Taking Inspiration From Dominick Cruz, Paul Hughes Envisions Himself As A Champion By 2020

Almost 2 years after one of the most impressive professional debuts in Irish MMA history, Paul Hughes is ready to return to the cage.

SevereMMA’s Sean Sheehan spoke to the Northern Irish prospect this weekend about the extensive list of injuries that have kept the 20-year-old side-lined, how he spent the time off traveling the world, his mental approach, and what’s next now that Hughes has a clean bill of health.

When asked about the specific injuries he has faced, Hughes detailed the 4 hand breaks he has endured. The initial fracture occurred during his professional MMA debut, a first round knockout win over Adam Gustab at BAMMA 28 in Belfast.

Coming off such an emphatic debut win, a broken hand is never a good scenario. But despite it being the 1st hand break, it wouldn’t be the last, which Hughes would soon find out.

“It would have been February two years ago. One hand break then, in my left hand. It was actually the shot that initially dropped my opponent.” Hughes detailed. 

“Since that (initial break), three hand breaks on my right hand on the first metacarpal. So, four hand breaks in the space of two years pretty much. Absolute nightmare injuries really.”

“The left hand healed up, and as I was preparing for another fight – I was supposed to fight Patrick Wixted at BAMMA in Dublin – I broke the right hand. Then as I came back and healed up and was sparring again for the next one, the same thing happened. It mustn’t have healed correctly.”

After suffering a 3rd break to one of his hands, Hughes decided to prolong his recovery period this time around.

“I took the correct time I was told by doctors and by the fracture clinic. So, I took the 6 months before I started contact and started sparring again with it. At that stage I hadn’t had any surgery, it was all just natural healing.”

Despite the prolonged recovery time, it wouldn’t be long before Hughes was yet again staring down the road to recovery. In just his first sparring session back from injury, while getting some work in with fellow Northern Ireland pro, Rhys “Skeletor” McKee, it was déjà vu for Hughes. Another broken right hand, and his description of the scene portrays a scene of immense frustration and anguish.

“I just remember, I was actually sparring with Rhys McKee at the time up in his gym. I remember just falling in the middle of the ring and just crying. Just crying my eyes out for about…mate, all these fighters in the gym sparring, and me sitting there in the ring crying my eyes out. I remember thinking that was it. I thought my career was over.’

Hughes credits his physiotherapist Paul McCormack for putting him in contact with the ‘leading hand surgeon in Ireland’. A week after the most recent break to his right hand, Hughes received an x-ray, and within 2 weeks he received surgery to repair the broken hand.

“I’ve now got a plate and 3 screws in my hand and it’s been surgically repaired.”

After being told to take a full year out of sport, Hughes now faced an uphill battle both physically, in getting back to full fitness, while sharpening his skillset for a return to action, and also mentally. It is the mentality aspect that appears to be the driving force behind Hughes’ route back to the cage. Despite not being able to train, Hughes decided to approach his recovery by developing other areas he could make an impact on.

“That’s why I went to Australia. I was told I couldn’t fight until 2019. I thought, look, I’m not waiting around Ireland doing nothing. Let’s travel the world a bit more, get more experience, develop as a person and then just, when I’m back I’m back.’

Hughes spent 8 months in Australia, 2 months in Thailand and 3 months in the United States of America, training in each of the countries, which he described as ‘just living the martial arts lifestyle’. Hughes didn’t have any trouble finding an appropriate calibre of training partners to learn from, and compete with either.

“I was training with Gilbert Melendez at El Nino, in San Francisco. Training with them guys for 3-4 months. That was probably the most impressive training I’ve had.”

“Being able to spar and train with Gilbert Melendez every day, that was a hell of an experience. He was preparing for Jeremy Stephens at the time, so me and him were doing a lot of sparring. He thought I was a similar style to Stephens, sort of like coming forward, switch-hitting, heavy shots. So, I’d say that was a good experience anyway.”

While cross-training globally has provided Hughes with new perspectives physically, he also takes a lot of inspiration from the likes of Dominic Cruz, when it comes to the mental side of dealing with the injuries, and the down-time has afforded him opportunities to focus on other aspects of the fight game.

“Although I have been injured, with hand injuries you’re in a cast for maybe 6 weeks max. There’s an awful lot I can still do in that time.” Hughes explained.

“When I’m back, I can grapple. So not only mentally, watching fights, I’ve actually improved an incredible amount for someone who has been injured. I’m watching tape all the time. Pretty much every day. It’s just sort of my entertainment; coming home and not watching Netflix, but watching fights.”

“Dominic Cruz has been one of my biggest inspirations and motivations for coming back from injury.”

“I think he had like 3 full ACL reconstructions, a groin tear and some little niggles, and he came back and beat TJ DIllashaw in a 25-minute, 5-round fight for the title. And (Cruz) is well on in terms of his age. I was 19 when I had my last fight! I’ve got so, so, much time. That was a big motivating factor for me, just like, if he can do it, why the hell can’t I?”

It is clear that Hughes is certainly in the right frame of mind mentally, with regards to approaching his comeback to professional MMA, but the questions on many people’s minds are whether he is ready physically, and what can fans expect from the breakout star in his return?

“I’m back full-contact sparring. I’m looking for a fight. I’m ready.”

As far as where a potential fight make take place, that aspect is uncertain. Hughes is currently a free agent, despite previously fighting for BAMMA.

“I’m not currently signed to anybody.” Hughes said.

“I’ve been talking to some promotions. But, at the minute it looks like (with) the bigger fights…I might not be getting a bigger fight until April.”

“But I definitely want something in March. I’m talking to a couple of the local shows at the minute, and I’m actually trying to get a match on a couple of the local shows. That would be early March. That’s the game plan. That’s what I’ve set my mind towards. 4 weeks’ time, 5 weeks’ time. That’s when my body will be peaking. I’ve been in fight camp…in my eyes I’ve been in fight camp for 2 years.

“Everything I’ve been doing has been leading up to this moment. I’ve never stopped training ever. Regardless of the hand breaks, I’ve always been doing something. I’ve always been watching fights. It’s pretty much all I do with my life. I literally don’t care about anything else. Just to be able to come back now, is…I’m just going to come back with a bang. I know what’s going to happen and I just can’t wait.’

It’s easy to forget that Hughes is just one fight into his professional career. His famous performance against Adam Gustab was over in just over 90 seconds. And despite having 8 amateur fights to his name, it will be that 90 second barrage of striking that fans will remember. But is Hughes simply a striker? Not if you ask him.

“You can just expect to see the same as last time. I didn’t come out of the fight all guns blazing straight away. I came out of that first fight, I was in front of him. I was picking him off. I was technical, and when the opportunity came, I took it and that will be what you see from me my whole career.”

“I’m technical. I’m very technical. I can go to the ground, I can wrestle. But as soon as I get an opportunity to finish the fight, it’s done. Whether that be on the ground, whether that’s jumping on someone’s back, just like I did at the weekend in a grappling match. I’m going to choke them.’

So, what is next for Paul Hughes? What are his aspirations as he returns to the cage? Widely touted as the next star of Irish MMA after a stellar debut,l. Is it possible for a 20-year-old to come back after 4 broken hands, a 2-year absence from the sport, and to deliver on lofty expectations? Does Paul Hughes have the mental fortitude to deal with such pressure?

“I can put it down simply to this. I remember, I think it was after my 3rd hand break and coming out of the fracture clinic. I felt like my world had been taken away from me. I genuinely did.”

“After just coming off such a win, and just for this to happen. I thought “why me”? Why me? I remember ringing my coach as soon as I got out of the hospital. I just remember ringing him and crying down the phone saying, “I promise you I will be world champion. I promise you that”. And I know that sounds like a bit of a fairy-tale story, but I promise you that happened, and that will stick by me. That will happen.

“It’s just a mental thing I say to myself. I literally say to myself every single day, “world champion”. It’s just a mental cue that I’ve been doing for years now. I don’t know if you’ve seen on my social media, but I’ve been using the hashtag “WorldChampion2020” and I’ve had that in my mind for the last 2 years. This isn’t just some fake bullshit. This is going to happen, and that’s it.

“Regardless of what I came through with injuries, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s going to happen. I’ve trained with the best in the world. I know how well I do against them. It’s just the way it’s going to be.’

“First of all, I need someone to fight me in March. Because I can’t get a match.”

“I just see any featherweight, not only in Ireland but in Europe, I’m beating them. I know that sounds stupid, but in my mind, I’m beating them.”

“So, anyone they put in front of me, it does not matter. It really does not matter to me, I’m just so mentally strong. I will literally fight any featherweight. Anyone that’s my weight. Anyone that doesn’t have an advantage on me is getting beat, and that’s it.’

And after that then? Hughes quickly sees himself climbing the ranks 

“When I say that I mean more domestic, in terms of something like Cage Warriors, or BAMMA. Well, BAMMA aren’t around anymore, or whatever their craic is. I’m thinking Cage Warriors world champion. That has been my goal. We’ve been talking to promotions. I’ve actually been on the ball and I’ve been looking for any pull-outs that Cage Warriors has, like on their Liverpool card, or their London card. If any featherweight pull-outs are there, I could be jumping in there. Yeah, that’s the goal.”

If there was any ever doubt over Hughes’ mental resilience in the face of adversity, it appears that can be dispelled. His most challenging opponent to date, however, will be his own body. Can he bounce back from a lengthy spell on the side-lines? Will it be a repeat of his electrifying debut performance when he returns? Those questions can only be answered in the cage.

Hughes is certainly a prospect to watch coming out of Ireland, and his comeback fight, under whichever promotional banner it may be, will be one to keep an eye on.

Andy Stevenson is a writer for SevereMMA. He is also an Irish expat currently backpacking the globe, and talks a lot of shite on Twitter.