Just a few days ago, if you were to pick one word to describe the Ultimate Fighting Championships in 2007, it would be "cursed."
Welterweight champion Matt Serra suffered a herniated disc in his lower back this past week, and on Thanksgiving he told UFC officials he couldn't defend his title in what would have been the biggest match of his career. The loss of the Serra-Matt Hughes Dec. 29 title bout appeared to cripple UFC 79, an event that president Dana White had predicted would break company pay-per-view records.
But on Saturday night, former champion Georges St. Pierre, Hughes and UFC officials agreed to an interesting replacement fight: a five-round match for the newly created interim welterweight championship that will be in play until Serra returns and meets whoever holds the title.
"I'm so excited to get this fight," St. Pierre told UFC.com. "I'm fighting Matt Hughes for the interim title right now, and then after that, I'm going to go after Serra. I've wanted that rematch against Serra, and this is the best scenario that can happen."
St. Pierre generally is considered the most talented fighter in the welterweight division. He's ranked No. 4 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings, ahead of Hughes (No. 9) and Serra, the division's champion, who is not in the top 10. Hughes, the dominant force in the division from 2001-2006, generally is considered its all-time greatest champion.
But St. Pierre took Hughes apart on Nov. 18, 2006, in Sacramento, Calif., in winning the welterweight championship. Hughes, a two-time All-American collegiate wrestler, submitted St. Pierre with an armbar two years earlier. In the 2006 bout, he couldn't take St. Pierre down. Standing, St. Pierre was quicker, and knocked him out with a high kick.
On April 7, Serra stopped St. Pierre after landing a hard punch to the temple in the opening seconds, and St. Pierre never recovered, being pounded out quickly on the ground. Most considered Serra's win the MMA equivalent of a hole-in-one. Hughes had publicly stated that he didn't think Serra was in the top 10 in the weight class.
St. Pierre and his management team called UFC after getting news of Serra's injury, and asked for the match. At that point, UFC officials were looking at presenting either Josh Koscheck or Thiago Alves, with the latter having the better shot since he was coming off four straight wins. Jon Fitch, who may have been the first offered the fight, turned it down, because he had gained significant weight and felt he couldn't make weight in a healthy fashion on short notice. His camp, San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy, suggested Koscheck, who is closer to the 170-pound weight limit, would have made an interesting opponent for Hughes. The only negative was Koscheck was coming off a loss to St. Pierre on Aug. 26.
St. Pierre was thought off limits. He already had a guaranteed title shot in April, with his home city of Montreal close to locked up as the location. But with seven months between fights, St. Pierre was getting antsy for competition. He had even talked of competing in amateur wrestling at the Canadian national level. St. Pierre, with no competitive wrestling background, outwrestled Koscheck in his win.
While St. Pierre asked for the fight, even though he'd only have four weeks of intensive training, about half of a normal top-level fighters camp, it was still up to Hughes to agree.
"I'm going to fight Georges St. Pierre on Dec. 29," Hughes wrote on matt-hughes.com. "I've got a couple reasons why I've made this decision and I will share those at a later time. I've asked for this to be for an interim title and if Matt Serra can't fight in a year, then this would be just the title fight."
UFC agreed to make it an interim championship match, which means five rounds. Hughes is already in training, and had he beaten Serra, as he was favored to do, he'd have had to face St. Pierre next anyway.
When Serra is healthy, he would face whoever holds the interim title as soon as possible. Serra's doctors have yet to give him a timetable as to when he can fight, another reason UFC agreed to the interim title idea.
Serra, who respects St. Pierre and has publicly shown disdain for Hughes, is in the weird position of hoping for a Hughes win.
"I can't believe the position this puts me in," Serra said on UFC.com. "I'm actually rooting for Matt Hughes so I can beat his ass."
WHY UFC 79 WAS IN PERIL
Serra's injury came on the heels of major upsets, injuries, contract signing issues and disputed drug test results, all of which have hurt big-money fights. The problems have also led to several makeshift main events, and a likely dip in last year's estimated $223 million pay-per-view numbers.
For the final major show of the year, in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva was the headline "dream" match. It pitted UFC's most famous star against Pride's 205-pound weight class legend, who held the company's middleweight title (the 205 class was called middleweight in that company) for six years. White had been trying to make the match for five years.
Even though Silva was coming off two straight knockout losses – to Mirko Cro Cop (a heavyweight in an open-weight tournament) and Dan Henderson (on Feb. 14 in Las Vegas in a title loss) – only a small percentage of UFC fans were aware of those matches.
Liddell lost to Jackson twice but still was the country's most famous MMA fighter. It was almost a perfect scenario. Whoever won would move into a title match with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Had Liddell won, he'd have beaten a legitimate future Hall of Fame fighter, and a Liddell-Jackson rematch had a chance to threaten the UFC pay-per-view record of more than one million buys.
But Liddell's stock took a tremendous hit on Sept. 22 when he lost to Keith Jardine. Even with an impressive win over Silva, another title shot is at least another win or two away. It's still a big match, and on paper, looks to be an exciting match. But it's not the bout it was hyped up to be.
As for the Hughes-Serra fight, filming was already completed for The Ultimate Fighter season, which would air for three months before the championship fight. Serra and Hughes didn't like each other to begin with. The TV show captured that dynamic weekly.
Based on styles, there was no guarantee this would be a great fight, but it had every element that makes people pay to see a fight.
Serra's injury, at least temporarily, ruined the payoff of a season of television.