Holladay • For Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, there are strong similarities between politics and what he calls the sweet science of his beloved sport of boxing.
Both require tenacity, discipline and strength of will because, whether stepping into the ring or a squabble on Capitol Hill, the outcomes are always unknown.
“My politics matches my fight game,” said Hughes. “I lead with my chin and I’m always getting hit.”
That may be literally true later this month, when Hughes straps on his boxing gloves in the headliner bout for the charity event Draper Rising.
Organized by four-time kickboxing world champion Eddie “Flash” Newman, the seven-bout event will benefit the Oregon-based Crittenton Foundation, which supports organizations and programming in 30-plus states to help women and girls with self-empowerment, economic stability and recovery from chronic adversities, including domestic violence. Newman’s wife, Charese Jamison Newman, is on the charity’s board.
Hughes, who started boxing as a kid in Pittsburgh, jumped at the chance to participate when his friend of 14 years and occasional trainer asked. Neither man sees any irony in the fact that boxing is being used to raise funds that will support agencies that battle domestic violence.
“Boxing is a legitimate sport,” said Hughes during a recent 8 a.m. training session at Newman’s Flash Academy gym in Holladay. “It’s a combat sport, but you should see all the soccer moms that come work out with Flash in the mornings. I don’t see it as a contradiction at all.”
When he steps into the Draper Amphitheater ring Sept. 16, Hughes will square off with Kelly McCleve, a two-time winner of the Utah Toughman tournament, a two-day open-ticket event that sees entrants advance with each win.
“He went and picked the toughest man in Utah,” Newman said, shaking his head. “I tried to talk him out of it.”
McCleve doesn’t know Hughes, but said he’s far from afraid, even if the speaker is one of Utah’s most powerful elected leaders. At 51, McCleve has countless bouts under his belt and regularly spars with younger professional fighters.
Still, he likes the idea of getting a chance to put Hughes on the canvas.
“Who doesn’t want to hit a politician sometimes?” McCleve said.
Each of the seven bouts on the Draper Rising card is slated for three three-minute rounds, Newman said as he watched Hughes train.
“Maybe less,” Hughes cracked, as he bobbed back and forth under a rope stretched across Newman’s gym Tuesday morning. “This is white-collar boxing.”
The idea, Newman said, is for the boxers to have fun, not to get hurt.
“But somebody’s going to get hit, you know that, don’t you?” he said, adding that once the fighters knock gloves, he has no control over what happens.
Also getting into the ring for Newman next month: Utah lobbyists Alan Dayton and Andy Stephenson, Draper Mayor Troy Walker, former NBA developmental league player Alex Austin and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.
Brown will square off with Jason Mathis, head of the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at promoting economic and cultural development in Salt Lake City.
The two are good friends, but Mathis said he’s a bit nervous about the match.
“I haven’t been in a fight since the third grade,” he said. “And I got my butt kicked.”
The police chief, whose training includes 5 a.m. sessions at Newman’s gym and downing glasses of a dozen raw eggs, seems sure of his advantage.
“I have a bit of size and reach on him,” Brown said. “And he’s kind of a pretty boy so I’m excited to put him in the ring.”
For the “right price,” however, Brown said he might be willing to take a dive if it meant a generous donation for the Crittenton Foundation.
The speaker seems determined to take on McCleve head-on, just as he does most challenges, whether Medicaid expansion, liquor laws or the current battle to halt the lawlessness and open drug market in the Rio Grande neighborhood around the downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter.
Hughes thrust himself into the Rio Grande issue with force in early July after a pair of high-profile crimes of violence — the assault of a minor-league baseball player walking down the street and a hit-and-run in which a motorist plowed through people on a sidewalk, killing one and injuring several.
While his forcefulness and sense of urgency have caused some discord with other leaders, it’s consistent with criticisms he’s heard about his boxing style: He never backs up, but instead keeps stepping in toward his opponent and another punch.
“I just keep going,” Hughes said. “There is an analogy in there somewhere. “