"If I’m as good as I think I am right now then I should win this fight." - Matt Mitrione
To put things in the most simple of terms, Matt Mitrione is a different animal.
Where most fighters competing at the highest level of mixed martial arts have spent years scrapping their way through smaller promotions in order to get the UFC, the former NFL player turned mixed martial artist simply changed his focus.
Despite dedicating over 20 years of his life to the gridiron, the Lafayette native decided it was time to hang up the helmet and test himself in hand-to-hand combat. With the help of heralded MMA veteran Chris Lytle, “Meathead” was selected to compete on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter, and while he had no real MMA experience to his credit, one thing Mitrione has in spades is gamesmanship.
The reality program was a unique vehicle for the former All-American from Purdue University to introduce himself to the UFC fan base, and where the majority of that cast has fallen into obscurity, for Mitrione it was simply an introduction.
In the four years that have passed since The Ultimate Fighter, Mitrione has made a solid impact on the heavyweight ranks. The 35-year-old has won six of his eight showings inside the Octagon, and developed a reputation for his willingness to stand toe-to-toe, sit down on his punches and let the chips fall where they may.
While that mentality carried him to a perfect 5-0 start in the UFC, it is a risky game to play in the upper-tier of the heavyweight fold. That being said, Mitrione’s lack of experience required a continuous education, and he received those lessons on the fly in his first two showings against top competition.
In bouts against Cheick Kongo and brick-handed TUF winner Roy Nelson, the Team Blackzilians fighter took his proverbial lumps. Nevertheless, Mitrione takes a unique approach to competition, and rather than view the losses as devastating setbacks, he chose to see them as opportunities to learn in the rapid-fire environment of MMA.
As cliché as it may seem, Mitrione absolutely subscribes to the notion that if you aren’t progressing as a mixed martial artist, then you are moving towards retirement. And with that in mind, he put his head down and worked out the kinks in order to return to the Octagon better than ever.
That work paid impressive dividends as he knocked out Phil De Fries in his next outing at UFC on FUEL TV 9 in April and he will be looking to continue that momentum this weekend when he faces former housemate Brendan Schaub at UFC 165 in Toronto.
While Mitrione and Schaub are familiar with one another due to their time spent in the TUF house, both have also traveled a similar trajectory under the UFC banner. They were each branded as highly-touted prospects on the strength of their work immediately following the reality program, but that status suffered when they were turned back in efforts to solidify their footing in the next tier of the division.
That particular circumstance will be a big factor coming into their showdown on Saturday night. The heavyweight division is stronger than it has ever been, and while the winner of their tilt will remain competitive in the bigger picture, the loser will most likely take a serious step toward irrelevancy in the heavyweight fold.
Where that scenario may put pressure on his opponent, for Mitirone, it is the perfect gauging point for the work he’s invested. If he’s as good as he believes he is, then he should be able to walk into the Air Canada Centre and get his hand raised. On the other hand, should Schaub emerge victorious, then Mitrione will embrace the fact that he wasn’t able to achieve the level of success he originally sought.
Either way, the affable heavyweight is game to find out, and that’s the definition of who he is as a man.
“I absolutely think that’s the case in this fight, and to be brutally honest, I think that’s awesome,” Mitrione said. “I’ve had a couple of fights I probably should have won and I did, but then I had a couple of fights that were a bit of a reach for me, but they were fights I asked for. They were something I wanted and they showed me what I needed to develop on.
“Now, I think it’s absolutely that time. If I’m as good as I think I am right now then I should win this fight. If I do, then cool, I’m exactly where I thought I was. If I lose, then I’m not, but I think it’s time to find out. Am I someone that is going to continue to climb in this sport or am I never going to live up to the expectations I set for myself? This is the perfect opportunity for both of us to find out where we are.”
Improved Ground Game
In the case of the stylistic matchup between the two heavyweights at UFC 165, Mitrione believes that aspect could present some interesting opportunities. Despite coming into MMA with a boxing base, Schaub has invested a lot of time over the past few years developing his ground game.
Work at the Gracie Training Center in Los Angeles has added another facet to Schaub’s attack. Although his recent showing at the Metamoris 2 grappling tournament against “Cyborg” Abreu caused a stir because of his stalling techniques, Schaub has elevated confidence in his ability to take control once the action hits the canvas.
Mitrione is excited to find out exactly what his opponent brings to the table in that regard and believes he’ll have some surprises of his own to offer.
“I feel I’m a different matchup than what’s he’s seen so far and he has the potential to be a pretty different matchup than what I’ve faced thus far in my career,” Mitrione said. “When he fought Lavar [Johnson] he backpedaled a lot. He didn’t move forward. He wasn’t overly aggressive and didn’t step into his punches and attacks. He let Lavar’s over-aggression cause Lavar trouble. If he does that against me, it could make for a pretty interesting fight for me personally, considering the last fighter I fought who took that approach was Cheick Kongo, and I didn’t do too well against him.
“He calls himself an elite grappler,” Mitrione added. “With him thinking and believing that…then great, take me to the ground and let’s see what happens. I’ll put my ground game against a whole lot of people - I do all the time - and I’m not nervous about it in the slightest. If he thinks he has something special on the ground, I can’t wait to get down and see what happens.
“I definitely feel the standup department is in my favor. He is really set on the idea that he’s a boxer and thinks he has the best hands in the heavyweight division. Okay, cool. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see if you are really that good of a boxer. If you are that good of a boxer, that’s great, because your stance is going to be completely different and I will chop the f*** out of your legs and your body.”
While Mitrione and Schaub have been cordial since their time on the show, their scheduled dance inside the Octagon has taken things to a different level between the two fighters. What started out as friendly Twitter banter between the two recently took a step up in intensity as Mitrione learned about Schaub’s opinion of his work ethic while taping the Countdown show for UFC 165.
Everything or Nothing
Typically, trash-talking doesn’t move his needle, but with Schaub questioning how much effort he puts into his craft lit a fire. Now, Mitrione is looking forward to proving his opponent wrong and he believes it will be a painful lesson for Schaub in Toronto.
“I’m not the type of person that needs outside motivation, but if there is one thing he could have done to fire me up, it’s that,” Mitrione said. “The reason being, if anyone is ever going to question my work ethic, I can’t wait to show them how wrong they are. That’s comical to me. I’ve worked my ass off and I always have. There were a couple of things he said in the Countdown that really offended me and I look forward to setting that straight. Whether it’s on his chin or on the ground, I look forward to showing him how wrong he is.
“I don’t do anything half-assed. If I’m shooting tequila, I’m doing it until all the bottles are empty and smashed on the floor. If I’m fighting and getting down in there trying to earn my money, I’m going to give it everything I got. Whether I win or lose, get caught with something or nail somebody with something, I’m doing it as hard as I can. That’s what it’s all about.”
On Saturday night in Toronto, Mitrione will come to an interesting crossroads in his career. While a late start may have prevented him from growing at a prodigious rate, natural talent and a sharp mind have allowed him to compete at the highest level with only a short body of work to his credit.
That being said, he believes the time has arrived for him to either take a step up or fall back. Mitrione knows he’s put in the blood, sweat and tears to become the fighter he knows he can be, but if the work doesn’t translate under the bright lights, then it was all for nothing.
Either way it’s sliced up, Mitrione is going to get some answers on Saturday night. And that’s what it all comes down to for the heavy-handed heavyweight.
“The only thing that matters is that I know I gave 100 percent of what I had to give to whatever I’m doing,” Mitrione said. “Whether I knock him out or get caught, as long as I worked my ass off to prepare for what I’m going into, then I can live with the outcome. When I fought Roy Nelson, I stood toe-to-toe with one of the best knockout artists in the division, and didn’t lose a moment of sleep after that fight. On the other hand, leaving questions on the table is something I couldn’t live with. I know I got a late start at this game but I’ve given it everything I have from the moment I signed up. This fight will show if I have what it takes to move up in the division or if I’m not as good as I think I am. Either way, I’m going to get answers. And as long as I go in there and do what I know I can do, then I’m going to be satisfied.”