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Taking Gridiron Lessons into the Octagon

Former Division I college football players Matt Mitrione, Brian Stann, Kyle Kingsbury and Brendan Schaub have all found success in the Octagon in recent months, and they owe some of their success to lessons learned on the gridiron.

Not only did his victory on last Saturday’s UFC 119 card mark the biggest win of Matt Mitrione’s UFC career, but it was the most enjoyable…and not just because of the Fight of the Night bonus he collected.

After fighting against a crowd favorite in Kimbo Slice at UFC 113 – and before that against Marcus Jones following his tumultuous stint on The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights – Mitrione had the crowd in his favor as he battled Joey Beltran at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a 90-minute drive away from where he played college football at Purdue University.

“The crowd was really cool,” Mitrione said. “It’s really nice to have a whole crowd chanting your name and loving everything you’re doing.  Every time you throw a head kick and it lands a little bit, they get fired up. That feels great.”
Of course, having played as part of the visiting team in stadiums like the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, Mitrione has plenty of experience dealing with hostile crowds – “I think there’s a tremendous amount of crossover there,” Mitrione said – and it showed in his wins over Slice and Jones. However, it’s always nice to be appreciated, especially when the crowd reaction is all for you.

“It was totally different,” Mitrione said, comparing the crowd at UFC 119 to a home crowd at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium. “Most of the time, you’re running out with 92 of your closest family members, versus being the only show in town at the moment.”

Indeed, while the UFC’s former Division I college football players have all brought important experiences with them from the gridiron to the Octagon, the atmosphere they find fighting in the UFC tends to leave their football fans far behind.

Brendan Schaub, Mitrione’s fellow heavyweight and former TUF teammate, saw that earlier this year when he faced Chase Gormley at UFC Live: Jones vs. Vera. Fighting in Broomfield, Colorado – a mere 13 miles away from where he once played fullback at the University of Colorado – Schaub was overwhelmed by the reaction he received, even before he knocked out Gormley in a scant 47 seconds.

"It's the most memorable fight I've ever had,” Schaub said. “My coaches all agreed, it's the loudest they'd ever heard a crowd. I've played in Big 12 championship games, I've made big plays in big conference games. I've been there, but it's just not the same.

“At CU, guys come and go through there, and there are alumni that are always going to support the team, whether I'm there or Kordell Stewart was there, it really doesn't matter. They just support the Black and Gold. In the UFC, you're your own company, your own brand. The fans kinda ride or die with you.”

For middleweight Brian Stann, whose experience as a football player at the US Naval Academy and as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq is detailed in his new book, Heart for the Fight, fighting before appreciative crowds in the UFC is a major improvement on his gridiron days, especially since his junior year marked a low point in Navy football history, a winless season that saw coach Charlie Weatherbie fired and replaced by Paul Johnson.

"My junior season at the Naval Academy, the team's season that year was just dreadful,” Stann said. “Every program's been through it. It's not often, but to deal with a season like that, where you go winless, your coach is fired, we had already been through a whole bunch of coaching switches at every position, it was just tough. And then you kind of compare what we dealt with that season, with the embarrassment, in comparison to what I experienced in San Diego [at UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko], which was my last fight, which was a heavily patriotic crowd, and probably a ton of military there as well, a completely different atmosphere."

While he wasn’t rewarded with on-field success during his career at Navy, Stann took important lessons from the experience that have helped him as a mixed martial artist. A strong-armed quarterback in high school, Stann was a poor fit at the position for Navy, which tends to emphasize the run over the pass in its offensive schemes. To be able to play, Stann had to switch positions and become a linebacker. Later, when Stann began training with Greg Jackson in New Mexico following his WEC light heavyweight title loss to Steve Cantwell – at a point when he had already gone 6-1 in his pro MMA career – he had to completely rebuild his fighting style. Having already started over in one sport at a high level, Stann was able to do it again.

“The part that really helped in that situation was overcoming something you're uncomfortable with,” Stann said “Quarterback and linebacker are completely different positions, and to try and switch at the Division I level, and quickly learn and get used to it and adapt to the body position, etc., plus, there's a whole new group of guys you're competing with for a spot on the team, certainly, it can be uncomfortable at times.”

Light heavyweight Kyle Kingsbury, who was a walk-on defensive tackle at Arizona State following a successful junior college career, also learned a thing or two about starting over from his football experience. That came in handy when, after starting his MMA career with seven straight wins, he suffered a first-round TKO to Tony Lopez, then lost three more fights, two on The Ultimate Fighter: Team Mir vs. Team Nogueira. Kingsbury kept at it, though, and is on a two-fight win streak after defeating Jared Hamman at UFC Fight Night: Marquardt vs. Palhares last month.

"My football career has many parallels to my MMA career,” Kingsbury said. “I've been king of the world, and I've been all the way at the bottom, looking up. Having to walk-on, you're humbled immediately. You're the low man on the totem pole. That changes your mentality. That makes you hard-nosed. You find out what you're made of at that point. Paralleling that to MMA, I was 7-0. I was smashing everybody. There were a lot of people talking about, 'Hey, you're going to be this, you're going to be that.' I think that I knew better because of my football career, and how that had gone. Because of the things I'd learned as a walk-on at ASU, I was able to keep an even keel, and I think it's helped me to bounce back from these losses I've had.”

Kingsbury is also aided by the skills that he picked up on the gridiron, which have found new applications in the Octagon.

"Playing defensive line,” Kingsbury said, “I know about being very physical with people who are bigger than me, so even if I have somebody that's my size now that I fight at 205, I always feel stronger than my opponent, and certainly know about moving guys around, almost like a sumo wrestler has the ability to feel his opponent's balance and the way his weight is moving."

For Stann, it’s more the approach to training – particularly what he learned from current Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who took over during Stann’s senior year and started the Midshipmen on their current run of seven straight bowl appearances – that carries over the most to his MMA career.

“He demands perfection in practice,” Stann said. “There is zero tolerance for lack of effort, and zero tolerance for mental errors in practice, because obviously, that transfers into the game. I adopted that and try to bring that same attitude into my own practices.”

Similarly, Mitrione finds that the discipline that he learned playing football helps drive him in his MMA training.

“I’ve been through a lot of NFL and college camps,” Mitrione said. “I know what people quit on, and I know that I’ve never wavered in situations like that, so I know that I’m mentally strong. Even when I tell myself, ‘I don’t want to go out there and work out today,’ I always wind up going out there, and I always wind up busting my ass.”

In the end, it’s largely that attitude and mental strength that will decide success or failure in the Octagon, since while all four fighters are still part of teams – Mitrione at Roufusport, Kingsbury at American Kickboxing Academy, and Stann and Schaub at Greg Jackson’s camp – each man is carrying his own ball now.

Time will tell which of the UFC’s former gridiron stars will make it across the goal line.