Paul Hughes talks long-awaited free agency, grudge match with ‘absolute shitebag’ Paddy Pimblett

Paul Hughes is finally an MMA free agent.

The 27-year-old Irishman completed the final bout of his Cage Warriors contract on Saturday with a first-round knockout of Fabiano Silva at Cage Warriors 170. Now, after a five-year, nine-fight run with the U.K.-based promotion that saw him emerge as one of the top lightweight prospects in the world, Hughes is ready to graduate to the big leagues.

“That chapter is done,” Hughes said Monday on The MMA Hour.

“I’ve done so much with Cage Warriors and they’ve built my career. I’ve had so many big nights. I’ve won the title years ago against [Morgan] Charriere, unified it. I’ve been there, done that years ago. And the fact that I’m still here at this point is probably a surprise to everybody, myself and Cage Warriors included. So no, there was nothing about re-signing [with Cage Warriors]. It was just a case of, ‘We’re going to let this guy move on.’”

Hughes is 11-1 in his professional MMA career and avenged his only loss in 2022 when he defeated Jordan Vucenic to unify the Cage Warriors featherweight titles. Hughes then moved up to lightweight and scored back-to-back first-round knockouts, the most recent of which came against Silva. He plans to continue competing at 155 pounds moving forward.

Hughes said Monday that PFL and Bellator offered him a deal after his October win over Jan Quaeyhaegens, but he was unable to “get the release granted” by Cage Warriors owner Graham Boylan. Now, however, the former Cage Warriors featherweight champion is free to pursue any and all opportunities that come his way — and he does so with renewed purpose after learning firsthand just how fleeting an athlete’s window in MMA can be.

“Look, I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want to leave this game with no money and a lot of brain damage,” Hughes said. “That’s what I don’t want. Recently — very, very recently — a teammate of mine and a very good friend, Ryan Curtis, which I think you’ve covered on the show, got severely, severely injured just beside me on the training mats. I was there with them until the ambulance arrived and I’ve visited him many times.

“When something like that happens so close to home, it really, really makes you assess things even further. Because even talking to Ryan just last week before the fight, we were just catching up about it all and he was just saying to me, like, when something like that happens, he was just thinking to himself, ‘But why does it have to be me that this happens to? You know, you hear about these things happening and all that, but why me? I’m the one lying here now. I can’t move. I can’t move my arms and legs. Why does it have to be me?’ And Ryan’s got a family, and he’s just an unbelievable guy that has everything going for him. And then just like that, one training night, just a normal Thursday night, everything changed. And he’s given his life to this game.

“I’ve also given my life to this game at this point — and I want to have something to show for it. And I deserve to have something to show for it. All fighters that put their ass out there deserve to have something to show for it, and they deserve to get their value. So that’s where I’m at right now. I feel, I just want to have something to show, man. I feel like I have all the potential in the world to be this superstar in the world of MMA. I feel I’m good enough right now, skill-wise. But beyond that, I believe I have all the tools, and I just, I want to capitalize on it. And I want to want to set myself up, for sure.”

As a blue-chip talent in one of the sport’s marquee divisions, Hughes will almost certainly be a coveted name in free agency. While some prospects in his position in the past have spurned more lucrative offers from secondary promotions to chase the fame and notoriety that comes with competing in the UFC, Hughes refuses to undermine his own worth.

“Honestly, I’m open to everything, man,” Hughes said. “As I say, I had to do a deep dive and I had to ask myself, is it fame that I want? Is it just clout? Is it to say that I’m in the UFC? And to be honest, I don’t give a bollocks about that. I just turned 27 last week. I’m not that 21-, 22-year-old kid that has this dream of owning the UFC and I want to say I’m a UFC fighter.

“I’m at the stage now where I’ve had a lot of big nights in my career, I’ve done a lot of big things, and it’s not just about saying, ‘Oh, I fight in the UFC.’ Me, right now, the No. 1 thing [is] being the best fighter on the planet. There’s nothing to say I can’t do that. I can do that anywhere. I can still be the best fighter on the planet. But I need to get my value.”

If Hughes does end up in the UFC, however, there’s a familiar name there already making plenty of noise in the lightweight division that he wouldn’t mind getting a crack at.

Hughes and Liverpool’s own Paddy Pimblett crossed paths plenty of times during their days under the Cage Warriors umbrella, and it’s safe to say Hughes isn’t the biggest Pimblett fan.

“He’s shitebag, mate. He’s an absolute shitebag,” Huges said. “He has been since Cage Warriors days. To be honest, I’m not a huge one for beefs and all that. I only do it when it’s legit, it’s not no fix-up. But I just think he’s always had a stinking attitude as well, being around him in the Cage Warriors days coming up. I’ve just never really seen eye-to-eye with him, to be honest. And I think what he’s doing — I mean, his fights in the UFC — very, very poor. I genuinely believe, as I said [on Instagram], that I’d beat him with one hand. And he’s a shitebag. So [that’s] absolutely a fight that I want down the line or would be open to.”

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