Matt Serra: Why I retired
This is number seventy in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re honored to feature the former UFC welterweight champion, Matt Serra. Serra recently announced his retirement, but the Long Island native remains a vital figure in MMA. Serra was the first American to be awarded a BJJ black belt under Renzo Gracie, and the former champ is one of the most likeable underdogs that the sport of MMA has ever seen. His upset of welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, at UFC 69, was largely considered the sport’s greatest upset of all time. However, Serra’s own student, Chris Weidman, just made that debatable with his recent defeat of the middleweight champion, Anderson Silva. Nevertheless, Serra has many accomplishments to be remembered for and his legacy will continue to live on through his students and otherwise. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Matt Serra: My father wasn’t really into traditional sports like baseball and football and all that stuff. I was never in little league or anything like that. I was watching Bruce Lee and King Fu Theater. My father was a lifelong martial artist. I used to do Wing Chun with him. He used to hold pads for me. I was always interested in the martial arts and combat and all that good stuff. I was always fascinated with things like when Bruce Lee fought Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon.” Even with superheroes, my dad would always be like, “Who would win between The Hulk and Superman?” I was always interested in the one-on-one combat.
JB: You were the first American to earn a BJJ black belt under Renzo Gracie and you’ve been together at pivotal points in both of your fighting careers. How would you describe your relationship with Renzo and what he has meant to your development as a martial artist?
MS: Renzo I consider family. Without Renzo, I would never have achieved anything that I’ve achieved in the martial arts world. He took me under his wing. I was literally wearing a clip-on tie, working the graveyard shift, midnight until eight in the morning, in a security guard booth. As a twenty year old kid, he saw me and he said, “You’re rolling like s—. What’s your problem?” I’m like, “Dude, I’m tired. I’m working all night, I come here all day, and then I got to go back to the security guard booth.” So he says, “Forget that. Work here for me.” The next day I was there and I was so happy to be there. I was cleaning the urinals and everything. I didn’t give a crap. I was like, “Oh, this is great!” I used to teach for him in the afternoons, do private lessons, and train at night. That really took my training to another level. That’s not to mention that he took me to Japan for his fights to corner him. I got to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff, how it worked, and what it was like leading up to the fight. So he really just took me under his wing and I could never repay him. I’m old-school like that. He’s my sensei. He’s my master. And he’s a family member.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
MS: They used to have kickboxing matches. Before it was called Ring of Combat, there was a club out here on Long Island called the Vanderbilt, a huge club. They used to have “Vengeance at the Vanderbilt.” One of those matches you can find on YouTube with me vs. Khamzat something or other. He was some Russian Sambo guy, who was pretty tough because he was a legit grappler and whatnot. I ended up choking him. That was on ESPN back in the day. They used to squeeze me on the cards as a freestyle grappling exhibition. I had like eight of those and one of them was at the Copacabana in Manhattan vs. Scott Schultz, a Jiu-jitsu guy, and the other ones were in Long Island. None of my matches went more than a few minutes because back in the mid to late 90s I still had the advantage with the Jiu-jitsu, especially on the East Coast. So that’s where I got my experience.
For my first fight, there were no weight limits and it was a Kung Fu guy, a big black guy with dreadlocks, and he dwarfed me, man. At the time I was like 166, something like that. It was really cool though because of the size difference. It looked like a comic book fight. It was awesome. I took him down, mounted him, smacked him a few times in the face, and got him with an arm-lock. I was just like, “Oh man, this is glorious! This is great! I could get used to this. This is fantastic!”
JB: Many long-time fans of the sport consider season four of The Ultimate Fighter to be one of the best. The comeback season, with its unique format, certainly had the most talent of any season of TUF, and for you, winning that season resulted in you fighting for and winning the title. How much did you enjoy the challenge of participating in that unique edition of TUF, with veteran training partners and opponents, like Shonie Carter, Chris Lytle, and Din Thomas, and one of your best friends, Pete Sell?
MS: That experience in The Ultimate Fighter house, they put you up in a nice house, and I loved it, man. I wasn’t in there with a bunch of knuckleheads. Everybody, they were veterans. Everybody had been in the UFC before so I didn’t have to deal with guys trying to piss in my f—ing iced tea and s— like that. Nobody was doing anything sick. It was all a bunch of cool guys and I made some lifelong friendships.
Of course, Pete “Drago” Sell is like a little brother to me. That guy is at my house at f—ing Christmas and whatever else. That guy’s my buddy, man. He’s another one that’s like a family member. I’ve known him since he was seventeen, and he’s like thirty now. It was great being there with him, but I made friends with Patrick Cote and even guys that I fought. Din Thomas, that’s my buddy. He’s a ballbreaker, that f—er. I got Din and Chris Lytle, who was my last fight in the UFC. He gave me a nice scar on my forehead which I’m proud to show off. So I made friends like that and Jorge too.
I went through something with them. Life’s all about opportunities and that was a huge, huge opportunity. It was basically an eight-man tournament. In my season it was the welterweights and the middleweights and only one guy in each class was getting a shot. It was something that was really special to me. I was engaged at the time, away from my family, and I looked at it like a six-week training camp. Because we got deprived of all the luxuries that we normally had, the internet or whatever, it made it that much more special. You remembered it. You went through something. I have nothing but fond memories but that’s probably because I won the thing. If I lost, I’d be like, “That sucked.” I have nothing but fond memories and that was a huge part of my journey. It resurrected my career. It got me the title shot. That show, “The Comeback,” they made it like the last shot at glory and I made it come true, man. I did that, and then I got the title shot, and it was my storybook ending.
JB: On the other hand, season six of TUF, in which you coached against rival Matt Hughes, was one of the more lackluster seasons. It was punctuated, however, by the drama involving your friend and student, Joe Scarola, and certainly seemed to test your ability as a coach and mentor. How difficult was that process of coaching on TUF?
MS: I don’t know. The whole thing with Joey was a big bummer. Sometimes you got to go through something like that and it’s kind of meant to be. Joey’s doing his own thing now and I’ll talk to him once in a blue moon, once in a while. He’s not a bad guy, Joe Scarola. He really isn’t. It’s a weird thing, the whole reality television, and people go on the show for the wrong reasons and whatnot. It’s life lessons. I wish that guy no ill will. I know he’s running a Gracie Barra school and he’s doing well for himself. Again, he’s not a bad guy. It just wasn’t his type of thing to be on there.
Coaching against Matt Hughes was fun. I thought we did well. Even though Mac Danzig was on his team and won the whole thing, I don’t feel like Hughes won that competition. Me, and especially Longo, and Drago, we showed what we could do as a team with those guys. I enjoyed that season, but it wasn’t the same as being in there. I enjoyed being in there more. I went through something. I sacrificed, and at the end, it paid off.
JB: You, Ray Longo, and your brother, Nick, have quite a good thing going with fighters like the new middleweight champion, Weidman, and others. What’s made your team so successful?
MS: There’s no secret pill. I’m really happy for Longo with Chris Weidman winning the middleweight championship. I’m super proud of Longo because he’s getting the credit he deserves as a coach. It’s hard work. There’s no secret pill. You got to get your sparring in, but you have to have guys watching over you. I’ve always handled the grappling with the guys. I’ve always got the guys’ Jiu-jitsu straight. And Longo always handled the sparring. There are always other guys handling different areas too, but that was our thing. We’ve always had a good chemistry and it comes from a good place. It’s not like we got some master plan to get this off this kid or that off that. We just want guys to do well and it has been working. It’s just a good chemistry between me and Longo and the guys. If a guy’s got a bad attitude, he’s not going to stick around. I’m a big believer of water seeking its own level.
JB: You went 7-7 in the UFC, and you fought some of the best fighters of all time. What, including winning the welterweight championship, were your most satisfying performances in the octagon?
MS: 7-7? That’s not including my fights in the house on The Ultimate Fighter? I think that’s some bulls—. I count those fights, those fights in the house vs. Pete Spratt and especially the fight vs. Shonie. Maybe they can’t count it because of this or that, but I could give a crap. I count it. You know what I mean? I went in there and could have had the same bodily harm done as in any fight. Those fights were very special to me. Pete Spratt was the first fight I had after Karo beat me. So that was an important fight for me. And Shonie Carter obviously was crucial. I needed that. I needed to get that win. I needed to get that redemption with him.
Every time I went out there it was special, especially when I won. But even some of the tough fights that I lost, like my fights with BJ Penn and Matt Hughes, I don’t feel like I lost those fights. I’m not saying that I won. I’m just saying that I don’t feel that I was beaten. It was a standstill. You know whenever you get beat, like when St-Pierre beat me the second time and Karo Parisyan beat me pretty good. Those are tough lessons learned and that’s a hard day at the office. But these other fights, not that I don’t feel bad about the fights I lost, but the fights that were close, that went to decision, I don’t know. There’s going to be talks of the greatest of all time and this and that, and I don’t need to be mentioned with that group. I really don’t. But I definitely beat at least one of their asses and I went toe-to-toe with some of the other guys that are going to be mentioned in that group. I’m cool with that. I feel like I fought some of the best guys on the planet and every one of them knew they were in a fight.
JB: So given that, what would it mean to you to be a UFC Hall-of-Famer?
MS: I don’t think that’s happening or else I’d probably have heard something already. But that’s fine, man. Of course it would be an honor, but at the same time I think who you got to answer to is that man in the mirror and I can definitely look back and be proud of what I’ve done. I can show it to my kids as they get older. My Frank Trigg fight stands out because I gave a shout-out to my daughter. It’s deeper than getting a plaque and a place in that hall of fame. Again, that would be awesome, but I’m not going to lose sleep about it.
JB: I know that you just welcomed a new addition to your family so congratulations! What, including being with your family, do you enjoy doing when you are not training?
MS: Thank you, bro. Right now I just got to my school and I just got the okay to roll again. I’ve been out of commission since I had that surgery and whatnot. My last day of blood thinner is tomorrow. I just get another shot and then I’m cool. What I enjoy doing, man, I put most of my money from my fights back into my schools. I love teaching the art of Jiu-Jitsu. Getting guys ready for fights and everything is awesome. I love that too. But I love the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Renzo said it best, “We’re not just about teaching guys to kick ass or defend themselves. We are in the confidence building business.” You know what I mean? You see people change. Whether it’s kids or adults I enjoy that. That’s what I would do if I had all the money in the world. I’d still be at my schools and hanging with the guys, showing some arm-locks and rolling around.
My day is spent hanging out with my kids. I spend a ton of time with my kids. I enjoy hanging out with my family. I spend all my time with my family. If not, I’m at the schools hanging out with my students, rolling around. That’s what I do. Besides that what do I do? I get a movie night with my wife once in a while, but that’s it, man. I really have become a grownup. It’s so weird. I also get to squeeze in my late-night “Call of Duty” and Xbox. I’m a big movie guy also, like I said. I love the movies, man. So me and my wife, or me and the kids, we’ll go see the movies. Hanging out with my kids, jumping in my pool now that it’s the summertime, it’s a good life. I’m very lucky to be where I’m at because I’m doing what I love and I have a beautiful family. What can I complain about?
JB: You recently announced your retirement. How much thought and planning went into that decision and what do you think of the response that you have received since the announcement? Are you happy with that final decision?
MS: I got a great response. There are always going to be jerk-offs and haters out there, but for the most part, you just have those guys that take a shot at you on Twitter and then you block them. I get a lot of love. I try to pay it forward. I try to do the right thing by people.
As far as making the decision, I’m thirty-nine now, I just had that surgery, and I’m like, “You know what? It was the right decision.” It’s like “The Lion King” now. You got to move on and let the new breed come up. What better timing than that? I just get out of it, and Chris becomes champion. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m happy to be a part of that in any way, shape, or form.
You don’t want to be that guy that hangs out at the party too long. Glory, getting your hand raised, being in the midst of battle, that’s like a drug. Guys just think they can walk away and they really can’t. It’s a strange thing because you do it for so long, but myself, I’ve always been into teaching. I’ve never been the guy to fight five times in a year or anything like that. My first UFC check I put toward my academy. And then it became two academies and affiliates in Bayside, Queens, and Myrtle Beach. I always did my teaching and my fighting hand in hand. So although it is an adjustment knowing that I’m not going to have that fight coming up anymore, it’s not totally off balance because I’ll just concentrate more on my Jiu-jitsu, more on my students, and of course on my family.
The time just felt right. I knew when I heard somebody saying that they wanted to fight me or this and that. In the past, I had thought, “Let’s get this f—er!” Now when I heard it I couldn’t really give two s—s. I’m taking my kids to the park today. I didn’t really care. I knew something was wrong then. That shouldn’t be like that. I should want to think of nothing except ripping this guy’s head off or taking this guy out who dares mention my name. And I didn’t really give a f—-. So that’s when I was like, “You know what? Maybe it’s time to move on.” You can’t be in that cage half-assed, saying, “All right. I’ll do it because I’ve done it before.” Now it’s times for me to be, husband, father, former UFC champ. I can live with that.”
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