With no fights since October 2011, and that one being the first loss of his pro career against Cheick Kongo, it’s been a rough year for heavyweight prospect Matt Mitrione, but as with anything in pro sports, you can’t make it to the top if you can’t get through a little bad weather.
“2012 has been stressful,” mused Mitrione. “It’s been disappointing, and things just kept happening. But in that same breath, it also gave me a lot of time to develop and allowed me to get a lot of stuff in my personal life kinda settled and put away. But it was stressful. 2012 was a very long year.”
It’s not over yet though, and that’s the good news for the former Ultimate Fighter 10 competitor, as he will get an opportunity to finish things on a high note tonight when he faces former TUF teammate Roy Nelson. Even that wasn’t something that occurred according to plan, as Mitrione was originally scheduled to battle Phil De Fries at UFC 155 on December 29th. But when Shane Carwin was forced out of the TUF Finale 16 main event due to injury, it was Mitrione’s chance to salvage the year.
“I’ve been ready to fight,” he said. “I had a couple things happen, a couple situations come up that were out of my control, and as (UFC president) Dana (White) pointed out, I turned down that (Daniel) Cormier fight (in Strikeforce). But as soon as I saw Shane got hurt, which sucks, I was real excited to call up and be like ‘I’m down.’ I’m in shape and ready to go. The last fight I was supposed to have was October 5 (a bout with Rob Broughton that was scrapped), and all of a sudden it (the bout with De Fries) got pushed back to the end of December. That’s a long time to be on the shelf, especially since I’ve been training since March. As soon as I saw what happened, I said I’m ready for this fight. I talked to my striking coach and my grappling coach, and they were like, we feel like you’re ready for this.”
And though the two were friendly on TUF 10, for Mitrione, this was a business decision, one that will escalate his rise up the heavyweight ranks should he win.
“Roy and I got along and we never really had any issues at all,” said Mitrione. “In fact, Roy cornered me for (James) McSweeney (on TUF), and I like Roy and respect him. It’s just that this is the time in my career that something like this needed to happen.”
Mitrione’s sense of urgency doesn’t just come from being 34 and looking to accelerate things after a year spent on the sidelines. Fighting and beating Nelson is the fastest way for him to erase the bad taste in his mouth following his decision defeat to Kongo at UFC 137, one that didn’t come close to approaching the promised fireworks between the two strikers. And Mitrione is the first to admit it.
“It didn’t go my way and it was a brutally boring fight,” said the former NFL lineman, who had won each of his previous five pro fights, all in the UFC. “Even in the middle of it, I was like ‘this s**t sucks.’ But I stayed the course with my game plan and I know I have the discipline to do it even if I’m frustrated that it’s not going the way I want it to.”
The way it went was Kongo controlling the grappling and not allowing Mitrione any room to breathe in order to get his striking game going. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but it was a smart gameplan when dealing with the heavy-handed Mitrione, who has spent every day in the gym since making sure there’s not a repeat performance tonight or in the future.
“It devastated me, and I was so disappointed in myself with my performance, and I let myself and my coaches down,” he said of the bout. “But it was a great thing for me as a professional because it really taught me that you’ve been working so much on all the other aspects of your standup, but you didn’t utilize it, and when you needed to, you couldn’t do it. And on top of that, my striking was so rudimentary that I didn’t understand how to attack somebody that didn’t want to fight back. And that’s what cost me that fight. If I let my hands go and attacked, it would have been all over, but I didn’t, and I wasn’t comfortable enough there. So it taught me that what you’re doing now is the wrong thing. It made me go back to the drawing board and reinvent myself. I hate it when fighters lose and they say I’m a brand new person, so I’m not a brand new fighter; I just learned more.”
He had some pretty decent professors too.
“I got my ass kicked by Alistair Overeem, Tyrone Spong, Rashad Evans, Jake Shields, Mario Sperry, Vitor Belfort, and Anthony Johnson, and all these fighters that are exceptional have beaten my ass for almost a year, so I’ve learned a tremendous amount from that,” said Mitrione of his Blackzilians teammates.
If he can keep it standing, it could be a classic, since Nelson and Mitrione both have knockout power. And though Nelson is known for his cast-iron chin, Mitrione claims that he isn’t too shabby in that department either.
“Fortunately, I’ve never been rattled, a) in a fight and b) even in practice,” he said. “I’ve never been wobbled and I never had to walk around with rubber legs for a little bit. I have a good chin, I have a really strong neck, and that’s probably from my football days. I’m not afraid of Roy’s power. I know he has a lot of power, but I respect my chin and my durability, and anybody that’s ever seen me fight knows I’m athletic. I fight athletically, I’m mobile, and I don’t just stand in front of somebody and scrap. Whether I’m winning or losing I don’t do that. I’m sure Roy’s preparing for that, and I think anybody that’s ever seen Roy fight knows that he’s not highly mobile and he’s got a big right hand. He has his gameplan against me and I have my gameplan against him and I think we’re both intelligent enough and both have good enough people around us that we know how to win the fight. It’s just up to us to know to stay the course, outlast the storm, and figure it out.”
Mitrione hopes to be the first one to figure it out on fight night, and if he does, the bad start to 2012 will be a distant memory. More importantly, he hopes to show that he’s not the same fighter that lost to Kongo 14 months ago.
“I hope they (the fans) see a more finished product and a better martial artist,” he said. “I know I’ve got heavy hands, I’ve got a damn good chin, and I think it’s no secret that Roy will stand with me for a while, but I think he’s gonna try and get me up against the wall and take me down because he probably feels that’s the weakest part of my game. I spent so much time on my takedown defense, my getting back to my feet, my grappling, my transitions, and my mobility so I don’t get pushed back on the wall, and I hope they see that this a guy who has really dedicated a lot of time to his craft and has too much pride to be stagnant.”
Matt Mitrione - A Chance to Salvage a Rough 2012
"I like Roy and respect him. It’s just that this is the time in my career that something like this needed to happen." - Matt Mitrione