At UFC 69, Matt "The Terror" Serra will try and do what only one man has done before him: Defeat uber-champ Georges "Rush" St. Pierre.
I caught up with Matt in the early morning as he prepared for another day of training. "I'm in the gym seven days a week," he casually informs me, as I ruefully struggle to digest a second helping of corned beef hash.
Matt greets me like an old friend he's just run into at the local pub. Soft-spoken and polite, he speaks with a conviction that is both genuine and humbling.
This is not some thug trying to prove how tough he is, but a hard working and dedicated professional who's grateful for everything he has and everyone who's helped him get to where he is today.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Matt, thank you for taking the time to check in with us at UFCmania. Tell me, how does a kid from Long Island grow up to be fighting for the world title in the UFC?
Matt Serra: Oh man it's really exciting, I'm enjoying every second of it. I feel like Rocky Balboa. My dad was a lifelong martial artist and when I was 17 I enrolled into the delayed entry program in the Marines. Well I ended up getting into a streetfight and the guy got really hurt. They charged me with a felony but I ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. After that the Marines didn't accept me, I couldn't believe it. I didn't know what the hell I was gonna do with myself. Then my dad showed me a tape of the Gracies. It was incredible and I was just like man that is it, that's what I want to do.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): You're the first American Black Belt under Renzo Gracie. What does that mean to you in terms of your achievements?
Matt Serra: It's phenomenal. It was a dream come true, it will always be number one. I worked hard for it too man, I was busting my ass as a security guard at night and then during the day I would train under Renzo.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): I guess that training paid off since you have a pretty impressive list of amateur accomplishments.
Matt Serra: Yeah man it just clicked. I won first place at the Pan Am games as a purple belt under Renzo and won a gold medal at the World Games as a brown belt.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Let's pick up shortly after that. It's 2001 and you've just gotten your MMA career off the ground. Two weeks before you're set to face Yves Edwards-who's already an established fighter-the nation gets hit with 9/11. As a New York guy, how did that affect your training and mental preparation for the fight? Was there a point where you considered not continuing?
Matt Serra: You know what? It had the opposite effect. It took all the pressure off me. There was so much pressure. I needed the win against Edwards. I needed it because my debut was a knockout loss to Shonie with that friggin' backfist. I lose that fight (Edwards) and I'm out of the UFC. I was also counting on that fight because I needed the purse to open my school. 9/11 helped me put all that stuff in perspective. I remember telling myself all these people just died...who gives a shit if I lose? There are real problems out there that are far more important. It made me appreciate what I had. Randy Couture once said that if a loss is the worst thing that happens to a guy he's in pretty good shape.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Your fight at UFC 69 will be your tenth with the UFC. Was there ever a consideration to try your luck in PRIDE or other promotions?
Matt Serra: I love the UFC. This is my home. Plus I have my schools here. When I'm not fighting I'm teaching and when I'm teaching I also corner my guys for their fights. This is where I want to be. I've always had a great relationship with Dana and the Fertitta brothers. They take good care of me so why should I go anywhere else? I'm happy here.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): You've got two MMA academies: One in East Meadow and one in Huntington. Who is the next great fighter out of Serra Jiu-Jitsu?
Matt Serra: Man we got a lot of great fighters here. Luke and Drago are here you know those guys. I guess one to watch would be Franky "Bam Bam". He's a twenty year-old purple belt. Watch out for him he's got a great future.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Ever rumble with the Mad Monkey? (Matt's younger brother Nick)
Matt Serra: Oh man he's a jiu-jitsu genius. A genius on the floor. His twin Damien is a brown belt. We train together but we never fought out of anger. I can't even imagine it: Three hours of lay ‘n pray.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): I wouldn't ask but since you are a Long Island guy: Ever sleep with Amy Fisher?
Matt Serra: (Laughs) NO! I know we're the same age but she's one town over in Merrick. No, I don't even know her.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Well you're engaged now. Any truth to the rumor that you're getting married inside the Octagon and that Dana White is walking your fiancÃƒÂ© down the aisle?
Matt Serra: What? Hell no. Who the hell starts these rumors?
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Uh, actually I did. I just started it about ten seconds ago.
Matt Serra: (Laughs) We're having a nice big Italian wedding with good food. I'm REALLY looking forward to the food. That reminds me, what happened to the old tradition where the bride's father pays for the wedding?
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Well you're money now. If you wanted them to pay for the wedding you should have dropped the decision to Lytle.
Matt Serra: Yeah but then I'd be out the other money. I'm telling you, you just can't win.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Name some childhood heroes or people you've admired.
Matt Serra: My father, of course. I was into Bruce Lee as a child. Enter the Dragon is probably my favorite martial arts movie. I loved those cheesy kung fu movies that were on Saturday afternoons too. And Wolverine from the X-Men. I was really into comics back in the day.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Who are some UFC fighters you're close to?
Matt Serra: Pete Sell and Luke Cuomo. They're not just friends but also students and teammates.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Would you ever fight those guys?
Matt Serra: No way man, never happen. You just can't fight a guy you came up with. It's one thing to fight a guy you're cool with or maybe even a casual friend but to fight guys you're that close to? Uh-uh, no way.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): In my interview with Georges St. Pierre he shared your sentiment on friends fighting friends. Since you're set to face him at UFC 69 is it safe to assume you two aren't bosom buddies?
Matt Serra: Yeah, I mean we don't hang out or anything we're just acquaintances. He's a cool guy though. Most fighters are cool with each other. Even the guys I fought in the past-win or lose-I'm cool with all of them.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What about Matt Hughes? Is it awkward seeing him after the comments you made on The Ultimate Fighter?
Matt Serra: I rarely see him so it hasn't been an issue. I would never disrespect the guy as a fighter because he's a powerhouse. He's done a lot in our division. But as a person he's so arrogant. Being a great fighter doesn't give you an excuse to be an asshole.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): It seems Matt has made a name for himself by being a great fighter and by being a jerk.
Matt Serra: Yeah, I mean I used to hang out with guys like Tim Sylvia and Matt Hughes. We used to be cool but I don't know, you win a few fights and get yourself some airtime and all of the sudden you're walkin' around like your shit don't stink. My attitude is you meet the same guys on the way down that you met on the way up.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Well you are big-time now. You're fighting for the title, making the rounds on Dr. Keith and Fox news, how do you stay so down-to-earth and easygoing?
Matt Serra: I've been around a long time. It's hard for me to change, I'm just who I am. Man I'm just happy to be fighting in the UFC. I'm living the dream!
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Well if you weren't living the dream what would you be doing?
Matt Serra: Well I don't wanna work for the man! I gotta do my own thing. I don't know maybe a corrections officer? They might not even take me! It's hard to say I can't see myself doing anything else.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): How much longer do you see yourself competing?
Matt Serra: I haven't even thought about it. I'm enjoying the ride, just kind of taking it as it comes. I guess I'll play it by ear.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): You're not only a competitor but you're also a teacher and mentor. Can you shed some light on what seems to be an epidemic of sorts – these injuries that occur in training? And why are they coming out in the post-fight interviews?
Matt Serra: You know you can't make excuses. It's disrespectful to your opponent and it's disrespectful to the fans. Plus you look like a dick. The fans don't want to hear that anymore, they're sick of it. Look what happened to Sylvia after the Couture fight. He brings up an injury and the fans didn't boo-what did they do? You heard 20,000 people all go "Aaaaahhh"! You took the fight, you showed up, this is the game we're in. You say those things to yourself, you don't say them to the world. I took the fight against Dullante I had a torn bicep. Everyone gets injured, how can you train for a real fight if you're not having one (fight) at least three times a week in training?
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): A lot of people praised you for your coaching and leadership on the Ultimate Fighter 4. Did that come from having your own schools or are you just a natural leader?
Matt Serra: It wasn't my intention to do all that it just kind of happened. It worked out well though and it was a real privilege to work everyone's corner. I'm a fighter now but I'll always be a teacher.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Matt Serra we saw on television and Matt Serra in person. Same guy?
Matt Serra: Well I'm no actor that's for sure. That's me 100%. What you see is what you get.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): In the beginning you fought at 155 now you're at 170. Was there an issue cutting weight or do you just feel more complete at 170?
Matt Serra: You know I feel kind of stuck between weight classes. 155 is hard to make. I could probably do it if I had to but I'd be training half-dead. I'd much rather fight bigger guys. 155 took all the fun out of training and competing.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): You have the biggest fight of your career coming up. Are you training differently? Did you bring in different guys? I hear Renzo's flight lands Monday morning.
Matt Serra: No, I got my guys here. I'm always mixing it up anyway to keep sharp. Different Muay Thai guys, different sparring partners, keepin' it fresh. Ray Longo is my man out here-we're on point.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Is it awkward since both you and GSP have a relationship with Renzo?
Matt Serra: Not really. I'm older and have kind of been on my own for a while now, even though Renzo and I are still close. As far as training goes he's got so much going on. It's not really an issue.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): I guess a scouting report on GSP would be academic at this point. What is your prediction for the fight?
Matt Serra: It's gonna be exciting. I'm looking forward to it. I've never had a five rounder. I just gotta be comfortable in there, I'm doing everything right for this fight. The pressure is on him to take me out and I thrive on that. I love being in that position.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Anyone you want to call out?
Matt Serra: No, I'll just fight whoever they put in front of me. Maybe that's why Dana and I get along so well. They'll call me up and say "We're thinking about having you fight this guy" and I'll say great let's do it.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Time for word association. I'll name something and you give me the first thing that comes to mind.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Marc Laimon?
Matt Serra: Coward!
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Renzo Gracie?
Matt Serra: Legend.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Steroids?
Matt Serra: Cheating.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Spinning backfist?
Matt Serra: Excellent move! It's in my arsenal now.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Lay ‘n Pray?
Matt Serra: Lame.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Diego Sanchez?
Matt Serra: Tough and focused.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Split decisions?
Matt Serra: They suck. Especially when they don't go your way.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Dana White?
Matt Serra: Good guy.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Matt thanks again for giving us your time and we wish you the best of luck at UFC69.
Matt Serra: No, thank you!
For more information on the Serra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, go to www.serrajitsu.com.