Matt Serra: "I want to retire Matt Hughes"
It was well past 10 p.m. in Huntington, N.Y., when Matt Serra closed and locked the doors to the Serra Jiu-Jitsu Academy, a joint venture owned and operated with his brother and fellow JJ black belt, Nick.
He said hello to a Suffolk County police officer patrolling the lot, climbed into his vehicle, fitted and adjusted the obligatory headset, and drove southwest to his Massapequa home.
Yeah, it was late, but Serra was wired enough you’d think he downed 10 tall ones from Starbucks. When you have as much going on as him, your world is nonstop 25/8, too.
Matt and Nick run two schools, the other in East Meadow, N.Y., and have grand plans to open a third. Matt hasn’t spent much time on the mat following his April 19 TKO loss to Georges St. Pierre, a rematch of when his first-round victory shocked everyone associated with the UFC and beyond. He left that second bout with St. Pierre not with the welterweight title he took from the celebrated French Canadian a year earlier, but an injury to the ulnar nerve in his right elbow.
While the injury healed, Serra focused on grooming his student body to be champions and is working on a new agreement for what he called a lengthy contract with the UFC. Out of the gym, Serra’s goals are bigger. His wife, Ann, is three months pregnant. Last month, he traveled to Minneapolis for UFC 87 and signed autographs at the Mall of America. Nobody asked him about his schools, his contract, hometown hero Brock Lesnar or even fatherhood. The public cared about one thing, as does Serra: when will Matt Serra vs. Matt Hughes become a reality?
Fate interfered with a prior date at UFC 79 when Serra suffered a herniated disc in his lower back while demonstrating a move to a student. Talks are moving to finalize a bout for early next year, which would provide enough time for Serra’s elbow to fully heal, and for Hughes to overcome a partially torn PCL and a completely torn MCL in his left knee, which he suffered in his most recent fight, a TKO loss to Thiago Alves.
Serra winning the welterweight title was a dream. Fighting Hughes is his destiny. If he beats Hughes, the two will forge into one.
“Everybody wants this fight to happen, from the fans to the organization to myself to Matt Hughes to Matt Hughes’ wife,” Serra told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I truly believe in my heart this is going down. When it does, this will be a great fight. I’m putting my heart and soul into training to fight this guy. People love rivalries, especially if it’s legit.”
You know their history. Incensed with Hughes’ proclivity to annoy beyond the point of good-natured ribbing, Serra’s dislike for his opposing coach during “The Ultimate Fighter 6” simmered past 212 degrees and created a score that had to be settled in one place, the octagon. Serra’s words accelerated to five miles a minute over the mere prospect of this fight, a Renzo Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert with underrated striking ability against a nine-time welterweight champion and future UFC hall of famer.
Those words weren’t minced either. Forget strength vs. strength. Ignore the tale of the tape. There’s not just heat; there’s unmitigated hatred.
“You’re going to pay me to fight this jerk? Are you kidding me?” said Serra, voice rising. “You’re paying me this amount of money to punch this guy in the face?”
Look at it this way: If you’re a Yankees fan, you hate the Red Sox, and vice versa. Nobody sits on the fence with Serra vs. Hughes. If you love Serra, you hate Hughes, and vice versa. You’re not pulling for both in a fight neither can afford to lose. Hughes (41-7) is off two straight losses, turns 35 in October and said after the Alves fight, he has one more in him, and that’s against Serra.
Serra, 34, is only 9-5, but that’s deceiving. He went the distance in losses to B.J. Penn, Karo Parisyan and Din Thomas (split), and he was just nine seconds from a decision with Shonie Carter before he was KO’d with a spinning back fist. He needed a split-decision win over Chris Lytle to win “The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback” that earned Serra the Rocky Balboa-like title shot against GSP. That adversity gained through strength made him a cult hero.
It’s easy to dismiss Serra’s first win over GSP as a fluke, easier to forget that he knocked down Parisyan at UFC 53. Yet, he’s the likely underdog versus Hughes not because he’s Matt Serra, but because his opponent is Matt Hughes. And the last thing Hughes wants is to end his career with three straight defeats, the last to someone with whom he shares a hate-hate relationship.
“I love being the underdog,” Serra said. “I fit that role real nicely. I don’t need any extra motivation for this fight. I genuinely do not like him, and I know feels the same about me.
“I’m expecting a very dangerous Matt Hughes who wants to go out on a high note. I’m not going to let him.”
It’s a fight Serra knows he cannot lose. It’s a vendetta that’s too damn important, and time will tell if Serra’s skill set perfectly matches his dedication and desire. Then again, Serra KO’s conventional wisdom when he shocked St. Pierre, pounding the champion’s ribs and midsection before finishing him with crushing combinations to the head. And believe it or not, Serra, the first American to be awarded a black belt under Gracie’s tutelage, says his jiu-jitsu has yet to reach its peak.
“I think I’m a bad matchup for Matt Hughes,” Serra said. “I think he’s a one-trick pony, and he’s not good at that one trick. If people think that he’s putting me to the mat like GSP did, he’s not one-third as explosive as GSP. He’s not putting me down like that. If he does, I have way better jiu-jitsu than I’ve shown in my last fight. There’s so much stuff, and I want to show that if he does put me down.”
Fighting so consumes Serra’s life that it’s the only thing he’s known and still does.
“Tell me who won the last Super Bowl and I have no idea,” Serra admitted shortly before the native Long Islander was reminded that the Giants pulled a Serra-GSP-like upset in Super Bowl XLII.
Even if Serra defeats Hughes and makes his point, there are no plans on riding off into the sunset. His allure to fight is that strong. It’s mightier than creating the next champion, equally hip with becoming an action figure (“I’m going to be a freakin’ action figure. That’s going to be the coolest thing in the world,” Serra said). And almost as powerful as becoming a first-time father.
“Whenever it gets to the point where it’s not fun for me and I’m not enjoying it, then maybe I’ll think about retiring,” Serra said. “As long as there are fights that excite me, I’ll be fighting, man.”
Forgive Serra if he has tunnel vision. There’s a blood feud that must be completed, and should he be successful, he won’t just defeat Hughes. He’ll crush him mentally and spiritually, and for Serra it’ll be worth more than welterweight gold.
“The only thing I want to retire is Matt Hughes,” Serra said. “I plan on retiring him.”