Sorry, Bing Crosby, but being home for Christmas in his dreams simply was not good enough for Matt Mitrione.
“Legitimately, one of the biggest reasons why I took the fight with [Roy Nelson]: I needed to be home for Christmas,” reveals Mitrione. “I needed to be. I was gone for so much. I missed my kids’ birthdays. I missed so much that I needed to be home for Christmas. This fight came up and it let me be home for Christmas and spend time with my kids for New Years. It made the biggest the difference for them. For my kids and my family, it was humongous.”
The 34-year-old father of three spent the majority of last year roughly a thousand miles Southeast of his Indiana home, training with the Blackzilians in Florida. Originally, Mitrione was set to make his seventh Octagon appearance in August against England’s Rob Broughton, following a short time off to deal with injuries and rehab. After a few scrapped and rescheduled dates with Broughton, Mitrione was paired against another Englishman in Phil De Fries at UFC 155 on December 29. All told, Mitrione had been away from home for nine months and away from the cage for 14 months; when offered to fill-in for Shane Carwin against Roy Nelson at The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale - Mitrione jumped at the fight.
“It did not matter if it was four days before I fought Phil De Fries or the two weeks it was, I needed to fight,” explains Mitrione. “I needed to compete. I needed to get in there and do something. I needed the money too. I hadn't fought for so long. I was also gone for so long; I was in Florida for nine months. I have three kids! I made sure to go down there early in March to rehab because I had some surgeries. I went down in March to do two months of rehab and two months of training, and the fight got pushed back and the fight got pushed back again and again. It kept getting pushed back one month at a time, so it wasn't enough time to go back to see my kids. I just stayed down here the whole time.”
The scrap was short and sweet and, for the first time, Mitrione was on the wrong end of it. The former defensive tackle for Purdue University’s Boilermakers has only laced up a pair of MMA gloves for a professional bout inside the Octagon. At 5-2, Mitrione finished four of his first five opponents with his patented punching power and took a lone tangle the distance in a Fight of the Night unanimous decision win over Joey Beltran at UFC 119. Aggression appeared to be Mitrione’s middle name until the uncharacteristic stale decision loss against Cheick Kongo in October 2011. After sitting out nearly all of 2012, Mitrione wanted a firefight and, win or lose, he had the right dance partner to give him one.
“Once the fight happens, I bring the fight to Roy,” tells Mitrione. “I'm obviously aggressive and pushing the pace and I got caught up in the emotion of the moment and I got caught by a punch I didn't see. I didn't lose consciousness, I just got knocked down, and I was like ‘what the hell just happened,’ and Roy's on top of me - the fight is over. It showed that I brought the fight to Roy. It was exciting because it was my seventh fight in my life and I'm fighting in the main event against a guy who is in the top seven in the world. Seventh fight in my life! That's pretty damn exciting. It's something that, as a man, will get your blood pumping again and be like 'holy s**t' let's do something in here. It's a moment in your life. I was excited when it came up. Roy's a friend, I respect him, but it's time to see what happens. Roy's a real 'Ultimate Fighter' and he showed that. I made two mistakes and he took advantage of them and capitalized on them and that's what happens. You make the wrong choice at the wrong time and you're going to get caught; that's what happens in our sport. It was exciting. Even though it only went three minutes, it was still damn exciting.”
Up next, Mitrione will look to get back on the winning track and get back to regularly slated Octagon competition at UFC on FUEL TV in Sweden with a familiar European opponent in De Fries. This Saturday, the Sunderland submission specialist with a 2-2 UFC record will most likely drag this fight to the floor looking for the finish. The purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu has moved training camps to sunny California to improve his overall fight game with Alliance MMA. Earning eight of his nine victories via tap out, De Fries is at his most dangerous on the ground, and he would like to take the knockout artist Mitrione off his feet.
“I think Phil is a good fighter and a good grappler,” asserts Mitrione. “What he does, he does well. He gets guys up against the wall, he doesn't get reversed very much against the wall, and he's got a decent grappling game. He isn't afraid of going for submissions, he can hold guys for positions, he'll go for elbows, and he tries to finish fights. I think he's a good fighter. I'm really excited to get in there with him. If it goes to the ground, I have a relatively well-developed ground game that I don't ever really show and, if it goes there, I would love to be able to show it. Obviously, I would rather stay on my feet and let my hands and my shins do the talking for me.”
While Mitrione hasn’t shown any real weakness on the ground in his seven UFC fights, De Fries has displayed a slightly fragile chin in two first round KO/TKO losses to heavy-handed adversaries Stipe Miocic and, most recently, Todd Duffee at UFC 155. It’s almost an unnecessary confidence boost for Mitrione, considering that no matter who he stares across the cage from, his game plan will be to unleash his 82 inch reach on them. Whether it’s simply good scouting or mild baiting or both, Mitrione is expecting to defend De Fries’ takedowns and wall work in between firing his own combinations of fists and feet.
“As a striker, I think I can put my hands on anybody and put them in a bad situation,” affirms Mitrione. “Phil is no fool. Phil going to do whatever he can to get me against the wall. He's not going to stand in space with me and trade off. If he does, that would be awesome. I don't think he will. I think he's going to come out, throw a jab, a looping right hook, and then try to rush me against the wall. He may just throw a jab and drop in for a double. We'll see. But I don't think he's the type of guy who is going to stand there and trade off with me.”
At the Blackzilians camp, Dutch kickboxing coach Henri Hooft is in charge of sharpening Mitrione’s striking skills.
“Henri is an exceptional standup coach and he's taught me a lot about my range and my power,” says Mitrione, who hasn’t lacked in top tier sparring partners like K-1 star Tyrone Spong, former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, former Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, Thiago Silva, and Anthony Johnson, to name a few. As far as the ground game, Mitrione refers to the Blackzilians’ approach as “coaching by a village” with teammates like Jorge Santiago or Vitor Belfort running BJJ classes or visiting black belts like Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu open to teaching their craft.
On top of the work being done in Florida, Mitrione has trained at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and is a part-owner of a gym in Indianapolis with mentor Chris Lytle. When at home, Mitrione learns as much as he can from “Lights Out” Lytle, whether it is a lesson on life inside or outside the cage. From Xtreme Couture, Mitrione is in heavy contact with their head grappling coach Neil Melanson. These past three years in the UFC have all been on the job training for Mitrione, who is evolving as an athlete in a new sport while competing in the preeminent organization for it.
“My game is developing,” affirms Mitrione. “There are a lot of things that I can do that I haven't been able to show off and I think that's because I had a lot of time off, so I have developed quite a bit. Right now, I'm as good as I can be. I want to maintain where I'm at right now, so when I go back in I'm always growing. That means I'm training catch wrestling when I'm not training jiu-jitsu and I'm training jiu-jitsu when I'm not training catch. I work on offensive wrestling, sit-outs, peak outs, doubles, defenses, wall work, judo, and blah blah blah. Developments in my combinations, punching in bunches instead of just throwing one or two. Timing on kicks, locations of kicks, and combinations after that. I'm always trying to add another card to the deck, but I'm not trying to overwhelm myself.”
As the Octagon has traveled all over the world, this will be Mitrione’s first fight off the continent. “I love to travel and I've been to a lot of places, but I haven't been to Sweden yet,” says Mitrione. who will have an impromptu adventure with a couple training partners and friends following the caged combat with De Fries. “I'm going to spend a couple extra days afterward. It's kind of my family away from home with Michael Johnson and Ryan Couture also fighting, so it's exciting. My coaches are going to be there, a couple of guys I train with everyday are going to be there, a couple of my idiot friends are going to come through, so it should be a great time.”
This Saturday at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, two heavyweights will collide in a classic “striker vs. grappler” clash as Mitrione battles De Fries. “I'm going to come out there and try to do a standup war,” states Mitrione, who will look to push the pace and get into a fist fight while gunning for a fifth stoppage victory inside the Octagon. “I'm going to give my best effort and earn my keep. Whatever happens happens; I'll be ready for everything, and I'll give them a good show.”
If he can grab his first Knockout of the Night bonus, then Christmas will come very early to the Mitriones this year.
Mitrione Eager for a Scrap in Sweden this Saturday
"I'm going to give my best effort and earn my keep. Whatever happens happens; I'll be ready for everything, and I'll give them a good show." - Matt Mitrione