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More than any UFC match in recent memory, Saturday night’s Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra match is more of a battle of personalities and an end to a grudge than something that will lead to future business.
In fact, the UFC 98 showdown could be the last major match of each former UFC welterweight champion’s career.
Hughes (43-7) is a UFC legend and future Hall of Famer whose total time as world champion (four years and four months over two reigns) and total UFC wins (15) are both second on the all-time list behind Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, respectively.
Serra also has his role in history. His April 7, 2007, welterweight title victory over Georges St. Pierre, the man who ended Hughes' run, was the biggest upset of any championship match in UFC’s 15½-year history.
And that’s only part of the story.
It goes back to 2006, when Hughes came in as a guest instructor on Season 4 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Serra was a participant on the show, where former UFC fighters who hadn't made the grade were brought back in two tournaments, with the winners getting championship matches.
An argument took place between Serra and Marc Laimon, a guest jiu-jitsu coach who has been an outspoken critic of the Gracie family. To Serra, that was almost like insulting his father, given that Serra was the first American black belt under Renzo Gracie in 2000.
Serra and Laimon's dispute was caught on camera, and Hughes, who dominated Royce Gracie on the ground in his highest-profile career win, was the third party stirring it up. Hughes tried to get the pair to square off in a grappling match, but it never transpired. But Serra immediately took a disliking to Hughes, categorizing him as the ultimate high school jock bully who gave wedgies to the smaller kids.
The dynamic wasn’t lost on UFC. Serra won the welterweight tournament, which gave him a title shot at St. Pierre in Houston at UFC 69. He was an 8-1 underdog on the Vegas books, thought to be completely out of St. Pierre’s league, too small, not nearly the athlete nor having the wrestling ability to compete with the champion. But he landed a big right punch immediately, and St. Pierre never recovered.
There was no question who was the happiest man that night at the Toyota Center. Within a two-month stretch, Serra won the title, got married, moved into a new house, and was chosen to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter," even more valuable because of the exposure it gave for his Serra jiu-jitsu academies on Long Island.
The second happiest was Hughes, who was set to face the winner. The smile on his face looked as big as his expansive farm in Illinois and the message was clear. Christmas came in April and in facing Serra, and not St. Pierre, Hughes thought he was getting his third welterweight title reign gift-wrapped for him.
Zuffa made what at the time was an obvious choice. They put the two as opposing coaches on the sixth season of "The Ultimate Fighter," and with the exception of Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, no coaches in the history of the show came across with so much believable animosity.
"As for the 'TUF 6' show, nothing was manufactured here," said Serra (16-5). "People think it’s all fake for TV. If the cameras weren’t there, I’d be doing the same thing. I speak my mind. I didn’t have any agenda, like if I do this, it leads to this.
"But I think it’s great," Serra said. "People like to either see me beat Matt Hughes, or get beat down by Matt Hughes. Some of the greatest fights, like Ali-Frazier, are based on what builds them up. This fight is genuine."
More than any "TUF" season, the two coaches were motivated by absolutely hating to lose at anything to the other. During the season on camera, Hughes disrespected Serra as champion, insinuating he was a one-hit wonder who wasn’t even in the category of himself and St. Pierre.
That criticism stung because Hughes was saying loudly and without any reserve the questions everyone had at the time. Even today, and it’s been nearly three years since Hughes has looked like the unstoppable powerhouse wrestler in his prime, Hughes goes into Saturday's fight as a nearly 3-1 favorite.
But just as everything had gone right to build the fight, everything went wrong in trying to get the fight in the cage.
First, Serra suffered a herniated disc in his lower back in training, forcing cancellation of the fight. Hughes saw that as an opportunity to note all of the times he fought with injuries. St. Pierre replaced Serra in the December 29, 2007, match in Las Vegas, beating Hughes in a one-sided fight. St. Pierre followed by beating Serra in the same fashion on April 19, 2008, in Montreal.
Then things continued to get in the way. Serra bruised his ulna nerve. Hughes, in a loss to Thiago Alves on June 7, 2008, tore his MCL and partially tore his PCL, although he recovered without surgery. Then the fight was delayed again when Serra asked to push it back one last time because his wife was expecting a baby girl, born in February.
"I’m healthy as a horse," said Serra, who turns 34 the week after Saturday’s fight, making him one year younger than Hughes, but likely without as much physical mileage from having fewer fights. "I feel the best I have in years. There was a big build-up and I had to withdraw and it killed me."
He said the unsettled grudge has been a great motivational tool.
"My back feels awesome," he said. "I was healthy for St. Pierre [the second fight that he lost]. I would never use that as an excuse. I was a little cautious in training but I was 100 percent in the fight. But this camp, I was able to train a lot harder on the wrestling and ground work and I feel fantastic. I don’t want to lose to him. The thought of it, put it this way, it got me through a great training camp."
"I think Matt Hughes is pretty dangerous at what he does," he said. "He takes guys down, beats people up, his passing [the guard] is good. I have to go back to the basics. I’ve trained a ton in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, new techniques, sharpening my skills. If it stays on the feet, I have the advantage. I think I can do more damage than he can. If it goes to the floor, I’m going to be ready to rock."
Regardless of what happens in Saturday night's fight, Serra feels his legacy is secure.
"How many people can say they were champion of the world, UFC champ?," asked Serra. "That’s something I’ll take to my grave more so than the financial aspects. For the rest of my life, I’m a former UFC champ. You can never take it away. To me, it’s more for the legacy. I feel very privileged to achieve that. I look at it like this. If I retire tomorrow, I have enough to tell my grandkids. If my heart’s not in it, I won’t [fight], but I love doing it."