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Matt Mitrione - No Luck Necessary

“Anybody that knows me knows that I’m very, very serious about my job and I dedicate myself very much. But I’m at the point in my athletic career where I can relax in the face of competition, and that speaks volumes about where I’ve been and what I expect from myself and the way I handle stress."

Don’t worry, Matt Mitrione isn’t getting misty. He isn’t missing his former job as an NFL lineman with the conference championship games coming up this weekend, and in fact, he needed to be told a couple of days after the fact that his former team, the New York Giants, had been eliminated from making the playoffs.

Out of the NFL? He’s cool with it.

“I’m good with being out of the NFL,” said Mitrione. “As a matter of fact I actually haven’t paid too much attention to it lately. I’m far removed brother.”

It’s not what you think you would hear from an athlete who has made it to the pinnacle of his sport only to see injuries take a toll and eventually shorten his career. But Mitrione is honest in his assessment of the end of his football life.

“In 2005, I thought that I still had a year or two to make an impact and make a team better,” said the former defensive tackle who ended his career with the Minnesota Vikings. “When I got brought back in 2008 (for the All American Football League), I sucked. But in that same breath, I sucked because I was at a desk job driving 4,000 miles a month. I wasn’t prepared to go back in, but it showed me that it was time to give it up.”

In 2008, Mitrione was drafted to play in the aforementioned AAFL, a startup that suspended its inaugural season the day players were supposed to report for training camp (the league has yet to play a game but has announced that they will kick off in the spring of 2011), and the dream was over. Or so he thought.

“I started running a gym and by the time I started running a gym, that’s when I started fighting, so it all worked out really well together,” said Mitrione, who was able to nab a spot on season ten of The Ultimate Fighter and eventually work his way into the UFC. For the Illinois native, it’s been a whirlwind ride since then, and if you see him with a smile on his face all the time, now you know why.

“I actually get criticized at times because people say I look like I’m having too much fun, so they think I’m not taking my job as seriously as I need to, which I find hysterical,” he said. “Anybody that knows me knows that I’m very, very serious about my job and I dedicate myself very much. But I’m at the point in my athletic career where I can relax in the face of competition, and that speaks volumes about where I’ve been and what I expect from myself and the way I handle stress. I love my job.”

“I know what it’s like to have a job and a paycheck that you just hate earning,” he continues. “This right here, I can get kicked in the mouth, shatter my jaw, but I would be happier feeling that kind of pain to let me know I’m alive still, versus earning a six figure paycheck pushing a bunch of paper and being on the phone negotiating with an underwriter. That would drive me nuts. So I’m grateful that the UFC has given me a chance and that Spike TV took a chance on me in the first place.”

Getting a chance and making the most of it are two different things though, and Mitrione has turned a long shot into a promising fight career, complete with three wins, two knockouts, and a Fight of the Night bonus. Not bad for a green 32-year old novice to the world of mixed martial arts. But as Mitrione stated himself, when you enjoy what you’re doing, the daily grind in the gym isn’t necessarily a grind, and he looks at each day as an opportunity to add more weapons to his MMA arsenal.

“I really enjoy the mixed martial arts form, learning wrestling, learning positions and techniques and where not to put your foot because this is at the wrong angle, and all those variations,” he said. “I enjoy that, and as far as jiu-jitsu goes, I like the angles, the sweeps, the positioning, top control, and all that stuff, so it’s not pressure to learn it and to be good at it. It’s fun to learn it and try to become an expert at it.”

When you add those new tools to the punching power that knocked out Marcus Jones and Kimbo Slice and rocked the seemingly unrockable Joey Beltran, Mitrione is picking up the hardest game at an astounding rate of speed. But it’s not all athleticism that’s getting the job done for the heavyweight prospect; he’s putting the work in and making the necessary sacrifices, and as he points out, being an MMA fighter can be a lot different than being an NFL player.

“It’s different in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s different because you don’t have somebody standing over you, making you get up, making you get out of bed, fining you money if you’re late, so it’s a very independent grind as far as MMA goes. In that same breath, you’ve got to be a very self-motivated person in order to be an MMA fighter because you have to push yourself to go to the gym on cold days, days you don’t want to do it, days you’re already tired. But other than having to be a self-starter and a self-motivator, the amount of work and effort you have to put forth is very similar. It’s different types of training obviously, but the muscle soreness, the achy joints, and the fatigue is very similar.”

Yet as the training camps pile up, Mitrione is starting to not just act, but react, making it clear that his education as a fighter is starting to stick.

“My last fight, I felt that,” he said. “Halfway through the second round and in the third round, it was just automatic. My spacing, everything I wanted to do was exactly the way I wanted to do it, and I never had to think about it. I’m starting to get there, but I can’t put the cart ahead of the horse because this is only going to be my fourth pro fight. I’ve got to keep myself as honest as possible and self-critique as honest as possible because this is only where I’m at, and the fact that I’ve been lucky so far, don’t count that as me being good; count that as me being new and people couldn’t critique my style as much.”

At this level of the game, there’s no such thing as luck, though you can appreciate Mitrione’s self-effacing assessment of his fight game, which will be tested again this Saturday night as he looks to make it four in a row against Canada’s Tim Hague. It’s another high-profile bout for the Indiana resident, but being in the spotlight isn’t about to get old for him, especially when he has a hungry opponent in front of him looking to put a “1” in his loss column.

“He (Hague) is a guy that’s much better than his UFC record,” said Mitrione. “He’s an all-around tough kid, he loves the grind, he’s got a good chin, and everybody’s got that one fight where he gets his ass kicked or gets knocked out, so I don’t think it’s right to judge him on that Todd Duffee fight (where Hague got stopped in the first round). He’s a good fighter, and ideally against me, he’s gonna want to rush me and get me down on the ground, because I don’t think there’s any chance that he wants to stand with me. He might be able to take my punches, but I don’t think he’ll be able to stay with me as an athlete and I think I’ll confuse him with my footwork and my head movement and the angles where my hands are coming from. So I think he’s gonna try to get me to the ground and maul me there. He’s capable of doing that because he’s such a big body, but I think he knows that this is gonna be his last chance in the UFC, so I expect the fight of Tim’s life. I understand that and I’m preparing for that.”

Forget football, this is Mitrione’s Super Bowl.