Matt Serra's story continues to unfold
HUNTINGTON, N.Y. -- There's something about Matt Serra's lightness of being that makes everything that's happened to him in the cage seem unlikely.
It could be that he's 5-foot-6, or that he's one of mixed martial arts' most charismatic figures, but it's been that way for the Long Island native ever since he debuted in the UFC in 2001.
The company had never seen an omoplata like the one Serra rolled out against Shonie Carter at UFC 31, yet what everyone remembers is the second spinning backfist Carter landed late to ruin Serra's Octagon debut. Everyone, that is, except Serra, who had to be told about it by training partner Ray Longo while lying in a hospital bed.
Against Din Thomas at UFC 41, Serra had his arm raised in victory -- only to be informed backstage that there was a scoring mix-up and he had in fact lost. And don't even mention Karo Parisyan, whom he dropped and was an inch from finishing were it not for the referee's reluctance to wave him off.
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There have been some bad turns, yet without these downs Serra might never have known what to do with the ups -- legacy-defining feats like winning "The Ultimate Fighter 4" and improbably taking the UFC welterweight belt back to Long Island.
"When I'm an old dude in a rocking chair, I'll have these great war stories," said the 36-year-old, who's fought everyone from B.J. Penn to Matt Hughes. "And you know, whether I'm the hammer or the nail, it makes me a better instructor at my schools and builds up your character. So I'm there for the experience itself."
Those stories can be left to the offing for now. These days it's not so much about wins and losses as it is living out the fable. And why not? When one of your highlights is the knocking out of pound-for-pound best fighter in the history of the game Georges St. Pierre, things have already come full circle from bizarre to storybook.
"He's already an American success story, about a kid who never quits," said Longo, who's known Serra for 17 years. "At first it was all jiu-jitsu, with him and Renzo Gracie, but he believes in his stand-up ability, and that's what makes him dangerous. He loves sparring.
"He's just really comfortable now, he's in a good place in life. His schools are going good, he started a family [he has an 18-month old daughter, Angelina], and I don't think winning that belt again is a priority. He just loves fighting."
One of the stories Serra can already tell is how he changed the way people fight. While he would turn St. Pierre into a more careful and therefore highly scrutinized fighter by stopping the Canadian with that big right hand, he made Chris Lytle -- his opponent at UFC 119 in Indianapolis -- into somebody who completely throws caution to the wind.
Lytle has been that way since dropping a very close split decision to Serra at "The Ultimate Fighter 4" finale in 2006. Since then, Serra's former castmate (29-17-4) has resurrected himself as an all-or-nothing fighter, taking home seven end of the night bonuses in his past 11 fights. Their sequel comes Sept. 25 in Lytle's backyard, once again stacking everything against Serra, just as it was when he fought and lost the belt back to St. Pierre in Montreal.
"The first fight changed the way I fight because I realized I never want to try and win a decision again," Lytle said. "This time I'm in a different place mentally, and I think he is as well. I think we're both going to go out there and instead of it being about winning or losing, it'll be about fighting as hard as you can. When you go in like that the fights are 100 percent more entertaining. At this point, I would rather put on an exciting fight and lose than a boring fight and win."
Could it be that Serra is being overly accommodating? Maybe. He likes the idea. But he'll tell you it's more a matter of dissatisfaction with the first bout, when both men felt they where fighting on eggshells.
"Last time it was two guys fighting not to lose, and this time it's two guys looking to take each other out," Serra said. "And I'll tell you something: Not only is he fighting in a rematch in a fight where he lost a very close decision with a lot on the line, but he's fighting in his hometown, in front of everybody he's ever known from his family on. He's going to want to make a statement."
Part of that statement for Lytle is to never feel content in there.
"I was just happy to be there landing little punches as he pushed me up against the fence the last time," Lytle said, adding that taking Serra down isn't out of the question if it means opening up his chances on the feet. "This time I'm not going to be thinking as long as I'm winning I'm staying here -- I'll always be looking to finish the fight. Little punches aren't going to end the fight. So I'm going to have to take punches to land punches. Trust me, anything I'm doing is with the intention of ending the fight or setting that up."
Serra has the exact same thing on his mind.
"You know, we're both durable veterans that are well-rounded," Serra said. "We're both not 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, either."
Anticipating Lytle's overlooked scrambling ability, Serra has been spending time with Renzo Gracie working from his back, just in case there's something up Lytle's sleeve. But it's that right hand that's been the storyteller of late.
"Matt hits hard," said his sparring partner Pete Sell. "Look, he dropped how many people now? How many guys does he have to drop with his right hand to get some credit for his stand-up? He's on a different level now. He has such different confidence in his hands."
In the fight life of Serra, it's not all that strange that a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is worrying about Lytle's submission skills and sort of counting on outboxing a known boxer. It's just the thought process of a man who's not only come to bank on the unexpected, but is forever defined by it.
"To me, it's all about the journey," he said. "The glass is always half full for me. Life is short and so am I."
Chuck Mindenhall is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine, and can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.