The Terror Speaks: Matt Serra
by Chris Colucci
Matt "The Terror" Serra is a busy, busy guy. He operates two Brazilian jiujitsu schools on Long Island, New York, he recently won the welterweight division of The Ultimate Fighter 4, and he's currently training to be Georges St. Pierre's first opponent after St. Pierre's decisive win against Matt Hughes.
I arrived early at one of his schools and was able to watch fifteen students grappling on an "open mat" day, where the school is open for any student to walk in and train. When Matt arrived, he and I watched the action and began our interview.
T-Nation: How's everything with your schools going after your Ultimate Fighter win?
Matt Serra: The schools were doing fine already, but we had a big jump in enrollment after the show aired.
T-Nation: Was it a lot of "I wanna be a UFC pro" guys or just a lot of regular folks?
Serra: A handful here want to actually fight, but the majority of guys I teach are anything from police officers to lawyers and doctors. They come from all walks of life. I teach eight year-old kids to guys in their 50's. Very few want to actually fight in the UFC. I have my fight team, but the majority of guys want to learn jiujitsu for self-defense or to get in shape. It's a rare breed that wants to actually fight.
T-Nation: Does being a coach affect you as a fighter?
Serra: I think the fighting makes me better as a teacher. I've been in there before; I know what it feels like to get tired. I know what it feels like if you lose your first round or get cut in the first round.
I fought some of the toughest guys in the sport, going bell to bell with some of the toughest fighters in the UFC. I have a lot of experience in there, so I think my experience as a fighter makes me a better coach.
But even in the house on The Ultimate Fighter 4, I didn't go in there with the hopes of being the coach of anybody. It kinda just fell into place, and it worked out great. I didn't ask one person to be in their corner; they asked me and it worked out nice. I didn't expect to get that much airtime. I didn't expect to be that guy and it just happened. It's great for business and I ain't complaining about it.
T-Nation: So, you were set for February 3rd, UFC 67, but then St. Pierre got hurt with the knee injury. Is your title shot postponed indefinitely? What's up?
Serra: No, I'll be fighting him most likely in April. This is going to be the cherry on top. I'm seeing this thing through. Some people said that I should try to fight in lightweight because I fought there before in the UFC. They asked if I could fight Sherk at lightweight. But I went in that house as a welterweight, I took out three welterweights, I'm seeing this thing through as a welterweight.
I don't feel like going back down to lightweight. I'll fight a bigger guy and if I end up on my butt, I got my jiujitsu to back me up. Some guys want to fight in the heavier weight classes because if they get on their back, the fight's finished. When I get on my back, the fight's just beginning. So if I end up down there, I'm well prepared.
T-Nation: I've read that St. Pierre had a pretty rough childhood in Montreal, dealing with bullies and gangs and things like that. You had some kind of similar experiences growing up around here, right?
Serra: When I grew up on Long Island, in my high school and my junior high school I had a number of scraps. I had more than my share of street fights.
T-Nation: Not to have a Dr. Phil moment, but did that create who you are today?
Serra: As far as that went, things kind of just found me, you know? If I would've had the jiujitsu back then, I would've took care of those kids a lot quicker. Instead of bustin' up my knuckles every time, I could've just been choking people. [laughs] Also, I think doing the tournaments would've given me a different outlet because I wasn't so much into sports. They didn't interest me that much.
Combat sports always interested me. But I think if I would have had the jiujitsu at an earlier age, I would've gotten into it. I wasn't a troubled youth or anything like that, but if you ask anybody from my high school or junior high, they're not surprised. They think I'm still doing what I did back then. They figured I would end up either in jail or doing what I'm doing now, so I chose the right path and it worked out for me.
T-Nation: About your pro fights, you're often labeled the underdog. What's your take on that?
Serra: I think that's the best spot to be in. I like being the underdog. Everybody's counting you out. It's like James J. Braddock versus Max Baer from Cinderella Man; that's a true story. Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman, where everybody thought he was going to get hammered.
There's a reason why fighters become legends and great fighters: because they're fighting other great fighters; they're fighting against the odds. So I like being in those shoes. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. So I like going into a fight with St. Pierre where everybody thinks he's going to murder me. That's what the popular opinion is.
T-Nation: One poll said that 84% expect St. Pierre to win by stand up. About 7% say you can tap him out or get a TKO on the ground, and 4% think he's going to tap you out on the ground. The last 5% say it's going the distance. Thoughts?
Serra: That's good. That's what I'm talking about. Doesn't discourage me, it makes me think, "Alright, everybody's gonna owe me a big apology." That's the attitude I have.
If you would've done a similar poll before my fight with Chris [Lytle, for The Ultimate Fighter 4finale], a lot of people thought he was too well-rounded for me. "Well, he's got very good ground, plus he's better standing up than you. He's got better hands. He'll just keep you away; he'll knock you out." If I had a nickel for every time I was going to get knocked out on my feet, I'd be a rich man by now.
Every one of my fights, if I didn't get the guy down, I'm losing bad. Not only am I losing, but I'm getting knocked out. I only got stopped once and I avenged that loss, and that was my very first fight. I'm more durable than I ever got credit for. So, they're just gonna see how durable and how tough I am and what skills I have when the fight comes about.
T-Nation: The majority of your UFC fights do go the distance. Is that something you plan on?
Serra: I'm going to be in shape to go the distance, but I don't feel like going the distance. I'm going to try to take him out before that, and I'm sure he's gonna do the same to me.
T-Nation: Sounds like a plan. I've read that Matt Hughes might go against Diego Sanchez before Hughes gets another shot at the title. Any thoughts on Diego Sanchez in general?
Serra: I think Diego's very tough. I think Diego would give Hughes hell. It's either Diego submitting him or Hughes most likely winning on takedowns and finishing that way.
T-Nation: Switching gears a little bit, in the UFC, there's now guys like Quentin Jackson and CroCop coming in. Does it have any effect on the sport as a whole? Do you think we'll see more top fighters from other organizations joining up?
Serra: I think it's a positive thing. Everybody knows that the UFC is the Major Leagues of MMA. I mean, there's every other event, then there's UFC. Even PRIDE seems to be diminishing.
It's great that they're bringing in more heavy hitters. Everybody knows how great the UFC is already and now you're bringing in the best guys from other organizations and they're going to become UFC fighters. That's phenomenal. I'm proud nowadays I'm fighting for the title, but I'm still a guy just proud to say I'm a UFC fighter.
T-Nation: I've got one more question to change the channel totally. Any thoughts about anabolic steroids in MMA?
Serra: I don't know. I don't mess with it; I never did. I don't even do weights. I do some kind of weight training but more like pushing a sled with weights on it and kettlebell training.
Yeah, they should test for steroids, obviously. It should be about the skill and your fighting. A lot of these guys get injuries; I think that stuff does something to your insides, man. Guys are tearing, they can get injuries, they're not healing right. I think in the long run it's gonna screw them up.
T-Nation: What does your training week look like?
Serra: It depends on the day of the week. In a week there's so much to get in. Sometimes I'll do a hard cardio calisthenics one day in the morning, then at night I'll do my wrestling or my jiujistsu. Next day, I might do jiujitsu in the morning and at night have my sparring. So, my training usually consists of two workouts a day for six days a week.
T-Nation: That's a combination of time on the mat and in the gym?
Serra: Yes, everything. I'm always on the mat. I get the pad work in. Sometimes I do my sparring, then right after sparring go right into my conditioning, like plyometrics. It's grueling. And when we're sparring, every two and a half minutes I get a new guy. It's a rough process, but it's fun.
You get over that hump and you start to really like it. That's why I'm not getting out of shape. The fight got cancelled, but I'm still eating pretty clean and doing my thing and getting all the training in. That way when the two month mark hits, the ball will already be rolling.
T-Nation: Makes sense. Now, you said you don't lift weights much?
Serra: I don't do weights; I do more plyometrics. Ray Longo puts me through calisthenics: plyometrics where we do footwork around the ring like on the balls of our feet. Run around the ring, every time the bell goes, we go another round a different way. He'll call out 25 opposite hand push-ups, then we get back up, we go around again. Next bell, jump squats, down and up, jump off the mat, switching stances. Do that for two bells.
Two bells might be fifteen-second bells, so that's thirty seconds of just jump squats, then we go back again. So it's more plyometrics, cardio, then we have the bands. We get out of the ring and he puts the harness on us; we have to do sprints with that. Then we get off and do the Versaclimber. Then he has a dummy that we put on our shoulders. We do squats with that while the other guy's on the Versaclimber.
T-Nation: You mentioned some kettlebells...
Serra: Kettlebells also. For fifteen seconds I have to do a kettlebell exercise and then get back on the Versaclimber. The training just wipes you out. It does. It's insane. I like that better than heavy powerlifting and stuff. I'm not a bodybuilder, even though when I do that, I look diesel. [laughs]
T-Nation: Nutrition-wise, are you pretty strict?
Serra: Yeah, two months out I'm pretty strict. Six weeks out I'm even stricter. As the fight gets closer I'm on a really good regimen. At 170 I can be a little more lenient than 155. At 155 sometimes it's hard to train because I have to lower carbs. It's so brutal.
Nutrition-wise, I eat clean. Brown rice, chicken, ostrich steak, bison burgers, veggie burgers, turkey burgers, fruit, protein shakes... That's the route I go. I can fuel myself good at 170 compared to 155. I stay away from the pasta and obviously the pizza, my favorite foods, during fight season.
T-Nation: Back to your coaching mode. Any advice for the average guy who goes to the dojo two to three times a week and says, "I wanna end up in the UFC"?
Serra: You ask a different fighter, he might say something different. My guys, they have to be close to purple belt level, unless they already came in with experience. They have to be able to fight in odd positions on the floor. You don't want to see a guy who's just great standing up. They have to be well-rounded in general.
It's a jiujitsu Disneyland at my school. I make sure my guys are squared-away with the jiujitsu, and with Ray Longo they have to get their hours in with sparring. The guys who want to train and fight right away, I tell them to go find another gym. Just go to another academy. I have no interest in bringing someone through a crash course to go get their teeth knocked out, and I'm not gonna be working their corner.
I tell them train hard in jiujitsu and get their time in on the mat. Start going into some submission and BJJ tournaments. If they didn't want to go in with the gi, have them go into the submission grappling tournaments. They have to get used to competing in front of people where guys try to take their limbs, get position on them.
They get tired enough out there with the adrenaline, now imagine guys elbowing them in the face. They shouldn't do it just to do it. MMA isn't a sport like that because you can go in there and you can get hurt. You should have your skills squared away, and you can still get hurt.
So, if anybody thinks they're gonna come down to my school and say they want to fight in six months, I tell them to find another school. They gotta put their time in. I put my time in.
T-Nation: Any advice for the guy who doesn't train martial arts at all and just doesn't want to get knocked out by the drunk in the bar?
Serra: Eh, nobody's punch-proof, okay? As far as the average guy in the bar, anything goes on the street. Before I got into the UFC, I had to go through courts and, man, I know it's hard to walk away, but when you have to start paying lawyer bills, it gets easier. There's something my father told me that sticks in my head: any time you fight, the loser goes to the hospital, the winner goes to jail.
Guy cuts you off, big guy gets out, you get out. You try to tell the guy it's not in his best interest, but he doesn't believe you because you're up to his bellybutton. Then you end up giving the guy stitches. The guy's on the floor yelling for the cops, he gets your license plate, next thing you know you're probably having to spend around ten grand for a lawyer. And that's getting off cheap. You're facing jail time. It's not good, man. This happened to me once when I was 26.
When a guy started trouble, I finished it, and I'm getting sued. I had to go to courts from 17 to 23 years old for something that not only did I have to fight criminally, I had to fight civilly. And it's horrible, because most of the people out there are cowards.
That's why I love fighting in the UFC versus other warriors. Because you know these guys are men. We're fighting, we respect each other afterwards, and we're trained athletes. I get no thrill out of beating up some guy who doesn't know how to fight. He starts trouble, and all of a sudden he gets his ass kicked. And he had it coming to him, but in the law's eyes I should've walked away. Now I'm gonna get in trouble.
So, as far as the guy in the bar, I say to walk away. I know it's easier said than done, and I don't even know if I'd take my own advice sometimes because it's brutal and the guy's asking for it. But usually those guys asking for it are such cowards that they're gonna be the first guys to sue you.
Do what you have to do. And if you're gonna do it, do it first, and do it hard, and don't give that guy a chance to do anything. There's no rules out there, man. Ain't no Big John McCarthy gonna step in when the guy's got a broken beer bottle on you.
T-Nation: Excellent stuff. There's a lot of camaraderie in MMA that you don't really see in other sports. Why is that?
Serra: First of all, it's a young sport. Hopefully it stays like that. And something about when you're fighting another guy, there's that mutual respect. The training to get there is not an easy road, and the guts to get in there and let it all hang out, with the possibility of getting knocked out, cut, submitted, slammed... There's so many ways to win or lose in this game that it takes courage just to get in there and fight. So you respect each other and you have that in common.
The tough guys in the bar? You tell that tough guy he has to fight in two weeks in front of fifty people, he's gonna be shittin' himself. So for us to do it in front of thousands of people live and millions of people worldwide, it takes a certain type of person to be able to do that. And not only that, but have courage under fire when you get cut, when you get hit, when you get punched.
The octagon or the ring is the truth. Renzo Gracie just said this recently in an interview and it's the truest thing ever. I've been saying it forever: if you're a coward, it comes out in there. If you're brave, you got courage and you got heart, that comes out in there. You just pray that it comes out, and you hold up to your beliefs, and that you fight the way you train.
Because some guys crack under pressure, and they crack when they get cracked. So, I'm glad and I'm proud that after all my fights, win or lose, I'm able to look at myself in the mirror, even if I was the nail instead of the hammer that time.
T-Nation: Last question. In five years, where do you see the sport of MMA?
Serra: It's taking over the world. It's gonna be legal where it's not legal. It's gonna be putting a submission hold and a knockout blow to boxing, finally, and just ending that. That era's already ending. It's the future of the sports. It's gonna be the most popular sport out there. It's on the fast-track there already.
Note: For more information about Matt Serra, he can be contacted at www.Serrajitsu.com, with schools in East Meadow, NY and Huntington, NY.
Chris Colucci is starting to organize many of his thoughts on www.chriscolucci.blogspot.com.
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