is this audience that Hughes hopes to inspire.
When asked how MMA training differs from regular gym work, Hughes comes into his own. Hughes spoke how the discipline and development he enjoys can benefit people in all aspects of their daily life:
I’m a true advocate for the power of positivity in life, and I find MMA is my vehicle for achieving it and other things in life. When my training is going well and I’m performing well, everything else in my life is well.
It’s different to a physical path, people can be happier (with practicing positivity). People can work out and have a goal, whether that be MMA, boxing, or just going to the gym. If I can push that message across and influence even just one person’s life for the better then that’s all that matters.
Thinking Man’s Sport
“Fighting, as Dominic Cruz once said, is ninety percent mental and ten percent physical, and I truly believe that. It is a mental game. When it gets to the top level it’s the guys that are mentally tough who win.”
Hughes was keen to point out that he is inspired by those who have come back from defeats in some of the most watched bouts in the UFC. He highlighted how both Conor McGregor and Dominic Cruz both won plaudits and popular acclaim for the way they reacted to their respective losses:
I think this sport is going that way (philosophical thought). You can’t be anyone but yourself. Always, always be yourself. I always think you should be yourself, because people will see through any fakeness.
Hughes continues to make sacrifices that he believes are necessary for the development of his career. Hughes described his journey as a journey to be the best Paul Hughes on fight night:
I’m sacrificing my life for this. People don’t understand that when they see a two minute fight and that’s it. People don’t understand I don’t see my friends at all. As a twenty year old kid that’s been training full time for two years. I’ve spent the last two years living like a monk; training and chasing a dream. I’m coming for that world championship. There’s no mistake about it that it’ll take time, but with the rate that I’m progressing and will progress I want that in the next two to three years. All my friends moved to Belfast to study, I stayed home to chase the dream. Pretty much it has been a lonely journey, but it WILL pay off.
Hughes hinted at a forthcoming bout in the summer, but would not divulge any information. Hughes has used visualisation to set goals that are not in line with the typical ’I see myself in five years time … ‘ conversation. Hughes has a sharpened and direct vision that is further developed than more senior fighters:
If shows like Bellator come asking then it’s something I’ll be interested in. But I’m not thinking of four or five years down the road. I’m thinking two to three I’ll be a champion. That’s my goal … on a European promotion. That’s what I’m visualising. People will see. They will find out in the next while how good I am. I’m coming, I’m not in this to fuck around, I’m in there to be world champion.
When asked about his contemporaries, Hughes spoke of many with a high level of respect. When discussing James Gallagher, with whom Hughes shared a fight night in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena, Hughes spoke with a business tone:
Look at what Gallagher’s doing. You can’t take anything away from the man. He’s fought in the 3Arena, Dublin to the Odyssey Arena, Belfast and now to Madison Square Garden on the second biggest MMA show in the world. I like what he’s doing. He hypes his fights. Wouldn’t you do the same if you were in his position? Look at the money that guy is making at twenty years old.
“Nothing worth having comes easy”
As the conversation moved to discussing the future, Hughes spoke openly about his current training program as he seeks to balance full-time study and developing a skill set that will help progress him up the rankings of 145:
A morning MMA or BJJ class, followed by a couple of hours of (college related) study. Then another class, and another class that night. Pretty much two sessions a day, six days a week; on top of being a full-time student and working twenty hours part-time at a bar.
When asked to reflect on his career so far, and to provide a message to our readers, Hughes again displayed a maturity well beyond his years:
My professional debut showed glimpses of the work I have been putting in. I have been giving everything for this and it hasn’t been an easy journey; nothing worth having comes easy. I’ll continue to grind and people will see me at the top very soon.
There is no doubt that Paul Hughes is an interesting character who will continue to develop his efficiency in both physical and mental conditioning. Look for him to takes the next step in his pro MMA career later this year – you can follow his journey on the following social media channels, and watch for updates right here @CombatDocket.
@paulhughesmma on Twitter (https://twitter.com/paulhughesmma?lang=en)
@paulhughesmma on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/paulhughesmma/)
Paul Hughes MMA like page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/paulhughesmma/)