First impressions are often lasting ones. That’s certainly the case with the man who will be joining the UFC Hall of Fame’s Pioneer Wing this summer, Matt Serra.
When I first ran into “The Terror” in 2001, he was an unbeaten 26-year-old from Long Island about to make his UFC debut against Shonie Carter. His reputation as a Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt was well established, but there were questions about his ability as a complete mixed martial artist. I asked him what he would say to people who called him one dimensional.
"I'll punch him right in the chin," he deadpanned before breaking out in a laugh that has become familiar to fight fans around the world in the ensuing 17 years. I became one of those fans at that moment, and it was more than Serra’s New York attitude and sense of humor that did the trick.
That first fight with Carter at UFC 31 in Atlantic City was a classic, a perfect way to bring the sport to new followers of the sport brought on board as the Zuffa era launched three months earlier. And while Serra lost that bout, he returned with a pair of victories over Yves Edwards and Kelly Dullanty, the latter bout still holding a special spot on his highlight reel.
“That was a fun fight where I displayed my jiu-jitsu,” he said. “I flowed from technique to technique and it was my one submission win in the UFC.”
Now competing in a lightweight division rapidly gaining traction in the UFC, Serra went 2-2 in his next four, defeating Jeff Curran and Ivan Menjivar while losing close decisions to BJ Penn and Din Thomas. If a pattern was clear, it was that Serra was fighting killers every time he stepped into the Octagon and, for him, that was the point.
The lightweight division was soon put on hiatus after a summer 2004 fight between Edwards and Josh Thomson, leaving Serra in a spot. And despite the fact that he was running a successful Serra BJJ school in Long Island, he still wanted to fight and still had plenty to give. So he moved back to the welterweight, despite not having the frame his peers were packing.
Yet when offered a June 2005 bout with Karo Parisyan, he took it. And nearly won it, rocking “The Heat” several times before his gas tank hit empty and he was forced to gut out the final two rounds.
“I learned a lot about myself in that fight as much as I did about my technique,” Serra said. “Yes, I can get out of an armlock and a rear naked choke when I’m dead tired; that’s good to know. (Laughs) But what’s even better to find out about myself is I know that when I had zero in the tank, I wanted to go on.
“They came in asked me between that second and third round, ‘Are you okay?’” he continues. “Without hesitation, I said I was fine, let’s go. And I know I wasn’t. (Laughs) But I knew that I passed a certain test with myself. The Octagon is the truth. You can’t hide. You can talk a tough talk, you can have a great swagger, look good on pads and have great jiu-jitsu. But there was no quit in me.”
Serra, 43, is talking about his career and his Hall of Fame induction. But throughout the conversation, he talks about the fighters he’s coached over the years, sharing the spotlight like an unselfish coach would. When it comes to the grit and courage it took him to get through the Parisyan bout, he brings up lightweight contender Al Iaquinta, who recently passed his own gut check against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“He could have covered up for three seconds and they could have stopped that thing,” Serra said of Iaquinta. “But there was no quit in him.”
As much as Serra made an impact in the sport for his work in the Octagon, his work outside of it deserves a significant share of the attention as well. From Pete Sell and Luke Cummo to Iaquinta and Aljamain Sterling, just to name a few of the UFC notables he’s trained, Serra loves coaching as much as he did fighting. Oh yeah, there was a guy named Chris Weidman too, someone Serra helped lead to the UFC middleweight title in 2013.
“Without Matt, I’m not sure I would even be a mixed martial artist,” said Weidman. “Matt paved the road for Long Island fighters and we’ve had so many great ones. When I was a wrestler, I heard about UFC because of Matt Serra. I had heard about it, I saw him fight and that’s what piqued my interest at first. The first school I attended was Matt’s. Just to have a guy from Long Island be a world champion and beat one of the greatest in the sport in GSP, gave Long Island so much pride. It got me excited and gave me the confidence that I, a guy from Long Island, could do this. He made being a UFC champion a goal that was attainable from someone from this area.”
No matter what Serra did before or after, fans will always go first to April 7, 2007 when his name is mentioned. And for good reason.
After the loss to Parisyan, Serra was in a form of no-man’s land. He was a lightweight without a lightweight division in the UFC and a welterweight seemingly too small for the welterweight division. But he still took a shot when offered a place on The Ultimate Fighter’s “Comeback” season in 2006. At stake wasn’t a UFC contract, but something even more enticing: a shot at the welterweight title.
The man holding that belt was Georges St-Pierre. Montreal’s GSP was 13-1 at the time, and by the end of 2006, he was coming off a quartet of victories over Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, BJ Penn and Matt Hughes.
Serra won the show, beating Chris Lytle in the TUF 4 final. His reward was St-Pierre, and few outside of Serra’s inner circle gave the New Yorker a chance.
“The Terror” believed, though. So did his coach, Ray Longo, who helped build the striking attack that pulled off the Upset of the Century.
“When I saw him (St-Pierre) 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,” Serra told me in 2013. “So I’m taking my chances standing.”
The gamble paid off, with Serra stunning GSP early and then stopping him at 3:25 of the first round. Matt Serra was a world champion. He had persevered, and when the opportunity presented itself, he capitalized.
“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.’”
“He was one of the first guys to sell a fight, not by being malicious, but with a sense of humor,” Longo said. “He gave all fighters from Long Island a goal that anything is possible with belief in yourself. He’s a guy that could have quit many times, but he chose to stay the course.”
A rivalry with Matt Hughes would evolve following the GSP fight, with the two battling it out as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. But first there was business to be taken care of with St-Pierre, and it was the Canadian who evened the score in April 2008, taking his title back at UFC 83. Hughes and Serra fought in May 2009, Hughes taking a close decision in the UFC 98 Fight of the Night, but another antagonist presented himself soon after in the form of Frank Trigg.
“I enjoyed that fight very much,” Serra laughed, recalling his first-round knockout of the former world title challenger at UFC 109 in February 2010. “There was some fun banter. It wasn’t mean spirited. We didn’t hate each other but we didn’t really want to hang out with each other either. Frank is your typical bully and he was always a guy I pictured that I’d end up fighting. And it was at a time in my career when it was the best time to fight him. I was 35 years old, I came into the UFC at 26 and I clocked in a lot of rounds with Longo and it was a time when I really believed in my standup, so I fought him differently than I would have when I was very green and new to the UFC. It was a great night and a great memory. If I’m having a rough day, I throw that one on.”
Serra would only fight once more, losing a decision in his rematch with Lytle seven months after the Trigg bout. But Serra was far from idle. Becoming an unofficial ambassador for the sport of mixed martial arts, he also continued to coach, opened up a second Serra BJJ academy, and had three daughters with his wife Ann. Add in his work on the “Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight” series and as co-host on the “UFC Unfiltered” podcast, and Serra may be more visible than ever, with a new generation perhaps knowing him more for his coaching and media work than his fighting career.
“These youngsters better throw my name in UFC FIGHT PASS if they want some good entertainment,” Serra laughs. “I’m more than just a silly guy that likes to shout things in the corner. But I have great memories I’ll think about in the rocking chair when I get older about my own battles, and I like being in the foxhole with these guys and being with them when they go to battle. It’s good. It’s like Rocky being in the gym and he still had to smell it. So I like still being a part of it and it’s great. I’m happy to be able to provide for my family doing all things that I love, which is a rare thing.”
Given his body of work in and out of the Octagon, Serra clearly had a Hall of Fame resume, but the call from UFC President Dana White this week still surprised him.
“This was kind of out of left field,” said Serra. “I didn’t expect it. But it’s quite the honor, to say the least. A lot of people, when they close the chapter of fighting in their life, they’re not happy with the next chapter or they’re uncertain what that next chapter will be, or they find themselves doing something that they don’t like even remotely as close to how much they liked fighting. Me, I’m extremely lucky in my next chapter. I have my schools, and I was always as much a teacher as I was a fighter, and I love that. I’m also very lucky to be doing some entertainment with the UFC podcast, I like going on the road with Dana, and I’m able to provide for my beautiful family by doing that. So I couldn’t be happier. I don’t think there’s anything missing, and now I’m in the Hall of Fame. It’s been a great ride.”
And what Serra story would be complete without a little humor?
“Dana face-timed me to tell me, and immediately when he told me, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame,’ my four-year-old daughter Sophia was crawling underneath the chairs and I heard her hit her head. ‘Man, that’s amazing – get out from under the chair, is your head okay?’”
Serra laughs, and as intense a competitor as he was – and still is – he’s never far removed from a laugh or a self-effacing joke, and if you ever see him at an event, no autograph goes unsigned, no photo untaken. The scrappy kid from Long Island became synonymous with MMA and, yes, a UFC Hall of Famer.
“I fought guys who are in the Hall of Fame and every one of them knew they were in a fight,” Serra said. “I took guys bell to bell, there were decisions that were very close, and that was enough for me. But now that I’m in there, it’s kind of like shocking the world. It’s very cool. I’m happy and I’m honored.”