Matt Serra was creeping up on 39 years old, and hadn't fought in well over two years, so it it had gotten to the point when most people considered him retired anyway. But then, when they heard he had hung it up after suffering blood blots and a forced rib removal, it no longer seemed so fair or timely. Serra, who had authored one of the most memorable moments in mixed martial arts history when he knocked out Georges St-Pierre in 2007, last week told New York Newsday that he was "walking away."
But on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, he told Ariel Helwani that it was a decision a long time in coming. In fact, he said that even in his final fight against Chris Lytle in Sept. 2010, he had an inkling that he was nearing the end. He had already fought Lytle once before, and the two had become friends, making it difficult to motivate himself. Deep down, he was conflicted.
"It was a weird, weird mental thing," he said. "I came to the conclusion, he hasn’t been knocked down before. He has a chin like granite. Don’t get me wrong, if I knocked him down, I would have followed him down, but that was the game plan. Let’s stand ... [but] I should have been looking to win. I could have mixed it up more with the jiu-jitsu, but I wanted to excite myself. So right there is a sign like, 'What the f--- am I doing?'"
Serra said he always viewed fighting to go hand-in-hand with his other passion, teaching. Serra opened his first gym storefront in part from the first two checks he received from fighting in the UFC.
Whenever he needed a spark, he would take a fight, then he would go back to Long Island and continue teaching the gospel of BJJ. As a result, he never felt any sense of urgency to return quickly. That shows in the path of his career. Serra made his UFC debut in May 2001, and fought 14 times until retirement. In many years, he fought only a single time.
His career arc crested when he took part in a season of The Ultimate Fighter that focused on UFC veterans, with the season winner earning a chance to fight for the belt. From the beginning, Serra came off as a star on the show for his gregarious personality and leadership skills. During the season, Serra beat Pete Spratt by submission and Shonie Carter by submission. In the finals, he edged Lytle in a split-decision, earning the chance to fight champion Georges St-Pierre.
By fight time, St-Pierre was a massive favorite, at around 11-to-1, and most people believed that if Serra had any chance, it would be on the ground. Instead, he stunned the fight world by knocking out GSP with his hands in less than a round. Not surprisingly, he's content with that epic moment as the crux of his legacy.
"Of course," he said. "It’s something I’m very proud of. Whenever there's something you’ve done that everybody and their mother said you couldn’t do, and it was like an impossible feat, of course, it's awesome. Compare it to Rocky 1. 'You can't do it Rocky. Who are you to go in there?' All he wants to do is go the distance and he goes the distance. Wonderful story. This is better though. First of all, MMA is way cooler than boxing. And two, I finished the guy. He got revenge, and he beat my ass in Canada. I know, but f--- that. Who cares? The first fight was way funner for me."
After beating GSP, Serra would fight just four more times. He lost the belt to St-Pierre, fought a close decision with rival Matt Hughes that went Hughes' way, KO'd Frank Trigg, and then lost the rematch with Lytle by decision.
Serra said he didn't announce his retirement sooner because there's always been the contemplation to do one more. He compared the feeling of competing to a drug because of the high you experience while doing it. But the injuries began to slow him down.
It all came to a head last month, when it was discovered that he had thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused his first rib and collarbone to compress a vein, restricted blood flow and caused clots. At the time it was found, Serra had clots in his bicep and lung, and said he was lucky to have gone to the doctor when he did.
To address the issue, surgeons removed his first rib, the one closest to his collarbone. He said he feels good now but is currently on blood thinners and has several more weeks of recovery before he can return to his life on the mats and rolling jiu-jitsu.
Right now, he's not sure if he will be able to fly to Las Vegas and corner his protege Chris Weidman when the middleweight travels to challenge Anderson Silva at UFC 162.
"He’s a unique individual, Chris," he said. "He’s really talented and I think ... people point to the Demian Maia fight. That’s literally without a camp. That's not done. Nobody does that. It's not even like he had a fight the next week and switched opponents. The guy didn’t have a camp. He got off the couch and did that. It's not like he's a slob but he's not in fighting shape. He’s going to look human. Look when he has a full camp. The guy’s a monster. You look at the guy closest to him. Pople say about Chris, they compare him to Chael [Sonnen] or whatever. I believe Chris is a different animal. I really do. I've witnessed it. I think he's going to do phenomenal."
Beyond that, Serra is not quite sure as to what his future holds. He'll always have jiu-jitsu, but might some role in television follow for the loquacious Long Islander? Even if it doesn't, he disappears into the sport's background, he's happy with his role in mixed martial arts history. First TUF winner to win a belt, biggest upset in UFC history, welterweight champion. What's not to like?
"I’m proud of everything I’ve done with the UFC," he said. "I’m proud to be a part of it. I had a very nice conversation with Dana [White] the other day about everything. I kind of made it official with the walking-away thing. He said, 'I would have brought you out.' It’s all good. I’m happy. Whoever you talk to, I’m either overrated or underrated. It's all who you to talk to. I’m very secure with my career. I had a great time. Now it’s time to sit back like Al Bundy and talk about past glories."