“What am I doing, looking for another pay day? It’s not really for that. I mean, it doesn’t stink, but it’s not really for that. Am I still trying to hold on for the glory? Glory is a drug, dude. I’m telling you, that’s the problem. It really is. I know why guys can’t walk away. I absolutely get it.” – - Matt Serra
No one in their right mind would have predicted what would’ve happened on April 7, 2007 … not in a million years. An 8-1 underdog at best, Matt “The Terror” Serra stepped into the cage against Georges St. Pierre with the flukiest of options to get a title shot: outlast every fighter in “The Ultimate Fighter” season four, better known as “The Comeback.” We complain about fighters getting unwarranted title shots now, of course, as Chael Sonnen can talk his way into a title shot he didn’t deserve (and was served a healthy thrashing for his effort) and Anthony Pettis & Frankie Edgar getting shots at Jose Aldo Jr. at featherweight despite never competing there.
Serra earned a shot at GSP by winning TUF … and beating a bunch of fighters who didn’t last significantly longer in the UFC after the show.
This would bother people now by about ten times as much as Sonnen getting a title shot because you could argue that Sonnen was at least elite in one weight class. That’s like a borderline comical justification but at least it’s something. Serra wasn’t even a Top 10 fighter, much less on the fringe, when he won TUF. He was another really good fighter, one of the best BJJ players at welterweight to boot, but he hadn’t done anything to warrant a title shot nor did he look like an elite level fighter capable of challenging for the title at any point. He didn’t pass the record check or the eyeball test, either. Arguably his most famous moment in the UFC was being on the receiving end of Shonie Carter’s backfist KO, a fight he had been winning dominantly until that point. This was perfunctory for GSP, a bump in the road that we’d laugh about years from now.
And one big flurry from Serra in the opening stanza would lead to the defining moment of his career and the biggest upset in MMA history. And that’s ultimately what Serra’s legacy will be: the man who pulled off the impossible. It’s why he has to be rated among the best TUF winners of the show’s extensive history and why his place in MMA history is secure. He’s the man who finished GSP at his peak, the man who inspired the champion to go from being dominant to one of the all-time greats and a fighter whose legacy will stand up alongside those of the fighters he’s trained and managed at Serra-Longo.
History will define Serra for a lot of things, for being an undersized fighter who managed to make his way to the UFC based on a combination of power boxing and jaw-dropping Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills, but his place in history is that of the ultimate upset. He not only managed to defeat the man many consider to be the greatest fighter of all time … he finished him. He finished him definitively and in a way that wasn’t a fluke. On that day he was the better fighter, period, and that upset changed the direction of the UFC afterwards.
Without that loss GSP never dedicates himself to every training camp like it’s the toughest fight of his life. GSP admittedly phoned it in for that training camp and without Serra defeating him his career may never have become what it is: the dominant, winning first champion who has cleaned out three generations of challengers from the deepest division in the game. Serra being pulled off of GSP was the MMA equivalent to Dick Fosbury going back first over the bar in the high jump or Tony Alva being recorded doing a frontside air in a California swimming pool; it was a game changer.
Without that moment Matt Hughes arguably remains the greatest welterweight of his time, as GSP’s rededication to the sport and his Michael Jordan-esque desire to win came into focus after that fight. If GSP would’ve walked through Serra one could argue that perhaps his lackadaisical training methods wouldn’t have caught up to him against Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Thiago Alves or any number of contenders GSP’s reign of terror included. Without the Serra loss GSP doesn’t become the sort of fighter he winds up as, most likely, and Matt Hughes probably is still looked at as the best welterweight in UFC history.
It’s why Serra’s place in history is secure. Without him GSP never becomes the fighter he winds up. UFC 69 was a watershed moment in MMA for a lot of reasons and that’s Serra’ ultimate historical legacy.