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The Ultimate Underdog: Why Matt Serra beating Georges St-Pierre is still MMA’s greatest upset

MMA is nothing if not volatile.

It’s a form of competition where, regardless of the level of training, conditioning and experience, all it takes is one opening, one mistake, to completely change the tide of battle. Yes, at the end of the day, the superior fighter should prevail the majority of the time. But there is no playing field that is as ripe for chaos as when two athletes step into a cage to duke it out.

And there is no greater example of that than when Matt Serra defeated Georges St-Pierre.

UFC 69, April 7, 2007. Houston. St-Pierre vs. Serra. “GSP” was fresh off of consecutive wins over two of his greatest rivals, Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn. The Hughes victory was particularly sweet, as it was Hughes who’d stopped St-Pierre’s first attempt to become UFC welterweight champion three years prior. Serra, a well-liked journeyman with a 9-4 record, was easy pickings for St-Pierre’s first title defense. He was a victory lap. At least that was the plan.

What happened instead was the greatest upset in MMA history. Tuesday marked the 13th anniversary of that shocking outcome, and Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew will explain why it still deserves that title.

Two Paths

AL: By the time St-Pierre made his UFC debut in January 2004, Serra had already been involved in some memorable octagon scraps. Serra’s own debut ended in disaster after he got cracked by a Shonie Carter spinning backfist with less than 10 seconds remaining in their fight, and after bouncing back with a couple of solid wins, he was outpointed in back-to-back fights against Penn and Din Thomas.

JM: If you’re a new fan to MMA and your exposure to Serra is largely his work on Lookin’ for a Fight or the UFC Unfiltered podcast, you’re probably wondering who that man getting backfisted in the face is. Well, that’s Serra before he ate ALL THE PASTA - a svelte 155/170-pounder with world-class BJJ skills, a trait which was substantially more dangerous at the time when well-rounded fighters were few and far between.

Serra went on to add more tools to his game, including solid boxing. Realistically, the losses to Penn and Thomas were not that bad. He proved capable of hanging with two of the four best lightweights on the planet, even though he didn’t beat them.

Unfortunately for Serra, that division was not long for the world. After a pair of wins over two men who would eventually go on to compete at bantamweight, Jeff Curran and Ivan Menjivar (fun fact: Menjivar was St-Pierre’s opponent for his pro debut), he found himself without a home as the lightweight division was shuttered. In response, “The Terror” moved up to welterweight again and was summarily out-fought by arguably the best fighter to never compete for a title: Karo Parisyan.

It seemed like Serra had found his ceiling as a gatekeeper to the stars.

AL: Serra’s early UFC days ran in stark contrast to St-Pierre’s. Then more well-known as “Rush,” St-Pierre quickly outgrew the regional scene in his native Quebec and made the jump to the big show after a 5-0 start to his career. His first octagon victory was an impressive win over Parisyan at UFC 46, and he followed that up with a first-round TKO of Jay Hieron to set up a title fight with Hughes, who was one of the biggest stars in MMA and far more experienced than GSP at the time.

St-Pierre faltered, but he rebounded with five straight wins, including finishes of past title challengers Frank Trigg and Sean Sherk, and a classic split decision nod over Penn. He was an absolute force and it was assumed that he would inevitably usurp Hughes atop the welterweight mountain. That theory proved to be correct as he beat Hughes on his second try to set up what would be a legendary run at the top.

Except for one notable speed bump. But we’re getting to that.

The Comeback

JM: In August of 2006, the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter took place with a premise that should’ve happened years later when the UFC was desperate for viewership. Take 16 journeymen middleweights and welterweights, pair them in tournaments, and the winners get a shot at the title in their respective division.

It was a no-brainer for the fighters – it was the simplest path to a title shot, after all. Serra, who was 1-2 as a welterweight, didn’t have to slog his way through one of the deepest divisions in the sport. Instead, all he had to do was win three fights. One little problem, though. Two of the guys in his division had already beaten him: Shonie Carter and Din Thomas.

AL: Serra emerged as a great leader and one of the standout characters of the season. But it really didn’t feel like he was one of the favorites to make it to the finale, much less win the whole thing.

JM: Of course not. Shonie was the favorite based on his suit game and pimp cup alone.

Shonie Carter, pictured here with pimp cup
UFC Fight Pass

AL: The good news for the UFC is that not only did Serra make for good television, he went on to win his fights, too. First, he submitted a talented, but overmatched Pete Spratt, and then avenged his loss to Carter to advance to the finals, where he met Chris Lytle.

Unfortunately, this battle of future fan favorites did not result in fireworks, and Serra instead went on to win an uninspiring split decision. For anyone who hadn’t watched TUF, the idea that either Serra or Lytle were credible challengers to St-Pierre was almost laughable, and it looked like Serra’s Cinderella story was headed to an anti-climactic ending.

JM: Especially considering Serra lost! Lytle definitely should’ve won the decision, so it felt doubly impossible for the BJJ player to offer anything against the best fighter in the sport.

Perhaps if Lytle had gotten the decision, the UFC could’ve sold fans on the idea that his pro-boxing experience and striking presented a KO danger for GSP. But Serra? He needed takedowns to win, and GSP had essentially established himself as the best counter-wrestler in the sport by shutting down Matt Hughes. What was Serra going to do to St-Pierre other than bleed on him?

AL: It’s ironic that Serra is one of the most commonly cited examples of an underdog having a puncher’s chance against a dominant champion – he had ZERO knockouts heading into this fight and finished his career with two. He’d shown glimpses of power in his hands, but back then, St-Pierre was a dynamic striker and strong wrestler, and given he was also bigger than Serra, there didn’t seem to be a lot of avenues for Serra to find success.

If anything, one would guess that Serra was more likely to catch a Hail Mary triangle choke a la Anderson Silva than do what he actually did at UFC 69.

“Matt Serra has shocked the world!”

GSP was famously as high as a -1300 favorite heading into fight night. As the French Canadians would say, his triumph was fait accompli.

JM: In the immortal words of every dad in existence: that’s why they play the game. In a tidy three minutes and 25 seconds, Serra clobbered the bigger, stronger, better fighter. Thirteen years later, I’m still not even sure it actually happened.

And it wasn’t just that he beat GSP, it was the way he did it. Serra cold-cocked him so bad, St-Pierre just rolled over and (arguably) tapped to strikes.

AL: What’s surprising in retrospect is that St-Pierre wasn’t looking to take this fight to the ground, as he would in so many of his future title defenses. This is the matchup that changed his strategy forever.

JM: It was also an outcome that caused people to question St-Pierre’s chin and heart for the rest of his career. Think about how insane that is. The best, most accomplished fighter of all time had some people wondering if Dan freakin’ Hardy might be able to KO him.

AL: True, I’m not sure people realize how this one upset added an important layer of intrigue to all of St-Pierre’s subsequent title fights. Somehow, despite having the strongest of championship resumes, St-Pierre never developed that aura of invincibility that would be afforded his contemporaries like Anderson Silva and Chuck Liddell.

But back to Serra. The Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt was a couple of months shy of his 33rd birthday and hadn’t even sniffed a title shot up until this point. Just like that, he was the champion of the world.

JM: Unfortunately for Serra, I’m not sure he ever got the respect that title should have warranted. Had he outclassed St-Pierre, fans may have reimagined his entire career, but realistically, everyone saw the outcome for what it was: the statistical variance of the aforementioned puncher’s chance.

The Legacy

Meanwhile, the ripple effect Serra’s win had was tremendous, most notably with regard to St-Pierre. Fueled by that loss, GSP never lost a fight again. However, he also adopted one of the most safety-first styles ever seen in MMA. After reclaiming the welterweight title, he went to decisions in nine of his 10 title defenses. Gone were the days of St-Pierre being the most exciting fighter in the sport, and it’s hard not to think Serra’s right hand had a lot to do with that.

AL: St-Pierre 2.0 was fully operational by the time he rematched Serra a year later at UFC 83. This time, St-Pierre effortlessly controlled Serra and bludgeoned him with knees to the body for the second-round finish.

The success that St-Pierre had not just in this rematch, but for the remainder of his career, only amplifies how impressive Serra’s upset is. In the 13-fight unbeaten run that closed out his career, you can count on one hand the number of times that St-Pierre’s supremacy was in question, with only Johny Hendricks really having an argument that he was the better man after stepping into the cage with GSP.

JM: The man won 32 consecutive rounds during this streak! That’s completely illogical. That, to me, is the single most impressive record in UFC history. And it all got kick-started when Serra shook up the world.

AL: There is no other upset that seemed astronomically unlikely before it happened and even more unlikely when you see where the fighters’ respective careers went. Serra went 1-3 after winning the title and settled into retirement in September 2010, while St-Pierre cemented himself as arguably the best ever.

Many other dramatic upsets have happened since then (Gabriel Gonzaga knocked out Cro Cop just two weeks later), but all of them have their caveats and haven’t been properly re-framed over time.

JM: Even 13 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s still flabbergasting. Michael Bisping KOing Luke Rockhold was shocking, and then everyone did it. T.J. Dillashaw dominating Renan Barao was shocking, and then Dillashaw became the bantamweight GOAT.

AL: Holly Holm’s win over Ronda Rousey caused mass hysteria, but Rousey’s striking was always a question mark, despite her natural power, and there’s an army of Sunday morning quarterbacks who will tell you they knew Holm was the perfect foil for Rousey. Rousey disappearing for a year and returning only to get knocked out in 48 seconds didn’t help that one either.

JM: But Georges St-Pierre got stopped by Matt Serra, and then he went on to establish himself as the best fighter to ever walk the planet. He was better than Serra before the fight, and he was better than Serra after the fight. But for those 3:25 in Houston, Serra was the better man. It’s the Miracle on Xyience Canvas.

What do you think readers? Is Matt Serra’s win over Georges St-Pierre still the greatest upset in MMA history? Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments below.


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