Matt Mitrione doesn’t mind being the underdog.
He gladly accepted the role when he defeated cast mate Scott Junk on the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter. He did it again in December 2009, when he KOed heavy favorite and fellow NFL alum Marcus Jones at the series’ live finale. And then he played the part a third time when he unexpectedly dominated internet phenom-turned-legit fighter Kimbo Slice at UFC 113.
Along the way, the former defensive tackle for the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings also upset skeptics who questioned the legitimacy of crossover athletes in MMA.
For having a career that’s only ten months old, Mitrione has already accomplished quite a bit.
“No one knew anything about me, so they were free to go ahead and underestimate me,” says the 32-year-old heavyweight. “It was fine because it gave me the upper hand. People could have bet their home mortgage against me – too bad for them because I’ve felt good going into every one of my matches. I know my own potential and feel confident about what I can do.”
The tides are turning now, and given Mitrione’s last performance, fans finally seem to be getting on board with the rising star. Will the switch from low expectations to high ones add some pressure to his mental game?
Love him or hate him, he says neither will affect him.
“I never feel pressure,” he says. “If people think I’m going to beat my next opponent, that’s great, but it doesn’t really matter. I can be either the underdog or the favorite; either way still I have to go in there and make things happen.”
Anyone who’s seen his behavior during his run on TUF 10 – vacant stares and faraway looks in the face of screaming housemates and coaches – knows that Mitrione is telling the truth. His ability to tune out the superfluous is his strong suit, if not infuriating to those around him. So whether you bet for him or against him, he won’t know it. He’ll be zoned in on trying to pass what he calls his first true test in the Octagon.
“I don’t mean to be offensive in any way but I don’t feel that either of my last opponents were real challenges,” he says. “With Marcus [Jones], the test was that I was up against a supposed jiu-jitsu guy. But the skills were limited to the basics: arm bar, triangle, etc… and I didn’t see sweeps coming from him. I knew that as soon as I touched his chin he’d sleep.”
And as far as putting Kimbo Slice out of business, Mitrione says it was a high profile move, but nowhere near a crowning achievement.
“I didn’t expect much from him,” he says. “He has a bigger record but his history of opponents (save current UFC light heavyweight Seth Petruzelli) was hardly challenging. I knew I was going to smash him.”
He also smashed his own foot in the process. Upon landing his first kick on Kimbo, Mitrione suffered a broken navicular in his left foot. The same bone was broken in his right foot in 2003 and eventually led to the end of his football career, but he insists that this time the injury was just a small hiccup. After six weeks on the sidelines he immediately jumped back into a busy training regimen: workouts at Colon MMA in Indiana, striking with Duke Roufus in Wisconsin, and wrestling at his alma mater, Purdue University.
Fully rehabbed and picking up on a record of 2-0 since his official debut, Mitrione will look for his third straight win on September 25 at UFC 119 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Opponent Joey Beltran, 12-3 (also 2-0 in the UFC), will return to the Octagon after a four-month old unanimous decision victory over Canadian heavyweight Tim Hague. His previous win was a dominating debut over Rolles Gracie that ended via TKO in the second round.
“I feel that Joey has a tremendous amount of heart and pretty good cardio,” says Mitrione. “I think the best part of his game is his takedown defense, and that he seems to have some kind of power, but I can’t tell you how much power until he punches me. He’s also got strength in his chin. But the fact that his takedown is the best part of his game – that I’ve seen, at least – is bad for him because I’m not trying to take anyone down.”
Mitrione is much too confident (but for what it’s worth, far less cocky than he may sound) to back down from a prediction.
“I respect him, but I’m going to outclass him,” he says. “I’d be really surprised if he could bully me around. Come next week, he’s going to experience grown man strength.
I’ll be punching and kicking – that’s the kind of stuff I’m looking to do, so that’s going to throw his game right out the window. When it comes to touching chins and having power, I think I’ll always have the upper hand. I believe in my hands. And I definitely believe in my shins. When I go for the inside of your leg, it’s going to land.”
Sounding quite sure of himself, one can’t help but wonder if Mitrione is anxious to see his career move at a faster pace. A piece of him says yes, but then reason, patience, and logic prevail. Funny for a guy once dubbed a meathead.
“I think I’m already ready to test myself against some legit contenders,” he says. “But technically I have all of two fights under my belt. There’s no need to put the cart ahead of the horse. I think I have the talent and potential, so things will happen when the time is right.”