Matt Serra reflects on Hall of Fame career, life after fighting

Matt Serra now coaches a multitude of professional fighters, including UFC bantamweight contender Aljamain Sterling. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

LEVITTOWN, N.Y. -- He sits on the ledge like every other parent, black wraparound Oakley sunglasses on top of his bald head, his child on the mat taking instruction from a man dubbed Sensei Peace Corps.

Usually he's the guy in front of the room, but on this Saturday he's on the side, watching in anticipation of his 9-year-old daughter, Angelina. Dad already taught his daughter how to do an arm bar and has given her individual training. But this was her first class.

Matt Serra, whose name adorns the Serra Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym he sits in, is more "dad" than "former world champion" in this moment. Autographed posters of his UFC fights hang on the wall. Trophies line the windowsill behind where he's sitting. When clients come in, he addresses almost all of them by name and with a fist bump.

Serra is 44 years old now. He hasn't fought competitively since 2010 and is 11 years removed from the upset of Georges St-Pierre that made his career. On July 5, he'll be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. His trainer, Ray Longo, will give his speech. His family will be there watching.

On this Saturday, it all feels far away. As he watches Angelina learn the basics of the art he mastered, memories come back in all forms.

"Oh yeah," Serra said. "Yeah. For sure."

Memories of his daughter -- born toward the end of his fighting career and the start of his coaching career. Memories of himself as a fighter. As he watches Angelina, he starts reminiscing about his past. Sometimes he'll flash back to the present, yelling "hide your toes; underneath your butt, nice!" as they work on a move. The story he's telling is part of his life story. How, if one circumstance here or there had changed, the rest of his life would have been markedly different. The gym, the MMA career, the UFC title, the Hall of Fame, the family -- all of it might have changed.

"It's the American Dream," Longo said. "It's about a guy that was destined to be a blue-collar worker by any given, even his own estimations, that was given the opportunity through fighting to do so many other things that he took advantage of."

Matt Serra was supposed to join the Marines. Had signed up for deferred entry while he was a student at East Meadow High School, hoping to join when he graduated and turned 18. To make money in 1992, he delivered pizzas at Pizza Amore in his hometown.

Before cell phones, Serra called his girlfriend's house a town over in Bellmore one night at work. Her brother picked up. Words were exchanged. It got heated. They hung up. Serra thought nothing of it.

Then his girlfriend came into the pizza shop. She said her brother was coming to beat him up with three carloads of guys. Serra, who knew how to fight but was not versed in jiu-jitsu yet, told his girlfriend to leave. He and his boss closed the store.

Three cars drove by, and then parked. Guys piled out. Serra, telling this story in his gym, remembers he scuffled with his girlfriend's brother. "He was bigger than me," Serra said. "So I hit him with a chain punch and the second I hit him, that's when I got his head. So then I throw him onto the car and I'm hitting him."

Then the police came.

In the fight, Serra says he bit the guy's ear. Originally charged with a felony -- Serra says it was for "disfigurement" -- he pleaded down to a misdemeanor with a sealed record. His Marines recruiting officer told him that the arrest would keep him out of the Corps.

Looking back, Serra knows what could have been. He could have ended up in jail. Could have ended up in the Marines if the fight never happened. Both situations would have turned his journey into something much different.

"That guy changed my life," he says. "I'd be digging a ditch in Afghanistan somewhere or something."

Now he didn't know what to do. He wasn't interested in college. A potential government job was now gone. That's when a video of the Gracie family fighting mixed martial arts, and an ad for a Rorian and Royce Gracie seminar in Waterbury, Connecticut, saved him.

Serra saw the video and was intrigued. This was different from other martial arts. He drove two hours to the seminar. By the time it ended, Serra knew his plan.

"I wanted to do jiu-jitsu," Serra said. "Didn't know I wanted to fight in the UFC. There was no UFC. I knew I wanted to learn jiu-jitsu and maybe one day I would have a challenge match or something like one of those crazy in-action things."

Months later, he was at Oishi Judo in New York City. At the dojo, he met Longo. They realized they lived near each other in East Meadow and agreed to drive in together. The friendship -- and now a decades-old partnership spanning trainer-athlete and co-coaches -- began.

"He was just a phenom at that point," Longo said. "I sucked. I was horrible. My buddy was horrible. But this guy was ripping up everybody and that's how the friendship really formed, driving in and doing jiu-jitsu together."

Serra began training with the Gracies and in 2000 became the first American to earn a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt studying under Renzo Gracie, part of the lineage of the creation of the discipline. Longo convinced him to do Muay Thai boxing for cardio, which ended up being part of his fighting style.

A year later, nestled in a strip mall alongside a since-closed bar called Stout's and Dream Street Caterers in East Meadow, Serra opened his own gym. He lived in a studio apartment underneath it. He thought he'd live there two months, and ended up staying two years.

He was young, single and focused on fighting. Serra had his UFC debut in 2001, losing to Shonie Carter before winning four of his next six fights leading to a match at UFC 53 against Karo Parisyan. Serra lost by decision, but it set up the rest of his career.

"That Karo fight," Longo said, "was a turning point. For sure."

A win might have given him a welterweight title shot against Matt Hughes -- a fight Serra isn't sure he was ready for. Losing to Parisyan, Longo said, left Serra questioning his future options. Then an opportunity came in TV's "The Ultimate Fighter 4" in 2006.

Serra won three fights, including a split decision against Chris Lytle in the finals, to win the show and earn him a welterweight title shot against Georges St-Pierre.

"I looked at it as I don't have a bad fight ever and if I do, it's usually exciting," Serra said. "I'm going to go on there, look at it as an elite training camp, take it a fight at a time, and worse comes to worse I lose and I get a couple new students at my schools.

"That's how I looked at it. It ended up working out better than I ever thought."

The show provided a platform and a shot at St-Pierre. Publicly, Serra knew he had long odds to win, even if privately he felt he had a sound strategy.

St-Pierre admitted years later on Joe Buck's television show "Undeniable" that he wasn't ready for the fight. Serra was. Longo trained him perfectly, bringing in sparring partners to mimic St-Pierre as a stand-up fighter.

Serra knew he had power. It gave Longo the feeling his guy could have a chance. Serra felt he had a chance to surprise him because he was going to try to box instead of using his typical feet-to-floor strategy -- something learned from his loss to Parisyan.

"I saw him knock out a couple guys in sparring," Longo said. "I knew if Georges would stand up long enough with him, that Matt would eventually connect with that right hand. Georges thought that Matt would look to fight to the floor because that was the only chance he had.

"That, I think, was the key to that fight. And we didn't have one intention of going to the floor in that fight."

Serra hit St-Pierre early. Knocked him down. In less than four minutes, it was over. Serra won what many consider the biggest upset in UFC history. He went from a guy who had been headed to the Marines to the UFC welterweight champion.

His life was forever altered. Serra knew everything would change. He became a celebrity. To this day, it's the thing he's asked about the most.

"I felt like I lived my movie, my Rocky movie. So that was cool," Serra said, eliciting a small laugh. "It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Serra was mostly known for that fight. It put him on track for the Hall of Fame. On Long Island, it influenced the future of an entire region with mixed martial arts. His hometown, East Meadow, is mostly known for Cy Young winner Frank Viola and magician Criss Angel.

Serra gave them someone to be proud of. One of the few sports bars in town, Hooters, was packed the night he won the title. His longtime friend and fellow instructor Mike Piccolomini had not gone to Texas to watch Serra fight. He stayed behind to help man the schools and said the Hooters "exploded" when Serra won. The people inside the bar were some of the few who believed Serra could win.

"It was probably one of the best things I've ever seen," Piccolomini said. "If you looked at the odds coming in, he was I think a 13-1 underdog before he did his walkout and by the time he got to the cage it was something like 8-1. So if you do the math and put $100 on him, you won $800.

"A lot of guys redid their houses because of that. It was really good."

Chris Weidman was a senior wrestler at Hofstra University, just down Hempstead Turnpike from Serra's gym and the Hooters. Weidman watched the fight from his parents' home in nearby Baldwin.

He "went nuts" when Serra won. Two years later, wrestling winding down, he was looking for something else to do. A friend suggested mixed martial arts. Weidman enrolled in Serra's classes as just another paying student.

"One of the reasons I'm in the sport is because of Matt," Weidman said. "Being on Long Island, hearing his name, he's winning the world championships and when he was in the 'Ultimate Fighter' I started watching him and supporting him. So one of the reasons why it became more of a real thing for a Long Island guy to become a world champion. He made it a reality.

"So I just looked up to him, somebody that I wanted to be around and if I got to MMA, definitely the people I want to train with and learn from."

Weidman learned the sport fast. He began in 2008, coached by Longo and Serra. Just five years later he became UFC middleweight champion by beating legendary fighter Anderson Silva. An underdog in the match, he used Serra's upset of St-Pierre as guidance and motivation. And he used Serra losing the belt to St-Pierre in his next fight -- the only time Serra lost by knockout -- as a reminder when he beat Silva in the rematch.

"He helped me a lot on the 'you're not done with just the one fight,'" said Weidman, who now co-runs a gym with Longo. "It's just the beginning."

Serra has been in Weidman's corner the whole time, evolving as a coach, reminding Weidman to breathe as he competes. In his last fight against Kelvin Gastelum, Weidman said, Serra's instructions walked him to a submission victory.

Serra's career ended a little over three years after the win over St-Pierre. He fought four times after that, his last bout a decision loss to Chris Lytle -- the man who he beat to earn the title shot -- in 2010. He finished with a record of 11-7 with one of the most memorable fights in UFC history.

Retirement works for him. He teamed with his old trainer, Longo, to coach -- Weidman has been his biggest fighter. He co-hosts an MMA podcast with comedian Jim Norton and a TV show with UFC president Dana White. But mostly, life now revolves around two things: his family and his gym.

He raises his three girls - and Piccolomini said he started teaching all of them jiu-jitsu. He's the face of the gym and still an instructor, working five days a week.

Hours after he takes Angelina to her first jiu-jitsu class, he's at his other school in Huntington. Here, he's just another fighter. Wearing a tank top with "VADER 77" on the back, he puts on his gi and rolls for an hour with two guys half his age. He stays in the cage the entire time as they alternate, going mostly half-speed but teaching throughout. He runs them through a variety of holds and escapes, coaching them through the same things he was yelling to Angelina as an excited dad earlier.

"Get on top, distribute the weight," Serra barks.

He's trying to teach balance. These guys don't necessarily want to become MMA fighters. They want to learn the art. They want to defend themselves. They want to train. Serra cares about more than creating another UFC champion. It's why he was bothered by forgetting two names of students earlier in the day.

It's the latest, perhaps straightest, part of a path that started with a street fight outside a pizza joint, led to the top of the UFC world and now to two schools and one family he spends all of his time with. Those last two things, those are Serra's present and future, built because of the winding, crazy, unexpected past.

"I understand with the turn of events, yeah, it's a crazy turn of events," Serra said. "You could look at it as it's like a lucky thing or it's a 'meant to be' thing. What if I didn't get into that fight? I never would have been in the UFC. I don't think jiu-jitsu on Long Island would be the same. You know, I was the first guy to pretty much bring it out here. All the people I've changed with my jiu-jitsu. You got the atmosphere at my schools. They know how to defend themselves and they are good people.

"So that's a good thing, you know."