On the Edge

By Ted Sares on December 1, 2013
On the Edge
After Hughes was found in the swamps, his body was taken home to Mobile, Alabama.

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…

“Boxing has become America’s tragic theater.”—Joyce Carol Oates

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 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 could have added that he shared something with the likes of Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Bobby Chacon, Saad Muhammad, Jaime Garza, Tito Trinidad 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. Only a fool would ever count him out. With a no-defense, full-offense brawling style, he would take take several blows to land one of his heavy handed straight rights. Hanging tough, he would suddenly and dramatically turn the tables at the end. Once he had his opponent hurt, he would close things out decisively.

He had 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 young kid with an obvious big heart, full of personality and promise. He was the quintessential blood and guts warrior who, like the aforementioned fighters, 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, Nick Rupa, won him not only the USBA welterweight title, but a big 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. In boxing parlance, he was a hot property.

He was also a loving son and was from a close-knit southern family, but from another perspective, he lived his life the way he wanted to….freely and on the edge….the wild and dangerous side, but as his boxing success increased, his personal life seemed to be stabilizing 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 robbing drug dealers, an activity that can, if true, have the most serious of repercussions. Allegedly, he would do this in a dangerous, crime ridden area of his town known as “The Bottoms.”

He became a professional boxer at age 21 on July 13, 1987 against Billy Pryor whom he knocked out in the third round in Mobile, Alabama. He then knocked out his next four opponents. After these bouts, he was a bit inconsistent, though extremely exciting, winning some and losing to rugged Canadian Stephane Ouellett, and then to Blue Horizon mainstay Eric Holland in a televised closet-classic slugfest from Philadelphia in August 1994 featuring ferocious back-and-forth exchanges. Curiously, Holland, a bright prospect at the time, would never be the same after this bout.

Things changed for the better on January 4, 1994, when he fought tough Buddy McGirt in Florida. Even though he lost a ten-round decision, he gained respect from those who witnessed the fight, but more importantly, he gained self-confidence knowing he could hang tough with somebody as capable as McGirt. I 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….I sensed that here was someone to keep an eye on.

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 KO’d by Tito. Coming from behind, the raw-boned kid savaged Stephens, knocking him down an astounding five times before the fight was mercifully halted in the twelfth and final round. Becoming the new USBA champion, he was now looking ahead to better fights and bigger paydays.

His next fight on April 7, 1995 against a streaking prospect from the UK named Adrian “The Predator” Stone reinforced his growing reputation for the dramatic. The undefeated Stone was the favorite, and in the early going he lived up to his billing giving the southerner a solid beating. But he kept his cool, regrouped and suddenly, like a lightning bolt, took command winning by a sensational knockout in round ten. As is my wont, I was up and screaming at the end, hardly believing the sudden turn of events. One thing was now certain; he had become one of my very favorite fighters. I had found my Bobby Chacon and Saad Muhammad all wrapped into one fighter.

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 he turned the tables and KOd Rupa in round seven….and he did it in front of his proud family. It was Rupa’s first stoppage loss and he too would never be the same fighter. I could hardly wait for his next fight.

Sadly, it would never come. Seventeen days after the Rupa fight, my favorite fighter was missing. Between July 24 and August 11, 1995, boxing had 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, his body was found in a swamp. The autopsy revealed he had received a blunt trauma to the head, but not one that would have resulted in his death. More than ten years later, the circumstances surrounding his death remain the subject of much speculation and have been detailed by far better writers than I and I’ll leave that part of the unfinished and highly complex tragedy to them.* Suffice to say the pathos, intrigue, and cross currents are the stuff of movies and bestsellers.

One account I came across indicated that after he was found in the swamps, his body was loaded onto the back of a train engine and taken home to Mobile, Alabama, 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.

*See: “Ten Years Later: Death of Jesse James Hughes Remains a Mystery” by Sean Newman, Parts One and Two, May 10 and 12, 2005.


Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jesse James Hughes | Anthony Stephens 1/5

Jesse James Hughes | Anthony Stephens 2/5

Jesse James Hughes | Anthony Stephens 3/5

Jesse James Hughes | Anthony Stephens 4/5

Jesse James Hughes | Anthony Stephens 5/5

James Buddy McGirt | Jesse James Hughes 1/4

James Buddy McGirt | Jesse James Hughes 2/4

James Buddy McGirt | Jesse James Hughes 3/4

James Buddy McGirt | Jesse James Hughes 4/4

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:13pm, 12/02/2013

    According to family members James was the family pit bull even during his early days on the playground. Although small in stature, he would take up for his brothers when they were bedeviled by bullies, who for the most part were black due in large part to the changing social dynamics in the South at the time….by literally buzz sawing and hammering the shit out of them.

  2. Ted 12:09pm, 12/02/2013

    Died in the wet swamps of Alabama. Not a good way to go, but you don’t mess around with them critters down there.

  3. Tex Hassler 11:37am, 12/02/2013

    James left his mark on the boxing world and the world he lived in. It is a shame he had to end like he did, but at least he went out fighting. May the truth surface about his death and those responsible.

  4. Ted 10:13am, 12/02/2013

    Don and Peter, his death was a real shocker because he was on the cusp of breaking through to the top tier. He was a fan-friendly, likable country boy who chewed tobacco and wore boots and a cowboy hat, but he had surprising skill in the ring and when he connected, biff, bam, boom.

  5. Don from Prov 07:30am, 12/02/2013

    Really great story, Ted.
    I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hughes, but I was pulled in by this piece.

  6. Peter Silkov 07:24am, 12/02/2013

    Great article as always Ted!... Hughes had that certain ‘it’ about him which made his fights exciting even before a punch was thrown.  But beneath all the drama and the cowboy hats he could really fight as well! .... I would have loved to have seen him get in with Trinidad, he would have had a punchers chance for sure.  I remember when he beat Stone and everyone here was saying who is this crazy guy!.  Kind of fitting in a way that a larger than life guy like Hughes would end up having such a dramatic and mysterious death, some people just seem to be born under certain stars.

  7. Ted 06:50am, 12/02/2013

    Thanks gents

  8. john coiley 02:05am, 12/02/2013

    I like Joyce Carol Oates’ quote, “Boxing has become life’s tragic theater.” but hasn’t it always?

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:19pm, 12/01/2013

    Ted Sares-Wow!....every bit as great as your article on John Coiley. Which reminds me…. I’ll never forget the post fight interview when Hughes said that Trinidad wore panties or the cracking sound his punches made as they impacted his opponents noggins.

  10. Ted 05:03pm, 12/01/2013

    Aleve is a miracle drug Kid. I’ll be back in the gym before you can say “ANIMAL!”

    Thanks for the prop.

  11. kid vegas 03:38pm, 12/01/2013

    Nice and Tidy piece of recent history. Thank you Ted the Bull. And take care of your back.

  12. Ted 02:45pm, 12/01/2013

    Thanks Biker and the very same to you buddy.

  13. BIKERMIKE 02:21pm, 12/01/2013

    Joyce Carol Oates said it best…

    That we keep coming back ....as if to keep hoping….we’ll see a good match…and the proper score….

    There are lots of them…but we don’t get to see them….we just get to see the cherry picking of the main line fighters…with ...(naturally) continued victories…WDF….

    promoters are no better than the gangsters they replaced….we only get to see the fights that they want…..not what the rules…and public ..want to see…

  14. BIKERMIKE 02:12pm, 12/01/2013

    Thank you Ted…...another Very informative ...welll researched article….

    You just keep knockin’ em outta the park , pal…

    BTW….Merry Christmas…
    now that both of us made it through THanksgiving….

    Best to you and your lovely ....


  15. Ted 11:25am, 12/01/2013

    Right on CG. A great movie could be made on this one, but then a great movie could be made about most fighters such is their tragic lot (grammar-?).

    Zora is the essence.

  16. Clarence George 10:51am, 12/01/2013

    “By some accounts, he was also allegedly robbing drug dealers, an activity that can, if true, have the most serious of repercussions.”  Ha!  Excellent sentence.

    “More than ten years later, the circumstances surrounding his death remain the subject of much speculation and have been detailed by far better writers than I.”  Spare my blushes, Ted!  You’re of course referring to the “Sports Illustrated” article that won me the Liebling…or something.  You’ll search for it in vain, I’m afraid—all copies of that particular issue are in the hands of private collectors, and just not available for examination by either fans or researchers.  Unfortunate, but there you have it.

    My favorite mystery regarding a boxer’s death is that of Zora Folley.  It’s the Lizzie Borden case of pugilism—pieces missing from the jigsaw.

  17. Ted 10:39am, 12/01/2013

    He was the ultimate thrill ride. Hmm, that would have made a good title for this.

  18. Dan Adams 10:36am, 12/01/2013

    One of my favorite fighters, Ted, was Jesse James Hughes.  Was looking forward to Hughes fighting Tito Trinidad…win or lose Jesse James would have given that fight his all.

Leave a comment