No one would blame you if you never found yourself lost in thought over the first time the UFC visited Indianapolis.
Maybe it’s just not one of those events that stands out in the memory. It was three years ago next month, but if you remember UFC 119 for anything, you probably remember it as the UFC event where, though the main event between Frank Mir and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic ended with a knockout for Mir, the UFC declined to hand out a “Knockout of the Night” bonus. That gives you an idea of how UFC president Dana White was feeling as he left Conseco Fieldhouse (now Bankers Life Fieldhouse) that night.
But as the UFC returns to the very same building for tonight’s UFC Fight Night 27 event, it’s worth remembering that night in 2010, if only for its significance to Chris Lytle and Matt Serra. The night may have ended with a forgettably plodding heavyweight affair, but it’s the action further down on the card that still sticks in the minds of the two welterweights who made it happen.
For Indiana native Lytle, it was not only a rare chance to fight on the sport’s biggest stage in front of his hometown fans, but also an opportunity to tie up some loose ends with the fighter he’d dropped a split decision to at The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale some four years earlier.
“Matt and I had talked before about how, the first time we fought, it wasn’t very good,” Lytle told MMAjunkie.com (mmajunkie.com). “It was two guys who were afraid to lose, not really going out and laying it on the line. So much was at stake.”
Both were finalists on “The Comeback” season of “TUF,” which had promised an immediate title shot to the winner. Both Lytle and Serra saw that as a chance they might never get again. But instead of making them go for broke, the weight of that opportunity seemed to hold them down.
“The first fight, it’s not that it was so dull, but there was so much on the line that we didn’t let loose the way we did after that,” said Serra, who emerged with the victory and the title shot after that first meeting – and then went on to shock UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre with a first-round TKO that still stands as one of the sport’s biggest upsets.
“My very next fight was the Georges St-Pierre fight, and I just let loose,” Serra said. “I had to. I wasn’t going to be able to outgrapple him in a five-round fight. And Chris, he went on a tear and got so many bonuses. It all stems from that first fight of ours.”
Lytle would go on to win 10 post-fight bonuses, including six “Fight of the Night” awards, in his next five years with the UFC. That was the result of a change in approach and mentality that came straight out of his disappointing loss to Serra, he said.
“It was kind of a career-changing fight for me,” Lytle said. “I decided I never wanted to feel like that again. And I never did. It was a good thing in the long run, but it was tough. That was the one fight where both of us were like, that can’t happen again.”
So when they met in Lytle’s hometown four years later, both of them knew they had to deliver. Lytle definitely didn’t want to take part in another stinker, especially with his friends and family in the audience. Who knew when they might get another chance to see him fight live?
“There were lots of times where people would ask me where I was fighting next or when they could come see me,” Lytle said. “Usually it was in Las Vegas, which is pretty far away. To have [the UFC] come to Indianapolis, there was really no excuse for people I knew not to show up to that one.”
Serra, on the other hand, knew he’d be headed into an unfriendly environment, even if it was to do battle with a man he considered a friend.
“When I fought Chris the second time, it was with a little bit of mixed emotions,” Serra said. “I know it’s a sport, and a lot of guys don’t care if they like the guy or not, but I really like Chris. He’s a very likable guy. I knew my best shot at getting the W would be to outgrapple him. But I knew from rolling with him in the (‘TUF”) house, he’s slippery. I’m probably not going to be able to submit him in that time span. It’s not like we’re rolling jiu-jitsu for an hour. My thing was, I’m going to go right in and look to land some leather.”
That seemed like the strategy most likely to result in an exciting, memorable fight, but it didn’t necessarily favor Serra, who found himself in a standup battle with a former professional boxer who had at least 5 inches in height on him.
“I think we both knew that it wouldn’t resemble the first fight at all,” Serra said. “And it didn’t, and that’s a good thing. I was a little worse for wear, for sure. The first round we collided heads, and that’s where I got the stitches over my eye. But I did also land some shots, and I landed some shots, man. I don’t regret my game plan. But me and Chris, not to brag, but we’ve got some decent chins. He landed more shots, but I landed some shots where, a different guy, he’s not taking those.”
Lytle took them, however, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. In a 12-year career, he’d only ever been stopped via cuts. That same resiliency helped him nab a unanimous-decision victory after standing opposite Serra for three rounds, though he’s willing to admit that the pro-Lytle crowd in Indiana may have helped as well.
“The main thing was, it was very nice to hear the crowd chanting your name the whole time,” Lytle said. “If you land a punch, the crowd goes nuts. If the other guy does, you don’t hear anything. That’s very helpful with the judges, and it just keeps you motivated.”
For Lytle, the fight offered closure. He’d remade himself as an exciting fan favorite after that first letdown against Serra, and he proved it to the UFC and to himself that night.
For Serra, it would be the last fight of a career that spanned more than a decade and saw him capture the UFC welterweight title. If you’d asked him back then, however, he’d probably have told you there was no way he’d retire following the decision loss to Lytle.
“After that fight, I truly thought I’d have another one,” Serra said. “But it got to the point where, I have a growing a family. Not too long after that, someone called out my name in an interview or something. Usually if someone mentions your name, you want to get ahold of the guy. My thing is, you’re calling me out? That’s going to be the stupidest thing you ever did. But someone mentioned my name – ‘Oh, I’d like to fight Matt Serra’ – and my first thought was, I don’t give a s–t. I want to take my kids to the park. That was a red flag. I thought, maybe I better get out.”
Following injuries and a surgery to remove a rib, Serra retired in May 2013, just shy of his 39th birthday. These days he occupies himself with his family, his martial arts academies, living “kind of like a Ninja Turtle, only now I can have more pizza and pasta.” He has no complaints in life, Serra said, and no regrets about his MMA career.
That last loss to Lytle, Serra said, “was one of those weird things where, I lost the fight but I wasn’t super depressed about it. Chris is such a nice guy that it was like, well, good for him. It’s in his hometown, and the fight was close. A decision is exactly what it was. I almost felt happy for Chris. If he wins a decision in his hometown, that’s not going to keep me up at night. I can look back on my career fondly, and it’s just more stories to tell the grandkids. I had some battles with guys that I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life, including Chris Lytle.”
And Lytle? He fought for another year, losing a decision to Brian Ebersole and then rebounding with a storybook ending against Dan Hardy in which he locked up a third-round guillotine choke that netted him bonuses for both “Submission of the Night” and “Fight of the Night.” It was the perfect way to go out, encapsulating in one night the fighter he’d become after that loss to Serra.
He, too, is happy with retirement, he said. Although some media reports briefly touted the possibility of a return to the cage, Lytle said, “There was no truth to that.”
“I did some interviews where people would ask, ‘Is it possible you’d ever fight again?’” Lytle said. “Well, anything’s possible. I don’t plan on doing it. But if somebody offered me a million dollars to fight, sure I’d do it. Then they took that out of context and said, ‘He might do it!’ No, I’m not doing it. Once I retired, I’ve never seriously thought about coming back.”
He’ll be in the crowd for the UFC’s return to Indianapolis on Wednesday night, he said. It’ll be his turn to lend his voice to the chorus of cheers. Hopefully the fans around him won’t have forgotten everything about that first UFC event in Indy. Even if they have, Lytle and Serra never will.
For more on UFC Fight Night 27, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.