I really hope this is a figurehead position. I very much hope that.
Allow me to introduce you to the first and second thoughts to enter my head after hearing Thursday that UFC President Dana White had announced that former welterweight champion and Hall of Famer Matt Hughes would retire from the Octagon and become the UFC’s new vice president of athlete development and government relations.
After digesting the news for a few days, I’m still having the same thoughts. I’ve never met Hughes in person. I can only base opinions on his public face (a pretty important face, if you ask me). But based on that, I feel I know a little. I've also spent many years working in and around Washington, D.C., and as such have a pretty good feel for the typical requirements of this kind of job.
Hughes is a great fighter and a smart guy. He's striving to live his life the right way, and I have nothing but respect for that. Hughes has had an illustrious fight career, and he deserves to do whatever he likes in his hard-earned retirement. But because of his personal disposition, I believe he could wind up doing his employers more harm than good in this capacity. That's why Hughes, to me, doesn't feel like a natural for this role. To be honest, it's an out-and-out head scratcher.
But first, the nuts and bolts. According to the UFC, front office Hughes will serve as a mentor to the promotion’s approximately 400 fighters and help implement a new conduct policy.
“If somebody does something that makes headlines in the wrong way, yes, I could be called in to talk to them,” Hughes told Bleacher Report in an interview following the announcement. “If there’s a disagreement between the UFC and the fighter, whether it’s taking a fight or doing this or doing that, I’ll step in and digest what’s going on and talk to both parties.”
On the government relations side, it seems he’ll be called in to help encourage or discourage various MMA-related rules or pieces of legislation.
“Most of my regulatory [business] is going to be with state legislatures, New York, California,” Hughes said. “Whoever’s doing something that’s trying to pass a bill that’s not helping out any promoter, I’ll probably be there.”
So if I’m reading between the lines correctly, Hughes will be a kind of enforcer. He’s The Wolf from Pulp Fiction. Matt Hughes will solve problems. WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.
But that stance can be problematic when you’re dealing with something as intricate and delicate as a government rulemaking process or the psyche of a 25-year-old man who gets into fights for a living.
But hey, maybe I’m missing something. What reason does Dana White give for hiring his friend to this role?
“There were always a few guys that I knew that I could count on and Matt Hughes was one of those guys.” White said last week during a press conference for UFC on Fox 6 that was covered by Bleacher Report. “There’s a laundry list of things, he was a guy that I always knew that if I picked up the phone and I needed something, Matt Hughes never said no.”
So Hughes is a loyal, reliable company man. That’s not a very reassuring reason. But what's less reassuring is that Hughes doesn't seem like a political animal. Hughes' personal politics are open, fierce and deeply held. That certainly doesn't disqualify someone from the job; far from it. But problems can arise when you can't separate the personal from the professional or you display a low tolerance for differing perspectives, all while locked into a job that requires you to convince dissenters to support your agenda.
In other words, I'm comfortable assuming Hughes has the intellectual makeup for the job. I’m thinking more about his character traits. A government relations professional (or lobbyist, if you prefer) needs to walk a fine line between determination and diplomacy. Unfortunately, in the government world you can’t choke your opponent into submission, and you can’t preach only to friendly choirs.
If star power is the hook here, well, nothing doing. No one should expect Hughes to saunter into a caucus room, hook his thumbs into his championship belt and bend the doubters to his will. Especially since a huge majority outside MMA circles have probably never heard of Matt Hughes.
Similar principles apply to the eminently human endeavor of mentoring. Here’s a guy in Hughes who unapologetically relayed stories in his autobiography about cheating on exams in college, bullying those who were smaller or more passive than he was and just generally being a misanthrope. Let’s also not forget that Hughes doesn’t have a spotless record himself, or a reputation for consistently stellar tactical judgement.
I’m not writing this to judge Matt Hughes or anyone else. As I’m sure he’d be quick to point out, I’m just a nobody playing Monday morning quarterback from the moderate comfort of my cut-rate couch. But to do a job like this well, you have to play well with others. When has Matt Hughes ever given the impression that’s something he enjoys or is good at doing?
Bottom line: A profession as easily misunderstood as mixed martial arts doesn’t need another blunt instrument shaping its public image.
With professional MMA fights not yet legal in all 50 states and fighters routinely turning up on the police blotter and gossip sites, White and the UFC need as strong a presence in these areas as possible. But these thorny problems aren’t solved by tough talk alone. You need someone who can be fair-minded and discerning. In the public domain anyway, Matt Hughes hasn’t shown he can be either.
I just hope this is a figurehead position.
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