The best compliment you can probably pay to someone like Matt Serra, a former UFC world champion and Ultimate Fighter winner, is that from the time he first stepped into the Octagon in 2001 to today, he hasn’t changed a bit.
Sure, he’s a husband now, a father of two daughters (with a third on the way), and the owner of two jiu-jitsu academies in Long Island, New York, but as far as the person goes, Serra – who retired from MMA at the age of 38 last week – is still the same jokester, the same down to Earth ambassador for a sport that he entered when it was far from the juggernaut it is today.
Back then, MMA was still a mystery to the masses, even as the new owners of the UFC, Zuffa, were in the process of educating those who saw it as a glorified street fight. Guys like Serra knew better, having learned the gentle art of jiu-jitsu under one of its masters, Renzo Gracie. But there was plenty of brawler in the New Yorker, who learned how to throw hands early on.
“I was always a fighter, and I wasn’t one to look for trouble, but it’s really why I despise bullies,” Serra recalled. “I used to get messed around with in seventh grade. Then I developed more and I was training with my father, it was almost like something out of the movies. (Laughs) And in the eighth grade I went back and I beat the crap out of some bullies. I did it the right way. You don’t need firearms to take care of these bullies; you gotta stand up to them and show them who’s boss. So I went from being a kid that was messed around with in seventh grade to a guy that was feared from the eighth grade on. So I knew what it was like to fight.”
Years later, Serra saw the UFC and the Gracies, and his whole philosophy and life changed.
“When I discovered the Gracies, I become so engulfed with their philosophy, and back then, it was almost imbedded in you to not make it an exchange – that’s making it a 50-50 gamble, so your best tactic is to close the distance and get the fight to the floor. And that became my philosophy.”
Jiu-jitsu rapidly became a way of life for Serra, who was awarded his black belt by Renzo in 2000. By then, Serra had built a reputation on the grappling circuit and in MMA, and he garnered the interest of Japan’s PRIDE organization, which signed him to compete at PRIDE 9 against Brazil’s Johil de Oliveira. But after a pyrotechnics accident injured de Oliveira, Serra was left without a fight. And he wanted one.
“I was in such good shape I go ‘Renzo, I want to do something right away.’ Here’s the Abu Dhabi trials in Indiana, it’s an eight man tournament, Dennis Hallman was in there, one of the Gilbert brothers, and I said let me jump in that tournament. So I went there and I submitted three guys, and then the UFC took notice. They pretty much came to get Ricardo Almeida, but they recognized my work there, Renzo told them about me and that got me into the UFC.”
He never left. From his memorable 2001 debut against Shonie Carter at UFC 31 to his final Octagon bout in 2010 against Chris Lytle, Serra fought nowhere but in the Octagon, going 7-7 while proving that he was much more than a win-loss record. But after a recent health scare in which he was forced to have a rib removed due to a condition (thoracic outlet syndrome) that saw his rib and collarbone pressing down on a vein and restricting blood flow, subsequently causing blood clots in his lung and bicep, Serra decided that he was going to put his dream of one more fight to the side and focus on his family and his schools.
“It’s something I’ve been contemplating for a while now,” he said. “It’s not really so much wanting to retire – I always thought I had one more at least – but then after this recent thing with my health, it makes you look at what’s really most important to you and what comes first. I believe it’s time. I’m gonna be 39 years old in a couple days (on June 2), and like I’ve said before, an aging fighter is like an aging stripper (Laughs), but not nearly as funny, and nobody likes to see that. You’ve got to know when it’s time. The problem is, the thrill of the fight, the thrill of getting your hand raised, being in the midst of battle, there’s nothing like it in the world and that’s why a lot of guys don’t know when it’s time to walk away. They know they’ll never feel that again, and in that sense it’s kind of depressing, but hey, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna try to keep pushing back the clock or trying to squeeze one more out?”
For all the memorable moments Serra provided in the Octagon over the years, whether it was the Carter fight, his bouts against the best in the lightweight division (BJ Penn, Yves Edwards, Din Thomas), his near knockout of Karo Parisyan, or his rivalry with Matt Hughes, he’s always been sensible outside of it, so as someone who began preparing himself for life after fighting as his UFC career was beginning over a decade ago, you can expect that after saying he’s done, he really is.
“I believe it is different for the guys who need that paycheck,” said Serra. “Don’t get me wrong; the UFC has been very good to me in that way and sometimes I look at that and I’m like ‘oh man, one more fight and I can make this much more and I can put this down for a new house.’ But at the same time, I had the health scare with blood clots where if I didn’t go in when I did, the next stop is to either your heart or your brain, and then you’re done. Then your life is over. So when you think of it in terms like that, it’s like what makes you happiest? I was smart enough with my very first two UFC checks to open up Serra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve been teaching here on Long Island for over a decade, and that’s what I love doing. If I had all the money in the world, I would still do this. I love the art of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Renzo says it the best: it’s not about just teaching people to defend themselves; you’re in the confidence building business. And I love that. I joke around a lot, but besides having some tough SOBs fighting for me and (Ray) Longo and Renzo, it’s also about little kids that get bullied or women or men lacking confidence. It’s like every time I go to work you’re paying it forward. It’s a very good feeling when you see someone get out of a headlock for the first time or pull off their first triangle. It’s really satisfying, and I don’t even consider it a job.”
As for Serra’s legacy in the fight game, the first thing everyone will point to is the night of April 7, 2007, when he shocked the world with what many consider to be the biggest upset in MMA history: a first round knockout of Georges St-Pierre to win the UFC welterweight title. Granted the title shot as the perk for winning the comeback season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, Serra was a prohibitive underdog, and he knew it. That didn’t bother him much because he saw what everyone else saw in Montreal’s GSP.
“When I saw him just destroying people – Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, Matt Hughes, BJ Penn – guys with way better wrestling than me, I’m like, if I go in there with a straight up jiu-jitsu philosophy, this is going to be a long night because I’m most likely not getting him down, and trying to get him down, I’m gonna get tired and I’ve got a five round fight where I’m getting picked apart or destroyed. So I’m taking my chances standing.”
It was a strategy no one expected, especially not St-Pierre. But those who saw Serra on the way up knew he could throw hands, and in his 2005 bout with Parisyan, he displayed his standup game to UFC fans, almost knocking “The Heat” out before gassing out and losing a decision.
“When I had to fight Karo Parisyan, I couldn’t do too much grappling because I had a meniscus tear,” Serra admits. “I could still run and do a lot of boxing, but I couldn’t do a lot of straight up jiu-jitsu. But in that time I did a lot of hands and we got a lot of rounds in. And that was the first fight where I actually demonstrated it. I developed timing with a lot of stuff, and it wasn’t honed yet, but there was a glimpse of it there.”
That glimpse became a full-on revelation at Houston’s Toyota Center in the main event of UFC 69, as Serra got it in his mind that the only way to win was to stand and trade with St-Pierre. And he didn’t wave.
“I knew with what I was doing in sparring, hurting guys with 16 ounce gloves, that if I stood in the pocket with him, sure, he could hurt me, but I could really do some damage,” said Serra. “That’s why I was so confident that one way or the other, it was going to be an exciting fight and a do or die situation. I’m happy it was ‘do.’”
At 3:25 of the first round, Serra had his knockout win and the UFC title. It was a moment etched in MMA history and one that will never be forgotten. If that’s his legacy, “The Terror” is fine with that.
“I know at the end of the day I’m very fortunate to be where I’m at and to have the success I’ve had, and I’m happy with it,” he said. “People can say what they want about me: I’m underrated, I’m overrated, I can care less. I’m secure with myself, my family’s proud of me and my kids are proud of me, and that’s all that counts.”
Following the bout, Serra would square off with Hughes as coaches on season six of The Ultimate Fighter, and with his Noo Yawk accent, humor, and charisma, he was an instant hit and a bigger star than ever before. It never went to his head though, even when he became a video game character and had his own action figures and trading cards.
“The glory of it is beautiful,” he said. “And I love the whole action figure stuff. When I used to go away for fights, my daughter Angelina would be sleeping with my little figurine, and I love that. That’s so awesome. All that comes with it is great, but you can go two ways with success. You can either let it get to your head, or people are so nice to you that you can be nicer to people, and it’s a win-win. You should be honored to have people that appreciate your work or like your jokes, or whatever it is, because they don’t have to. And when they do, that’s flattering.”
Serra’s reign would end a year later as St-Pierre got his revenge via second round TKO, but he went on to fight Hughes (L3) and Frank Trigg (KO1), and rematch Lytle (L3) in memorable contests that closed out his career. And win or lose, it was a good one, and one Serra is rightfully proud of.
“I’m so proud to have been involved with the UFC for as long as I have been, and to have the relationships I’ve formed there,” he said. “I definitely lived my Rocky movie. But if they make my story a movie one day, there will be two reasons why mine will be better. MMA is way cooler than boxing; it’s more exciting. Two, Rocky might have gone the distance with the champ and this and that, but I took my guy out, and I was up to his nipples. (Laughs) Talk about an underdog story. Move over Rocky, forget about Cinderella Man, this has got Hollywood written all over it.”