Maxi Hughes admits he had a pinch-me moment earlier this week after seeing his name up in lights on the famous Las Vegas strip.

The Leeds warrior is an underdog – a familiar role for him – ahead of his main event against William Zepeda on Saturday at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

Hughes often has a siege mentality. The likeable contender lost a hotly-disputed decision to Australian star George Kambosos in Oklahoma last July. Hughes was written off then, as he is being written off now, and he is just fine with that. 

But what he also knows is he deserves his spot atop the bill in Vegas. 

“I’m chuffed to be here,” Hughes said from Sin City. “We had to do Las Vegas medicals for Nevada State [Athletic Commission] yesterday, and as we were driving back I went passed it [a sign with his name in lights]. It was a surreal feeling. We saw it in Oklahoma, but we were in Oklahoma! There’s not many people who get to have it, me of all people and with how my career’s gone. From always being written off to then seeing it’s my name, top of the bill in Las Vegas, it’s surreal. It’s a pinch-me moment.” 

There has always been an attractive lure of fighting in the desert, since Vegas became boxing’s capital. Some of Britain’s biggest stars have boxed there, including Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Joe Calzaghe and, of course, Ricky Hatton.

“I haven’t brought 33,000 fans over like Ricky Hatton did,” Hughes joked. “But there’s not many fighters from the UK who get to Las Vegas and headline in a big world championship fight like this. I’m proud of myself. I’m ready. My mind is good and I’m ready to do a job on him.”

Mexican southpaw Zepeda is 29-0 (25 KOs) and he is the Golden Boy star on the bill, but Hughes understands he is not merely a walk-on part. He didn’t win a competition to be in a WBA and IBF lightweight title eliminator. Hughes, also a left-hander, believes he belongs.

“He’s good,” Hughes said of his opponent on Saturday. “Obviously we don’t get to this level without being good; we’ve shown him that respect in our preparation. We’ve trained very hard and we’re both here because we’ve been ordered to fight by the IBF and the WBA. 

“That’s what I’m reminding myself, when I look round and see the bright lights of Las Vegas, I haven’t been selected like Rocky was, chosen out of a book. I’m here on merit. I’ve earned this.” 

Hughes has an incredible story to tell. He’s won 26, lost six and drawn twice. He’s stopped five of his 26 victims, but the 34-year-old has aged gracefully and perhaps never been better.

Until 2020 he had been condemned as an opponent, but he went through a career resurgence with important victories over the likes of Jono Carroll, Paul Hyland, Jovanni Straffon and Ryan Walsh. 

The Cinderella spell was capped off with victory over local and domestic rival and former IBF featherweight champion Kid Galahad.  

Then came Kambosos, and Hughes showed he belonged at that level in Oklahoma, although there are plenty saying Zepeda is another matter entirely.

“We know what’s in front of us, although I’m a big underdog, nobody is giving me a chance, that’s the usual for us,” Hughes continued. “That seems to be the card that I’m dealt in boxing, but me, my team and my family, we know what we’re capable of. We know we can get the job done, and for me, that’s all that matters. I’ve got people around me who believe in me, so that’s all that I need.”

Again, it’s nothing new for the Englishman. Hughes was written off long before he laced on a glove for the first time.

“It’s almost like it was at school,” Hughes explained. “I’ve always been a quiet kid at school, when there’s a popular group and they look at you like… and it might be in PE, or a certain runner, and they’re like, ‘Look at this quiet kid here, he can’t do anything’. No one ever expects anything of me, and then when I go and do something or achieve what I set out to achieve, it’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this of that guy’. I get to then put my middle fingers up at everyone and say, ‘You idiot, you clown’. 

“You look at the quiet kid and don’t expect anything and they say, ‘But Maxi’s done well… but Zepeda’s a monster…’ but when I get the job done, I get to put my middle finger up at everybody – especially Oscar [De La Hoya]!”

While the stage this weekend might be unique and special for Hughes, he has boxed in good company plenty of times before. A stablemate of former IBF featherweight champion Josh Warrington, Hughes turned pro in 2010 and has respect for many of his former adversaries.

“I always rate Liam Walsh very highly and he’s since become a good friend of mine, we spoke the other day actually, so I’d put him up there,” said Hughes, asked of the best he has faced. “I don’t think he gets enough credit. He only lost to 'Tank' Davis, and [then there is] Kid Galahad. I think Barry's [Galahad’s real name is Bari Awad] achievements and everything have been overshadowed because of his failed test and the fact he’s a bit of a villain but you can’t take away the fact he won British, Commonwealth, European and a world title and he’s very good at what he does. Again, no one gave me a chance to beat him and I did it; I shocked people again.

“Kambosos… they’re all hard fights. No one’s an easy fight, but no one gave me a chance against Kambosos. But, like with this fight, we knew we had his number, and I showed that and I announced myself as a world-class fighter. The bookies don’t seem to have watched that, or certain critics, because they’re like, ‘He might have done that against Kambosos but Zepeda is a different ball game.’ Alright, keep that energy, and I’ll show you again how good I am.”

That siege mentality kicks in once more. It is not Hughes against Zepeda, it is Hughes against the critics and the doubters. He feels he has a point to prove, and maybe he will, but when it is all said and done, Hughes is comfortable with who he is and how good he is, even if he knows he is under-appreciated.  

“It always seems to be the opponent who’s not very good rather than I’m actually good,” added Hughes.

“I accept that’s the card that I’m dealt in boxing, maybe because I’m not flashy, gobby, I’m not a show-off, I just am who I am and if that’s the card I’m dealt, fine,” Hughes concluded. “When my career is over and done, I know and my team will know that we did everything properly, we fought the best and I’ll be able to live with that. Get this fight done on Saturday and there’s bigger fights to come, hopefully, mandatory positions for world titles and big money fights, and when it’s all said and done, people don’t want to give me credit or this and that, but I can sit in my house – which I’ll probably have paid off – and live my life knowing I gave boxing my all and that will be good enough for me.”