Grudge matches in mixed martial arts rarely simmer as long as the Matt Serra-Matt Hughes tiff. And, if striking coach Ray Longo has anything to say about it, Serra will turn another opportunity into an upset come May 23.
But ever since the two locked verbal horns as coaches on the sixth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in Fall 2007, the dislike between the two has endured while the match to settle the affair has yet to materialize. But that changes as the two comprise the semi-main event of UFC 98, in a battle between two ex-champions.
Originally slated for Dec. 29, 2007, Serra, who’d pulled off a stunning upset of Georges St. Pierre to win the title, pulled out of the bout with a back injury five weeks before their much-hyped showdown.
St. Pierre beat Hughes and then Serra in a rematch in April 2008. The Long Island fighter hasn’t fought since. But now, coach Longo believes Serra, 9-5, is positioned to beat Hughes.
“The original injury was two herniated disks. The guy was literally crippled for a month. It is what it is,” said Longo of the injury that derailed the original bout. “I wouldn’t say he was impaired for the (St. Pierre) match, but in training there were things that we stayed away from. We didn’t do a risky training camp.”
As a relatively small 170-pounder, Serra, 9-5, has relied on conditioning, jiu-jitsu and an underrated standup game. Against Hughes, he’ll need to stay on his feet, and Longo says that’s exactly what they’ve been working on.
“We’ve been in training camp about two months now. At first, we just worked on conditioning. He feels great, and his back feels great,” Longo said. “That was (originally) a concern. Between that, he’s doing a lot of sparring and a lot of wrestling. He’s doing more wrestling than I’ve ever seen him do.”
“We’ve got some 200-pounders,” Longo added. “Strong guys that imitate Hughes.”
In the first St. Pierre match, Serra unleashed a series of big right hands that ended the Canadian’s reign in his first defense. It wasn’t quite Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, but the stunning one-sidedness of it was a sobering reminder of what a well-placed shot can do to level the mixed martial arts playing field.
“Even with the first GSP fight, I don’t think anybody remotely thought Matt would stand with him,” Longo said. “But he likes to bang. He’s got the power. To beat Hughes, he’s got to stuff a couple of takedowns. He’ll win if his takedown defense is where we think it’s gonna be.”
While MMA feuds often have a manufactured feel, the Serra-Hughes rivalry is no act, Longo added.
“At one point they (occasionally) talked at shows and were good. They had a good rapport with each other. On the show, when Hughes was insulting St. Pierre, offering to show him an armbar defense, I think that’s when you started to see Hughes’ true colors,” Longo said. “He’s also close with Din Thomas and didn’t like Hughes’ comments to Dean. He’s always been the type of guy that sticks up for the underdog.”
Since their verbal sparring on the reality show, the two have traded jabs in virtually every medium possible. It isn’t easy to imagine why they don’t get along, especially given the stakes of the packed welterweight rankings and the value of a win.
Serra’s journey in the UFC has been considerable and rife with dizzying turns of fortune. He’s been decisioned by B.J. Penn and Karo Parisyan, stopped with a highlight-reel spinning back fist by Shonie Carter in a bout he was winning. But that was followed by his winning the fourth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” then taking the title with his shock knockout of the seemingly invincible St. Pierre.
Then, he was blown out in the rematch. Now, he gets Hughes -- loser of three of his last four after one of the most dominant careers in the sport’s history. Hughes, 42-7, took the template of ground-and-pound and made it into a living. However, Longo believes that at some point, Hughes stopped evolving as a fighter, and that’s what he believes Serra will take advantage of.
“His last couple fights, he’s coming out like a southpaw, but he’s coming to go out there and get you to the floor. It looked like, at one point, his stand-up was coming along, but that he put it on the back burner,” Longo said. “Maybe GSP highlighted a couple flaws. I think the guy was a great champion, but the sport’s just evolving. It’s not what it was when he was a champion either, and the sport’s taking off in terms of everybody’s skills.”
Hughes has stated this will be his last fight -- one last match to get in before retiring.
“He’s definitely at the tail end of his career for sure. I don’t know where his motivation’s coming from now,” Longo said. “It’s like everybody else, you can’t get away from the sport … or you’re searching for something, but a lot of guys just don’t know when to hang it up. (Serra) just has to do what he has to do. If he gets the right opportunity, he’ll turn it up. But not to the point where he makes a mistake. He’s a professional. But believe me when I tell you -- he really wants to beat his ass.”