By CagePotato Guest Contributor Brian Knapp
Matt Serra had never finished a fight with his fists until April 7, 2007. Talk about perfect timing. On that night, Serra shook the mixed martial arts world to its foundation, as he overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to topple a man who had been universally received as the planet’s premiere 170-pound fighter.
A full year has passed since the 33-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native clubbed Georges St. Pierre and stopped the favored French Canadian by first-round TKO to capture the welterweight championship at UFC 69 in Houston. Goliath had met his match inside the hallowed Octagon, and the sport sat in stunned silence.
With less than a week to go before their rematch at UFC 83 on Saturday night at Montreal’s Bell Centre, pundits lend little credence to Serra’s flawless performance 12 months ago. Many consider it a fluke, a stroke of luck, a hiccup in the space-time continuum. A coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter and a back injury have kept Serra out of the eight-sided cage since his historic upset, and St. Pierre has been nothing shy of impeccable in back-to-back wins over welterweight contender Josh Koscheck and future Hall-of-Famer Matt Hughes. Serra’s odds are long, but he embraces them nonetheless.
“They can look at it any way they want,” he says. “I know I’m the underdog, and I feel very comfortable in that role.”
St. Pierre, the thoroughbred who had all but cleaned out the UFC’s 170-pound division, never got out of the gate the first time the two met. Rocked repeatedly by Serra’s heavy hands, he wound up on his back, where he ate punches in jackhammer-like succession and was unable to mount a defense. Even so, Serra’s respect for St. Pierre’s physical capabilities runs deep.
“He’s dangerous on all fronts,” Serra says. “Georges is very well-rounded. He’s got very good wrestling besides the striking. Standing up, off my back … everywhere, basically, I have to be on my A-game.”
Having long compared himself to the lead character in the Rocky series, Serra figures to be confronted by the most hostile of crowds as he ventures into St. Pierre’s backyard in Montreal. His support will likely be limited to his cornermen.
“I don’t expect to get cheered walking out,” Serra says. “It’s not a problem. I think I’m finally going to feel what Tim Sylvia feels when he fights anywhere.”
More than 20,000 fans are expected to attend the UFC’s first event in Canada, as tickets sold out in record time.
“I think it’s going to be an historic event,” Serra says. “This is the first time ever in Canada, and I’m in the main event. How could I not get excited for that? There’s only one first time, and I’m honored to be part of it.”
The hype machine was thrown into high gear months ago, and while the magnitude of the match has not been lost on Serra, he has done his best to approach it like any other fight.
“The mental outlook is so important,” he says. “I try not to get caught up in all the hype and the fluff and what the so-called experts’ opinion is because they’re not in there with us. It’s just me and Georges, and it’s a fight. And when that cage shuts, it’s just us two. I’m the one who controls my destiny.”
What was perhaps most startling about the first encounter between Serra and St. Pierre was the fact that the fight never went to the ground. Though St. Pierre is clearly the dominant wrestler, few pose the threat Serra poses from his back. The first American to ever achieve black belt status under Renzo Gracie, Serra — a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion — has proven himself as an accomplished ground fighter. He has been stopped only once — by Shonie Carter’s infamous spinning backfist at UFC 31 — in 13 professional bouts.
Still, question marks linger as Serra approaches his return to the cage. He was slated to make his first title defense against Hughes at UFC 79 in December but withdrew after he suffered a herniated disc during training. Though back injuries are notoriously slow to heal, Serra claims to be at full strength.
“I feel great,” he says. “I would never have taken this fight if I felt that I couldn’t beat Georges.”
Serra scoffs at the idea of ring rust despite the fact that 378 days will have elapsed since his last appearance when he steps into the Octagon this Saturday, and “The Terror” believes he has effectively simulated live combat in preparing for the rematch.
“I judge how I’m going to fight by how I fight in the gym and the academy,” Serra says. “I do what I do in the academy, and I don’t make a big difference between that and the fight. To me it’s just another day of hardcore sparring. People are going to say I haven’t fought in a year, but I’ve been fighting three to four times a week with multiple opponents. What I pull off in sparring, I should be able to pull off in the fight. That’s where my confidence comes from.”
Many analysts see St. Pierre minimizing the stand-up exchanges and utilizing his considerable wrestling skills in an effort to ground and frustrate Serra, just as he did in previous match-ups with Koscheck and Hughes. Serra, slingshot and stone in hand, welcomes the challenge and thinks history can most certainly repeat itself.
“No matter where it goes, I’m going to be a dangerous person,” he says. “Anybody on any given night can be the better fighter. My style looks good for this match-up, and I’m prepared to prove it.”