UFC Strawweight Sam Hughes: From the Track to the Cage

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Sam Hughes and Tecia Torres, UFC 256
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 12: (R-L) Sam Hughes punches Tecia Torres in their women's strawweight bout during the UFC 256 event at UFC APEX on December 12, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC strawweight Sam Hughes has always had a competitive side to her.

Hughes (5-2) found her way into mixed martial arts in a roundabout way. “It was kind of coincidental,” Hughes told Caegside Press recently. At Wofford College for her undergraduate studies, she’d run track and field and cross country. When she made the move to the University of South Carolina to pursue her masters, “I actually helped coach their track team, because I was a steeple chaser at the time.”

But after graduation, Hughes took a job in the finance world, which took her to Seattle. “I was probably working at that job for about six to eight months, and just going to the gym. Like a local, L.A. Fitness or Gold’s Gym. And I got really tired of just working out, running, just doing it recreationally.”

Hughes’ competitive side was tugging at her. Then a friend spoke up, and asked about combat sports. “Do you ever want to learn how to do jiu-jitsu or fight?” The friend invited her to Catalyst Fight House, in Everett, Washington.

Do you ever want to learn how to do jiu-jitsu or fight?

Hughes took him up on the offer. “I did my first kickboxing class, and I totally fell in love with it. I was like ‘oh my god, this is amazing.'” After nine months of training, the gym’s head coach and owner, Eddie Grant, approached her to ask about whether she wanted to compete, or just stick with classes.

Hughes’ response showed her competitive nature. “‘I would like to actually get in a fight, I’ve never got in a fight before.'” From there, said Hughes, it was history. “I was hooked. I love to compete,” she said. “It’s just in my blood.”

And, as she put it later, “I found my new love in this sport.”

Having embarked on her amateur career in 2016, Hughes soon began to have trouble finding opponents. “After you start to make a little bit of a name for yourself as an amateur, you find that these girls around here on the regional scene don’t want to fight you anymore.” Which led to some frequent flyer miles and assorted excursions. “Coach and I ended up traveling to Hawaii, we went to Canada a couple of times. We went down to Texas, South Carolina— we had to get off the I-5 corridor for anyone to fight us.”

All that said, Hughes hadn’t planned on turning pro in 2019. Instead, she wound up making the jump due to one specific opponent. “It was really weird. My last amateur fight that I had was against this girl named Melanie McIntyre. Once she lost, she was really upset, and said ‘I want a rematch against Sam, but I don’t want it to be as an amateur, I want it to be as a pro.'”

Hughes, having just “kicked her ass for five rounds,” liked the idea just fine. Then, McIntyre pulled out of the fight. Hughes wound up making her debut a month later, submitting another debuting fighter, Kyla Frajman. So in that sense, it all worked out — and led to four straight wins for “Sampage.” Which took her to a title fight in LFA last year against Vanessa Demopoulos.

Road to the UFC

A lot of MMA fans probably remember that LFA 85 fight due to Demopoulos’ inverted triangle submission, which won her the belt. But months later, it was Hughes, not Demopoulos, competing in the UFC.

“I reflect on that fight quite a bit. That, and the Tecia Torres fight,” admits Hughes. “I do believe that, I think the UFC were already looking at me going into that title fight with Vanessa Demopoulos.” As to what went wrong that night, Hughes believes that “for whatever reason, I think I got a little bit cocky, or I started feeling like I was a little bit invincible, and then got caught. But I think the UFC basically wants you to put yourself out there. I’m not a fighter that just goes to decision. I think as a pro, I’ve gone to decision one time. I’ve got a bunch of finishes on my record, I think that’s what they wanted.”

Hughes admits to some heartbreak after that title fight loss. But she does feel that everything happens for a reason. “It’s not always my plan, but it’s the way things are supposed to happen.”

One win later, however, and Hughes got the call to fight Tecia Torres on short notice at UFC 256. A tall order, given Hughes didn’t get a full fight camp, and was taking on a 115lb mainstay. So after an incidental eye poke that led to a doctor’s stoppage loss, Hughes feels that her next fight will be her real UFC debut.

While she felt confident ahead of the Torres bout, “that whole week, I didn’t have much time to focus on the fight. There was media, there was cutting weight, I had 17lbs to lose in five days. I was trying to juggle a lot of balls. I think for this next one, once Mick Maynard tells me ‘hey this is the fight, this is who it’s going to be, you’ve got six weeks,’ that’s when I’m really going to shock people. People are going to be like ‘okay, she really deserves to be here, she is somebody that is going to be fighting for top 15, eventually top 10, and down the road, that title fight.”

Of course, stepping in against Torres on short notice, Hughes really had nothing to lose. “She was fighting in the UFC before I even walked into the gym that I’m currently at right now. I think about that a lot. I’ve come a long way in five years, and now I’m in the UFC, within five and a half years of training.” Which gives Sam Hughes confidence in herself, and coach Grant. “I know I’ve got a long way ahead of me, but I’m excited for the road ahead.”

That road is still being charted. Hughes is waiting for her next assignment, though she knows it likely won’t be someone with the profile of Torres.

“I think for my next fight, I would assume Mick and Dana, they’re probably looking at more of a realistic fight for me. Somebody that’s just come in, like Kay Hansen or Cory McKenna,” Hughes suggested. “I think I’ll probably get a match-up like that.”

But even having done a short notice fight once, she’d step up again. “I’m always game for a short notice fight. Depending on who the opponent is, yeah, no problem at all,” Hughes said. Although she would like a proper camp. “I would hope they would be a little bit nicer to me, and give me six weeks,” she said with a laugh. “Four to six weeks is perfect, that’s all I need.”

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