(Serra kicks Matt Hughes during their long awaited grudge match. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
Josh Deitch’s profile of Matt Serra originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Serra will face fellow Matt Hughes nemesis Frank Trigg at UFC 109 on Feb. 6.
We all know the story.
On April 7, 2007, at UFC 69, Matt Serra shocked the world. After his hard-fought win on Season Four of The Ultimate Fighter, he faced then Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Serra found himself labeled the underdog—the “Cinderella Man,” as he puts it. “I think it’s great. I love that role. … I never got caught up in any of that hype. I used it to my advantage, and I defi nitely felt I had the element of surprise.” Inside the Octagon, Serra took full advantage, stopping St. Pierre—a fighter many consider one of the best all-around athletes in the UFC—at 3:25 in the first round. “It’s funny. Everybody thinks I’m going to get killed,” Serra says, recalling the lead-up to the event. As a result, he adopted the underdog role and decided to “just go in there and stuff it up their asses.”
But what is it about Matt Serra that we fi nd so compelling? Sure, we pull for the underdog. And as Serra often fi nds himself undersized, relying upon larger-than-life fortitude, he plays that role better than anyone. Today, more than two years later, Serra remains the underdog, as he trains to regain the Welterweight title. However, athletes from all sports love to live the Cinderella story. Why is it that we fi nd ourselves drawn to the outspoken Long Island native?
Sitting behind the desk in his gym in Huntington, Long Island, Matt Serra talks casually with his friends and students. Having changed out of his black gi, which he describes as his father’s, Serra, now attired in a black T-shirt and camo cargo shorts, radiates casual. Naughty by Nature’s Hip Hop Hooray plays in the background. Ever the instructor, he constantly interjects shouts of “Good!” and “Nice!” In his gym, negativity does not exist. All visitors— old friends from high school, students, fellow instructors, or writers from FIGHT!—are met with the same level of comfort and kindness. The familiar voice tinged with the familiar Long Island accent rings out, “Nice pass, Rich!”
Listed at 5 feet 6 inches tall, Matt Serra’s personality fi lls any room he occupies. With his high school friends, who unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, he poses for pictures and tells stories about Las Vegas suites, UFC fi ghters, and the Octagon itself. For his students, he offers each a handshake or a pound. He calls every man out by fi rst name and checks to see if they have any injuries. For me, he hides behind no pretense. He slaps me on the shoulder and talks with ease, as if he has known me longer than the last 10 minutes.
Beyond the hints of sweat and humidity that pervade most gyms, an air of teamwork and camaraderie is present. Imagine the perfect classroom. Students actively engage in a given assignment, debating the correct path in a scholarly manner. The teacher moves expertly throughout the room, offering a helpful hint to one group, a gentle nudge to another, and a necessary kick in the rear to a third. There is an energy to this classroom, but it is not wild. Instead, all that energy aims at a specifi c goal.
That is the scene presented at Serra Jiu Jitsu off the Jericho Turnpike. Matt Serra is a consummate teacher. Every few minutes, when the right moment arrives, he drops to the fl oor and rolls with his students, encouraging them to learn or perfect some new technique. After 2 minutes or so, when one student had gained and worked to maintain dominant position, the digital timer blares, and Serra blurts, “Guy on top now on bottom…In other words—Payback time!”
For fighters, keeping a consistent mind-set is what matters most. The ones who get rattled by the high-profi le environments or shaken by an unseen right hook do not hang around for long. In mixed martial arts, success is so fleeting and so difficult to attain that those unable to cope with setbacks and losses ultimately disappear from the landscape.
If consistency and serenity in the face of adversity are keys to a fighter’s success, there should be no doubts that Matt Serra is a master. Serra is just as willing to talk about his triumphs as he is regarding his defeats. After winning the title from St. Pierre, Serra was scheduled to defend his title against Matt Hughes. However, a back injury kept him from the fi ght, and Hughes and St. Pierre met to decide who would be the champion while Serra convalesced from a distance. For most, such a circumstance would have been maddening. Serra took it in stride. “I had the misfortune of hurting myself getting ready for Hughes. The fight was up in April, and I got myself in shape. I recovered from the back injury.”
In Montreal on April 19, 2008, Serra lost his rematch to Georges St. Pierre. Ask him about the fight, though, and there is no sidestep, no deflection. He speaks straightforwardly about a loss that could have had devastating physical and mental consequences. “Everybody has a bad day at the office. There’s no excuse.” Serra shrugs, “It is what it is, man. I can’t make excuses. I should’ve rolled out sooner. So, it sucks, but what are you going to do? It’s part of the game, and I don’t want to take anything away from St-Pierre’s victory.” Nevertheless, smiling wryly, he wags his finger and adds, “I never said uncle. I never tapped.”
In dealing with the loss to St-Pierre, Serra reveals the other aspect of himself—perhaps the part that is most compelling. He lifts the curtain and provides a glimpse of the devoted teacher and caring instructor that we saw in both of his appearances on The Ultimate Fighter. “I mean, what do you do? You can either cry yourself to sleep or try to learn from it. I learn from it not only to make me a better fighter, but to make my guys better.” That is what sets Serra apart.
As passionate as he is about his own fi ghting career, Serra goes the extra mile for his students and fighters. “My instructor, Renzo Gracie, once said that he’s the test pilot. He’d test himself, test the techniques, and pass it down to the students. That’s how I feel. He passed the lessons he learned not only in fighting but in life to me, and I do that for my students. I like being on the front line in there.” When he teaches, his students focus upon his movements as much as his words. At one point during the class, Serra demonstrates how to roll from a dominant position at an opponent’s back into a leg lock. Costa Philippou, a boxer training at Serra Jiu Jitsu, where everyone calls him “Gus,” looks around, shrugs his shoulders, and laughs as if to say, Wow, how in the world did he do that? This little gesture indicates the respect that Serra’s students have for him.
Despite all that, an imposing figure stands in Matt Serra’s future. When he steps into the Octagon at UFC 98, it will have been more than a year since he last fought and he will stare across the ring at Matt Hughes, one of the greatest champions in UFC history. That the two men do not get along is no secret. “I enjoy fighting, so I don’t have to psyche myself up or hate the guy. But it is a contact sport. So, if you’ve gotta hit somebody you like or somebody you don’t like, I’d rather hit the guy I don’t like.”
When questioned about his differences with Matt Hughes, Serra pulls no punches. He sees Hughes as the opposite side of his coin. Where he feels he remained grounded and down to earth in the face of success, he asserts that Hughes changed. “He might’ve been that good country boy way back when, but he’s not that guy anymore.” Serra insists that a lot of people feel similarly, but he has been more openly vocal about it. “I’ve become the voice of that. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t want to be cool with a guy and then talk behind his back.”
Though Serra relishes the thought of matching up against Matt Hughes, he brushes aside the idea that it is necessary to hate his opponent in order to succeed. “I get along with the majority of the guys I fought, win or lose. I mean, Din Thomas: That guy has a victory over me, and he’s one of my closest friends in the UFC.” Ultimately, for Serra motivation is never an issue. “It’s easy. It could be as simple as wanting to prove everybody wrong. What stays with you are all these memories of the fights, leading up to it, the hard training, testing yourself, learning new skills, looking to pull those techniques off in a fight.”
At 34 years old, Serra knows that time is no longer on his side. Though his skills are sound and his body feels good, age is beginning to take its toll. The bout with Hughes was originally scheduled for UFC 79 on December 29, 2007, but Serra suffered a herniated disk in his lower back while preparing to defend his then Welterweight title. In April 2008, during his fight with St. Pierre, Serra damaged the ulnar nerve in his elbow, which left him unable to train for a few months. “I still have my technique, even when I’m dead tired. I’ve shown that I have my technique to back me up. I take it a fight at a time. The only thing I don’t like is that I get injured more now. I never used to get injured.”
Matt Serra still has limitless passion for the sport and continues to push himself. He has not allowed success to change the way he deals with those around him, and simply takes life as it comes. “I feel real lucky to be in the position that I’m in, not just with fighting. I make a living doing what I’m doing.” He gestures to the mat where his advanced Jiu-Jitsu class works through an “hour and a half of hell.” “I could hang out with these guys, teach Jiu-Jitsu, work out with my MMA team. I get to fight in the UFC. I love my life.”
“No matter what happens from here to the rest of my career, I know that I fought the best guys on the planet, and, at one time, I was that guy. I was the UFC Champion. That’s the stuff that’s going to stay with me until I’m old and gray.” And on May 23, 2009, as he concludes his two-year dance both around and toward Matt Hughes, Matt Serra looks to add one more fight to that long list of memories.