Like a meteorite, he emerged seemingly out of nowhere as one of the fight game’s most exciting, tough-as-nails welterweights and the fans came to love him both as a fighter and as a person with an obvious big heart, full of personality and limitless promise. He was the quintessential blood and guts warrior who always seemed to grab victory from the throes of defeat. His come-from-behind victories over Anthony Stephens, Adrian Stone, and, in his final fight, over Nick Rupa, won him not only the USBA welterweight title, but a huge fan following throughout the boxing world and the ESPN circuit. Big fights were on the horizon and names like Tito Trinidad and Yori Boy Campas were being mentioned. The rumor went that Hector Camacho said, ‘I ain’t fighting that animal.” In boxing parlance, he was a hot property. Hell, he was Gatti before Gatti. He was the ultimate thrill ride.
James “Buddy” McGirt once said, “I remember my fight with him like it was yesterday, He came up to me before the fight and asked for my autograph. He was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, had a chew of tobacco in his mouth and a [spit] cup in his hand. He definitely could have been someone to look out for. He had an awkward style, but he could sure fight.”
Buddy might have added that this tough-as-cob southerner shared something with the likes of Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Bobby Chacon, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Arturo Gatti. He had that knack—that special flair for the dramatic—of coming back from the brink of defeat to take his opponent out in breathtaking fashion.
He was the personification of a good old boy He wore black trunks and high black boxing shoes that accentuated his muscular legs. His only concession to flash was his cowboy hat and a tattoo on his bicep, but he was humble, a great sportsman, and as popular as all get out.
With a no-defense but a non-stop stalking offense, he would take several blows to land one of his heavy-handed straight rights. Only a fool would ever count him out. Hanging tough and knowing precisely how to close off the ring, he would suddenly and dramatically turn the tables at the end. And once he had his opponent hurt, he closed matters decisively, definitively, and frighteningly.
While he was a loving son from a close knit family, he was no saint. He lived his life the way he wanted to — freely, on the edge, and on the dangerous side. Yet, as his boxing success increased, his personal life seemed to stabilize, at least somewhat. Though, as his brother related, “settling down and going to work wasn’t part of his life. He had several jobs, he was one of the best roofers in the county, but that just didn’t appeal to him.” By some accounts, he was also allegedly doing some things in a dangerous, crime ridden area of Mobile, Alabama known as “The Bottoms,” And those alleged things were the sort that can have the most serious of repercussions.
Eric Holland (1994)
“I’d have to rate him one of the five toughest guys I fought…The Philly fans didn’t necessarily like him at first when he entered the ring…But after a couple of rounds they began to like his toughness…The man came to fight—Holland
He became a professional boxer at age 21 on July 13, 1987 against Billy Pryor whom he knocked out in the third round in his hometown of Mobile. His next four opponents met the same fate. After these bouts, he was a bit inconsistent as he learned his trade, but he was extremely exciting, winning some and losing to rugged Canadian Stephane Ouellett, beating undefeated Tocker Pudwill (24-0), and then losing a UD to Eric Holland in a televised closet classic from Philadelphia in August of 1994. (Holland was a deceptive 15-15 at the time; he had wins over Buster Drayton and Lupe Aquino and had fought the stiffest level of opposition.)The fight featured savage head snapping exchanges. Holland, who fought in the Philly style, would never be the same after this mutually malevolent encounter. He finished his career at 22-33-3.Eric won the battle but lost the war—the reverse of what happened to his opponent.
Buddy McGirt (1994)
Things changed for the better on January 4, 1994, when the relative newcomer fought super skilled McGirt (60-3-1) in Florida. Even though he lost a ten round decision, he again won the war as he gained respect from those who witnessed the fight, but more importantly, he gained self-confidence knowing he could compete with somebody as talented as McGirt, who was coming off a win over tough Nick Rupa. I well recall the look on Buddy’s face toward the end of that fight and it was one of extreme caution and fear as he was being stalked until the final bell. I sensed something and so did Buddy and so did the commentators—here was someone to keep an eye on. He was like that guy at the end of the movie “The Downhill Skier.”
Anthony Stephens (1994)
Things exploded quiet literally on October 26, 1994 when he fought Anthony Stephens for the USBA welterweight Title. The fight was televised on ESPN. In a previous bout, Stephens had knocked Felix Trinidad off his feet before being KOd by Tito. Coming from behind, he savaged Stephens (who had his moments as well), knocking him down five times before the fight was mercifully halted in the twelfth and last round. Becoming the new USBA champion, he was now looking ahead to better fights and bigger paydays. Watch as he takes out a game Stephens after Anthony punched himself out. And watch what Stephens does at the beginning of round ten to grab an edge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGl-YV6c0Cc
Adrian “The Predator” Stone (1995)
His next fight on April 7, 1995 was against a streaking prospect from the UK named Adrian “The Predator” Stone (13-0-1). The outcome reinforced his growing reputation for the dramatic. The undefeated Stone was the favorite and in the early goings, he lived up to his billing as he perpetrated a beat-down. But the southerner kept his cool, regrouped and suddenly, like a lightning bolt, took command winning by a sensational knockout in round ten. Fans were up and screaming at the end, hardly believing the sudden turn of events. One thing was now certain; this guy had become a fan-favorite. Suddenly, Bobby Chacon and Saad Muhammad had been found all wrapped into one. Here is the thrilling ending: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ry2haAhRlAE
Nick Rupa (1995)
After quickly disposing of Kenny Lewis, he then faced capable veteran Nick Rupa on July 7, 1995 in what would turn out to be his last fight. True to form, he was losing the fight, but suddenly turned the tables and stopped Rupa in round seven—and he did it in front of his family. It was Rupa’s first stoppage loss and he too would never be the same fighter. Another career had been altered.
“He was a pretty wild kid,”—Ron Katz
“I don’t know what to think. Maybe it was revenge, one of them drug dealers. Maybe it was robbery. Maybe it had to do with someone he met in prison, another vengeance motive…” Jerry Tillman, manager.
Sadly, seventeen days after the Rupa fight in Bossier City, Louisiana and after four straight KO wins, this fan favorite (and mine as well) went missing.
Sometime between July 24 and August 11, 1995, boxing lost one of its grittiest warriors, but his parents, three younger brothers, wife and child, lost far more. His truck was found on the railroad tracks outside of town where some speculated a fierce battle had taken place. Days later, the body of Jesse James Hughes, reportedly riddled with bullet holes, was found in a snake-infested swamp. The rains from Hurricane Erin brought his body to the surface. It was too badly decomposed to reveal much. The autopsy revealed a blunt trauma to the head, but not one that would have resulted in his death. Sheriff Jack Tillman (brother of Jerry), who once beat former welterweight champion Billy Backus and had a 44-8-1 pro record, said, “We ain’t got a clue. That’s the problem.”
Twenty years later, the circumstances surrounding his death still remain the subject of much speculation, but I’ll leave that part of the unfinished and highly complex tragedy to others. (See “Ten Years Later: Death of Jesse James Hughes Remains a Mystery,” by Sean Newman, May 10, 2005.). This newspaper account also sets forth some of the mystery surrounding his violent demise: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1310&dat=19950808&id=5EZWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=GOsDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3578,1846766&hl=en
Suffice it to say the pathos, intrigue and compelling cross currents involved are the stuff of movies and best sellers.
One account I came across indicated – perhaps over dramatically — that after his body was found in the swamp, it was loaded onto the back of a train engine and taken home to Mobile as the sun was setting in the distant western sky. If so, then the man for whom he was named, the outlaw Jesse James, must surely have been smiling down on the outlaw Jesse James Hughes who lived like he fought –on the edge. And like a meteorite, he soared and crashed before anyone could fully come to appreciate him.
“So many different thoughts go through your mind…You think of everything. The only sure thing is that nobody knows what happened, and that’s the hardest thing about it — not knowing.” — Carmen Hughes, James’s wife
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records. He enjoys writing about boxing and is a member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame.