Two things happened this week that necessitated this post, or maybe prompted is the better word for it, nothing on this site is necessary, nothing about MMA is necessary, let alone the sort whataboutisms and trivial nonsense I traffic in on this site. But, the Shannon Ritch Archive is about writing about important fights, and certainly Georges St. Pierre’s shocking upset loss to Matt Serra is one of those fights. One of those fights that you need to mention when you tell the story of MMA.
The first factor that made it convenient to write about this fight right now is Georges’ retirement. For as incredible a fighter as Georges St. Pierre was, for as dominant as he was in his before, after, and during his prime, he somehow managed to lose to Matt Serra, a fat Lightweight who won a reality show. It might not be the biggest upset in MMA history in terms of betting odds, but certainly it is among the biggest, and it is certainly the one with the highest profile and biggest impact. Above all of that, above Matt Serra’s Buster Douglas-ness, the fight is an integral part of the GSP story, it does so much to color what came after for GSP. For those reasons, it’s an important fight, even more so as we reach the end of Georges St. Pierre’s career.
The reason why it’s important to write about this fight now is that the very act of Matt Serra beating Georges St. Pierre, more so than anything else: lack of depth in certain divisions, an inflated number of UFC cards, a lack of real headliners; is that the UFC can promote a fight like Jon Jones and Anthony Smith, solely because a fight like GSP vs Serra went the way it did. The fight wasn’t made on the basis that Anthony Smith poses any real threat to Jon Jones, that Anthony Smith is a problem for Jon Jones, that Anthony Smith is anywhere near the same level of Jon Jones. Anthony Smith is as big as a +1000 underdog some place, and even that seems generous. Is there a person out there making a compelling case for Smith beating Jones? Is there anyone out there thinking that Smith will be a game opponent? It surely doesn’t seem that way, but hanging over Saturday’s fight is this sort of chorus of “What if he wins?” No one is picking Smith to win, no one is really posing a way in which he wins, but still there is this strange appeal to the fight. Even if you can’t see a way that Smith wins, you still want to watch the fight, to see if he could pull it off. It’s not unique to Smith, it surrounds every seeming mismatch involving an established champion, and it still hangs around mostly because a fat Lightweight beat the best fighter ever.
First, some background on how we got to this fight. Georges St. Pierre was scheduled to fight Matt Hughes for the UFC Welterweight title, attempting to avenge his only career loss. On his way to getting the rematch, St. Pierre had cleared out the very best the UFC had to offer at 170, Jason Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, and BJ Penn. It might not seem like much now, but it was a bit of a murderers row of Welterweights in 2006. Matt Hughes was the most dominant champion in UFC history, having just avenged his loss to BJ Penn. The fight was huge for the division, but what happened after was up in the air. Instead waiting to what would happen after the fight, the UFC decided to go outside the box to find a challenger; they found one on a reality show. So, after GSP won, there was no rubber match with Matt Hughes, there was a fight between Matt Serra and Chris Lytle to see who would get the next shot.
The Ultimate Fighter was the UFC’s crown jewel for a long time, it was their biggest TV property and the best tool for promoting fights and fighters. After three seasons, things needed freshened up. Josh Haynes has just fought in the finals of the last season, Ed Herman had won a contract for losing to Kendall Grove. Things needed to change. In attempt to add some stakes to the show, the fine folks at Zuffa decided to fill the fourth season of the show with UFC veterans who had been cut from the organization, put them in a tournament, and have the winner challenge for a UFC title. It was like Rocky meets Bloodsport meets Big Brother. It wasn’t a great idea. Because there were real stakes and the show was filled with older guys who really wanted to get back in the UFC, the show lacked the sort of nonsense that accompanies a normal TUF season. No aspargus, no fatherless bastards, no ejaculate in the sushi. Jeremy Jackson got kicked off the show for jumping a fence to meet a lifeguard, but otherwise it was an uneventful season. And because UFC titles shots were on the line, the winners leaked almost immediately, Josh Gross, went on Sherdog Radio and gave away the winners to anyone who wanted to know. It was boring and anti-climactic, especially for reality TV.
Over the course of the show, Matt Serra beat Pete Spratt, Shonie Carter, and then Chris Lytle in the final. Even in 2006 it was unimpressive, there were guys fighting in King of the Cage who had better resumes, but Matt Serra was on the show, and so he got a shot at Georges St. Pierre. Now, I’ve called Matt Serra a fat Lightweight a couple of times already, and I don’t mean to disparage Matt Serra, but that is an accurate descriptor of Matt Serra at this point in his life. He was a good Jiu-Jitsu player at this time, the first American to get a Black Belt under Renzo Gracie, and had developed into a heavy puncher. But he was just a fairly good Lightweight, his best wins were over guys better suited fighting at 145 and 135. He should have been in the UFC, but he wasn’t a main eventer by any stretch. He was perfectly suited to gatekeep 155 in the undercard. By the time TUF 4 came around, Serra wasn’t interested in cutting weight anymore. On more than one occasion he said he enjoyed pasta too much to fight at lightweight. So, 5’6″ Matt Serra, full of fifteen extra pounds of bowties, pene, shells, and radiatore, fought in the main event of a Pay-Per-View against the King of the Welterweight division.
The bell rings and both fighters rush to take the center of the octagon. Serra is keeping his right hand high and throwing his jab and rushing in behind it. The first attempt doesn’t land, but the second attempt allows Serra to land a right hook to the body. GSP’s hands are low, but not in a way that suggests he isn’t worried about Serra. Georges tries for a left high kick, but Serra backs out of the way. St. Pierre throws another one, but Serra manages to block most of it.
St. Pierre goes to throw another kick, but something isn’t right, he stops mid-way, and continues to circle to Serra’s left. He throws another high kick, it’s the only strike he’s thrown this entire fight. This is the fifth one, Serra blocks it. Serra has done a decent job of managing distance here, he isn’t out of range for GSP’s kicks, but he’s far enough out that he can see them coming and block them. Serra steps in and lands a right outside low kick but George’s counters with a straight left that lands.
We are only a minute into the fight, and that is a giant caveat, but Serra doesn’t look out of place here. The narrative that’s developed out of this fight is that GSP didn’t take Serra seriously and that Serra hit him with a lucky shot. The first minute doesn’t really fit that narrative. Serra has done a good job of keep a good distance and setting up his strikes when he moves in. He’s not dominating, but at the very least he is keeping the fight close.
Georges throws another high kick. It misses. He circles left again. He throws a couple of jabs that don’t land. Serra tries to wade in again behind his jab, but it doesn’t work. It isn’t clear if GSP catches him on the way in, or if Serra slips, but there is certainly a wobble. Serra regains composure quickly. Again St. Pierre circles left, again he throws the right high kick. He isn’t telegraphing anything, but his movements are predictable. Whether it is the game plan, or just a simplistic approach based on a lack of respect for Serra isn’t clear, but GSP isn’t changing anything about his approach.
Serra throws a low kick that Georges checks, and follows up with a a right hook that gets parried. Another high kick, Serra steps out of the way, but this time St. Pierre circles right. It isn’t much, but it is the first sign of variation. He goes to throw the high kick again, but hesitates, and Serra lands a kick to Georges’ left thigh.
Serra wades in again, he doesn’t land much of consequence, but you can see that on the way out Serra traps his right hand, leaving GSP open to a big right hook, Serra doesn’t land, but it is a big opening. On the surface, it isn’t much, but when you compare this moment to any other GSP fight, these things don’t happen. You don’t see big holes, opportunities for big strikes to land.
Back at range, St. Pierre returns to circling left. He throws a low kick, his first in this fight. Serra steps out of the way of it, responds with the jab and right hook to the body that landed earlier in the round. Neither land here. A follow up leg kick is checked by Georges. GSP pumps his jab twice to push Serra back, but he quickly comes back in and lands with another right hook to the body.
It isn’t an impressive performance, but Serra looks good. He’s winning the round at this point and gaining confidence. He throws a superman punch that looks bad on the way in, St. Pierre tries to grab a clinch here, but Serra quickly backs out. St. Pierre throws another high kick, but this one with the right leg. It misses.
GSP has a leg kick checked. He follows up with a high kick that Serra dodges. He throws another leg kick that Serra catches. Serra throws a straight right, but St. Pierre frees his leg and backs out.
We get a tentative period after this. Neither man is throwing for roughly 20 seconds, Georges throws one half-hearted jab that misses, and goes back to the high kick that hasn’t landed all night. They circle a bit more until Serra throws a big right hook. It lands, at least partially, he follows up with a slap to St. Pierre’s ear, and GSP is reeling.
GSP is able to get back to his feet, but he’s eaten some big shots. A big right hook, followed up by a short left. Georges is staggered again.
Serra smells blood and flurries, but St. Pierre is still defending pretty well. Desperate to change the pace of the fight, St. Pierre shoots for a takedown, but Serra is having none of it, He lands another big right that staggers GSP. He slips and falls to his back. Serra starts to unload here, and eventually enough shots break through to rock St. Pierre. Big John McCarthy stops the fight and the biggest upset in MMA history is in the books.
Serra does his trademarked back handspring. His corner mobs him to celebrate. GSP is still on the mat, only now just coming back to consciousness. Matt Hughes is in the crowd, elated that he might not have to beat Georges St. Pierre to get the title back, Forrest Griffin is laughing in disbelief. Joe Rogan is doing Joe Rogan things. Matt Serra takes a victory lap. It is an absolutely incredible moment.
There are a lot of reasons you could point to, excuses you could make, as to how and why Matt Serra beat Georges St. Pierre. I don’t find any of them all that interesting, because the fact is that he lost, he lost to a fat Lightweight from a reality show. It was a giant upset and an even bigger moment, you can take Sokoudjou’s win over Arona in Pride, whatever the real odds were for that fight. It pales in comparison to this, Sokoudjou was an unknown beating a top fighter, that sort of thing happens. Matt Serra was incredibly known, everyone knew he didn’t have a chance, and so him winning was all the more incredible.
Matt Serra, after this fight, went back to being very Matt Serra. He lost to GSP in the rematch, lost to Matt Hughes. beat Frank Trigg, and lost in a rematch to Chris Lytle. He retired at 11-7. But he also retired as a former UFC champion and the owner of one of the most incredible moments in UFC history. He’s parlayed it into a UFC job, which isn’t something you can say about better fighters like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, who’s UFC jobs have been cut. Serra is MMA’s Rocky, and he’s going to play that card forever.
GSP went on to have one of the most incredible runs in the history of the sport. After this fight, he racked up the most dominant sustained run in MMA history, over the course of thirteen fights, against the best the Welterweight division could offer, over 54 rounds, he lost no more than 7 of them, and that is being generous. He never encountered a guard he couldn’t immediately pass, a takedown he couldn’t stop. His greatness was undeniable, except for that night in Houston, Texas were Matt Serra reigned supreme.
Maybe Anthony Smith will replicate the moment. A blown-up middleweight beating the only champion that has a case that rivals GSP. No one thinks it is going to happen, outside of Anthony Smith anyway, but there is still that inkling of an idea. “What would it be like if Anthony Smith beat Jon Jones?” The answer is a lot like when Matt Serra beat Georges St. Pierre, but a little lesser, because Serra already did it.
Edit 2:01pm: Fixed some timeline issues regarding TUF 4 and the UFC 65 title fight.