Monday, April 2, 2007

Long Island long shot

By Mike Chiappetta

Serra revels in the underdog role in preparing for St. Pierre

MINEOLA, NY -- It is two in the afternoon at Ray Longo's International Martial Arts Academy, a gym that has stood in the same spot in this town for 11 years, in a building that looks like it has stood on the same patch of earth since the industrial age.

The Academy is taking its last breaths here. In just a few weeks, all the equipment will be moving out, and the soul of the place will be transplanted to a newer, bigger space in Garden City, just a few miles south.

But it isn't going anywhere without trying to leave its indelible mark. Because at the same time the gym is preparing to close, its most famous alumni is trying to go beyond any other before him, to the rarefied area of championship status.

Matt Serra is a Long Islander, born and bred on kung-fu films and comic books just a few miles to the southeast in East Meadow. At 32 years old, he still has boyish qualities to go along with his grown-up ambition. He's 5-foot-6 ("and-a-half!" he hollers with a smile) with a quick sense of humor but an earnest sense of curiosity. And he can kill you with laughs or chokeholds.

Right now, he's dripping sweat but amused as he gives his take on the fans that will fill Houston's Toyota Center for his UFC welterweight championship match with Georges St. Pierre on April 7.

"We can't root for Serra, he's a New Yorker!" he says in his best Texas twang. Then, his head swivels and cranes as if watching someone else enter an arena. "Aww, man he's fighting a French-Canadian? Go Serra!"

During the course of the day, he'll find humor in every situation and every person, from himself ("he's taller than me, but everyone is taller than me") to his good friend and training partner Luke Cummo ("if you don't get to interview him, just talk to this picture of him and you'll get the same response") to the camera following him ("can we turn this microphone off before I go to the bathroom? You don't want a Naked Gun moment, do you?"). And of his matchup with St. Pierre, he says, "it's just like Rocky 4, except instead of a Russian, Rocky's fighting a French-Canadian."

Movies are common analogies for Serra, and it's no surprise he's a big fan of comedies, particularly the films of comedian Will Ferrell. But he's just as entertaining as any Hollywood script, seriously.

"This is just like The Truman Show," he yells to onlookers curiously watching the camera watching him. But unlike Jim Carrey's movie about reality TV, The Serra Experience is actually funny. And his sense of humor, he says, is part of what keeps his training camp interesting.

And "interesting" is one way to put Matt Serra.

He doesn't show up someplace as much as he arrives, usually with the volume turned up on a greeting to some friend, acquaintance or onlooker. But he just as quickly turns into business-mode when he's training, or when a prospective client walks into his gym.

"I can turn it on or off like a switch," he says. "There are times to be serious and times to have fun. But I'm not a person who dreads going to work in the morning. I have a good time."

In the early afternoon, he and fellow Serra-Longo competition team member Pete "Drago" Sell are the only fighters in Longo's gym. Sell is a 24-year-old Long Islander who participated in last season's Ultimate Fighter and is known for two memorable fights: an upset win over MMA veteran Phil Baroni at UFC 51 and a loss to Scott Smith in an exciting back-and-forth finish during November 2006.

Longo puts the fighters through their paces, incorporating sport-specific drills in five-minute intervals that replicate the length if not intensity of a round. They spend time on a Versa-climber, they push around a boxing dummy, they do horizontal pull-ups using each other as anchors. And pushups, and modified squats, and all sorts of other exercises that you've never seen at your local gym. All this and more to prepare for St. Pierre, a physical freak of a man who destroyed the seemingly indestructible Matt Hughes, who pushes the pace of a fight faster than most opponents can adapt.

"I think this is the best training camp Matt's ever had," says Longo. "He's had more than 80 rounds of sparring so far. We know St. Pierre is a beast. But people have short memories. Wasn't Randy Couture a big underdog to Tim Sylvia? Upsets happen. People look at Matt and he doesn't look incredibly polished in his standup, but he's harder to hit than people think. He's got heavy hands, timing and great instincts. And most of all, he's got guts."

There is no questioning Serra's dedication to the sport. He was the first American ever to earn a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and lived in the basement of his first Serra Jiu-Jitsu training center for two years, meaning he truly lived his job.

When The Ultimate Fighter came calling, Serra saw it as good exposure for his business, but he ended up winning, gaining a title shot and a six-figure prize.

"It helped me out a lot," he says. "I thought it would be great to get my Serra Jiu-Jitsu T-shirt on the show, but it opened a lot of doors. It turned out they highlighted my coaching ability, which was great. And then I ended up winning, and the prize was pretty good, too."

The prize was more than just an award; it was life-changing. The money helped Serra and his fiancée put a down payment on their first home, and will also help pay for their upcoming wedding. Throw in a title match, and that is a lot of major events occurring in a short timeframe. Still, he says he hasn't been overwhelmed by all the changes in his life while preparing for his chance at the gold.

"This couldn't have happened at a better time," he says. "There's a lot going on, but I've been able to focus. I've been juggling different things for a long time, like a business and a fighting career since I was 21. It's just another day at the office for me."

It seems like Long Island is one big office for Serra. He has gyms in the East Meadow and Huntington sections of town to go along with Longo's Mineola school he also spends considerable time at.

His Huntington academy is in a strip mall, flanked by an Allstate Insurance office on one side, and a kids' clothing store named Pretty Baby on the other. It is simple inside, a converted store of some kind with gray padded mats and gray padded walls, half an octagon cage and framed articles highlighting the accomplishments of the teacher and his students near the entrance.

One of those students, Sell, is among the several pro fighters here training. Still young at 24, he has known Serra for seven years and counts him as an inspiration for his own pro career.

"When Matt first made it to the UFC, a bunch of my friends and I piled into the car and went to Atlantic City to see him fight," Sell recalls. "I remember watching him in the octagon, thinking, 'I wanna do that.' I mean, this was a guy I knew and here he was fighting on TV, and it made me think that I could get there, too."

On this night, there are other pros: Luke Cummo of the UFC, Jamal Patterson and Bryan Vetell of the International Fight League, independent fighter James Gabert and unbeaten rising prospect Joe Scarola, all there to help Serra prepare as well as to prepare themselves. All there wondering if maybe one day, they can follow Serra to the main event at a UFC event.

"I get a lot of support," Serra says. "For the most part it's been great, a lot of well-wishers. You try to treat people well and hope it comes back to you. I guess I did OK, because I'm surrounded with good people."

He spars with several fighters, round after round, preparing for St. Pierre's breakneck pace, understanding that the odds are against him, but knowing that's just the way he wants it. That's the way it's supposed to be in movies, and it's the best way in life, too.

On Sunday night, Matt Serra boarded a plane to chase a dream that he's had since he was a little boy watching Kung-Fu Theater with his dad.

See, life is like a movie sometimes, and he's ready for his Hollywood ending.


No comments: