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Matt Serra Hopes to Spoil Homecoming

“Whenever I don’t put pressure on myself and do my thing, whether it’s going on TUF 4 or fighting for the title, it’s always gotten me to a good place. That’s how I like to roll.”

New York had better get mixed martial arts legalized and soon, because Matt Serra is feeling a bit like a party-crashing interloper of late.

“You know I’m getting booed out of the stinking place, right?” says Serra, who travels to Chris Lytle’s hometown of Indianapolis to fight everyone’s definition of a hero—a fireman—at UFC 119. “If fighting Georges St-Pierre in Montreal wasn’t enough, they do this to me. Unbelievable. Not only do you fight the nicest guy in the UFC, but you fight him in his hometown. It’s brutal.”

Serra is of course (mostly) kidding; he welcomes the chance to give Lytle a rematch of the Ultimate Fighter 4 finale, because he wasn’t all that satisfied with the first bout, either. By the narrowest of history-shaping margins, the 5-foot-6 Serra eked out a split decision victory against Lytle to win TUF 4, which spun him off to becoming the next welterweight champion (the punch heard around the world at UFC 69) and resolved Lytle to a whole new cage philosophy (swinging for the fences).

The fight was too cautious, too unspectacular for both parties, and each man has changed his approach since. How much did that fight back in November of 2006 divert these courses? Serra and Lytle have taken home nine end of the night bonuses in various forms out of 14 combined fights.

That’s why when they mix it up on September 25, the word “barn-burner” keeps cropping up. It’s an appropriate noun for a promising Midwest dust-up.

“At the very first, to be honest, it was a little weird to me,” says Serra. “I really like Chris. We fought once and it was razor thin. But, I’d just had two fights with guys I didn’t really care for. I had a personal beef with Matt Hughes, and there was a lot of bad back and forth between me and Frank Trigg. I go from fighting a couple of villains in my mind to fighting a really nice dude.

“But man, in the big picture, that first fight [with Lytle] should have been a barn-burner,” he adds. “It was technical here and there, but it wasn’t two guys trying to take each other out. It was two guys trying to secure the victory, and not really risking it. This time it’ll be two guys trying to take each other out.”

Serra is coming off a quick first-round KO of the southpaw Trigg at UFC 109, which came off essentially as he drew it up. Planning for Trigg, he says, was similar to planning for Hughes, training for very specific things on the floor—Trigg’s general ground-and-pound and Hughes’ ability to get work done in the half-guard.

In Lytle (39-17-4), Serra says, he has a whole different animal with multiple dimensions. Some of his weapons are sneaky (ground game), some of them obvious (boxing). All of them real.

“He says he likes to stand and bang, and it’s true, he does,” says Serra of his former castmate. “But at the same time, he’s awesome in scrambles. When he gets a submission, it’s off a scramble. It’s boom-boom-boom, you hit the floor, and bam-bam he’s got the submission. I don’t care what kind of belt he has in Jiu-Jitsu—I don’t even know if he has a belt in Jiu-Jitsu—he is phenomenal, and really gifted at pulling out a submission in the heat of battle from nowhere.”

This aspect plays to one of Serra’s strong suits, as he’s good in a scramble, as well. The “Terror” has got a “who’s who” of training partners in New York helping him prep for Lytle—Ricardo Almeida and Renzo Gracie among them. Now 36 years old, the former welterweight champion goes about his business more quietly and at his own pace, having fought but three times since the spring of 2007. However, he says—“not to look past Lytle”—but he will be seeking to up the volume of fights a little bit moving forward into his twilight years.

Not that he isn’t busy. Besides helping train his students and working smaller shows, Serra just opened up a new facility in Long Island; he has a 17-month old toddler, Angelina, whom he adores and misses as he trains; and—despite having his cards stacked against him—he’s got the right kind of motivation.

As in, a man who looks like a discus thrower when he swings at you.

“Nothing gets you more excited and motivated than knowing a guy wants to do you bodily harm,” he says. “We’re both a couple of durable, well-rounded veterans, and neither of us is easy to get out of there. I know he’s thinking the same thing as me, if he’s able to take me out, that’ll say something.

“And I’ll tell you right now, there’s nothing I want more than to finish him. Chris’s only been finished due to cuts [against Joe Riggs and Thiago Alves]. I know that this is a huge fight for him in a rematch where he lost a very close decision the first time, in front of his family and his firefighter buddies. He’s going to want to put that 5-foot-6 freak out of there. Same thing for me. What would make waves is me finishing him.”

That Serra is loose heading into this fight is also important. History has shown the less pressure he feels, the better he performs. Whether or not a win would launch him back into the title picture is really a moot point in the grand scheme of things.

“To tell you the truth, I could care less,” he says. “A win puts me in line for another exciting fight; that’s where it puts me. But man, whenever I don’t put pressure on myself and do my thing, whether it’s going on TUF 4 or fighting for the title, it’s always gotten me to a good place. That’s how I like to roll.”

And that’s how he’s rolling into Indy, as a loose Long Islander that embraces the stranger in a strange land role. For now. One day the tables will be turned and it’ll be his opponent that gets a New York welcome.

“Seriously though, I don’t mind it,” he says. “I understand that when I fight at Madison Square Garden, whenever that happens in the future, whoever I’m fighting will be getting that treatment. He is the Indiana boy, that’s where he’s from, and I definitely expect a lot of boos.

“I’m sure they’ll be cheering during the fight—not me but for the fight itself—because you’re going to have two guys looking to make a statement looking to take each other out. And I’m going in there to do what nobody else has done, and that’s finish him.”