Hughes vs Serra - Finally
The bitter animosity between former welterweight champions Matt Hughes and Matt "The Terror" Serra will culminate on May 23rd, in UFC 98's co-main-event in Las Vegas. And while it will be their first clash in the Octagon, the two are familiar foes – at least verbally - making it a grudge to rival any in the short history of mixed martial arts, both in passion and longevity.
Cut to 2005, when Hughes was a coach on season two of The Ultimate Fighter. Until that point, the two had been friendly with one another, but Long Island's Serra, watching from home, didn't like the Hughes he saw on TV. The two eventually butted heads on Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter; Serra (a contestant and eventual winner) felt that Hughes (guest coach) mistreated coach Georges "Rush" St. Pierre. Serra shared his thoughts on Hughes with his teammates, calling him, among other things, a "stuck up farm boy jock", words which were soon broadcast nationwide.
Hughes' Octagonside laughter immediately after Serra's 2007 upset victory over St-Pierre solidified his position as the New Yorker’s nemesis - a reaction Hughes confirmed was borne out of a mix of shock at Serra's victory and glee in having the chance to fight (and silence) his critic for the championship. His jubilant reaction was not appreciated by the newly crowned champion.
They soon faced off as opposing coaches on season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter, where words - and scathing impersonations - flew between the two as they waged a proxy war for Octagon supremacy. Serra labeled Hughes an egomaniacal bully, whilst Hughes diagnosed Serra with a small-man-complex and suggested the then-champion was undeserving of the title, both in skill and character. Neither man took to these insults kindly.
UFC 79, it seemed, would see the two fight. It wasn't to be, as Serra herniated two discs in his back during training. In his place, Hughes took on current champion St-Pierre in their rubber match and lost via armbar in the second round. A similar fate befell Serra at UFC 83, as he lost his title to St-Pierre by technical knockout in the second. It was then Hughes’s turn for misfortune, as the Hillsboro, Illinois resident suffered a knee injury after a loss at UFC 85 to Thiago Alves, once again robbing them of the chance to resolve their beef as fighters do.
Now, however, the stars are aligned. A year and a half after UFC 79, the former champions finally have the opportunity to scrap. Some things have changed since December 29, 2007 – but the lengthy delay, however, has done nothing to bring the athletes closer together.
"I want the W obviously, but more than anything I want to give a beating to Matt Hughes.... I just think that it will be justice. It will be the good guys winning", said the 34-year old Serra. "I plan on being the nail in Hughes' coffin. Let's send him packing. Who the hell wants that guy around anymore? Not me."
"Here I'm fighting a guy that has said so much about me, it's easy motivation for me...it's really not his lack of respect, it's what he's said about me in such a public light", said Hughes, 35. "I want to fight that guy who ran his mouth the whole season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter. Matt Serra's run his mouth enough to where all I want to do is hit it now. I think that's the only way to shut him up, is to hit his mouth"
Serra is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie with an aggressive brand of jiu-jitsu. In contrast to the man who first entered the UFC in 2001, 2009's Serra is not just a threat on the ground. Serra's punching power, which lay dormant in early UFC outings until refined by striking coach Ray Longo, was his weapon of choice when he dispatched of current 170-pound champion St-Pierre, and it has become one of his best assets as a fighter.
Hughes, who made his Octagon debut in 1999, has also undergone an evolution into a more complete mixed martial artist. He began his UFC career as the archetypal wrestler-turned-fighter. Hughes would slam unfortunate opponents to the mat before unleashing a torrent of punches and elbows on his hopeless foe. Gradually, however, Hughes developed additional dimensions as a fighter, most noticeably, as a submission artist. The former NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler holds submission victories over Frank Trigg, St-Pierre and Joe Riggs.
May 23rd’s fight will see a clash between Hughes’ wrestling, takedowns and ground and pound and Serra's powerful punches and jiu-jitsu. Serra, who likely has the edge in stand-up, would be wise to keep the match on the feet and trade blows with Hughes. Hughes, who has excellent submission defense, should stick to his bread-and-butter – a ground and pound attack.
Will the heavy-handed Serra, who stands at 5 foot 6, be able to score on the feet effectively against the 5 foot 9 Hughes? Will Hughes be able to take Serra down? If he does, can he keep him down and land strikes while avoiding Serra's submissions? The answers to those unknowns will decide the outcome of the fight. Hughes has the cardio of a heart-and-lung machine, but after a long training camp, Serra has solid cardio and will be tough to tire out. As consummate professionals they can be expected to be in A-game shape, and with nearly a decade's worth of experience each, they aren't likely to be overwhelmed by the occasion.
But what makes this fight even more intriguing is that Serra and Hughes have more at stake than the prospect of a loss to a much-disdained foe. The famously competitive Hughes, who has mentioned retirement in the past, will find it difficult to stomach going out on a loss to anybody, let alone Serra. And if Hughes decides to stay in the Octagon indefinitely, a loss will see him fall down the 170-pound heap. Serra is in the same predicament - a loss will mean a lengthy detour in his quest to recapture the 170-pound title from the man who constitutes his finest UFC scalp. Naturally, a win for either fighter will put them on the short list of title contenders.
Motivated by pride and professional aspiration, both men will be ready to leave it all in the Octagon come May 23rd. If their fight does their grudge justice, expect a memorable battle.