By Zach Arnold | July 6, 2011
By Mike Schmitz
Year in and year out NFL dropouts attempt the leap of faith from the gridiron to the octagon, but none have made that transition as seamlessly as Matt Mitrione. In 2006 the former All-Big-10 defensive lineman and six-year NFL veteran hung up his cleats to study the ins and outs how to fight at the professional level. An injury plagued NFL career as a backup came to a screeching halt after Mitrione struggled through countless foot surgeries and had to call it quits.
But after only two years as an MMA pro, Mitrione’s found his place in the octagon having racked up five victories and four knockouts in only five fights. The 265-pound Meathead is no longer known as ‘the guy from Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter.’ He’s become much more than ‘the fighter how to fight Kimbo Slice,’ or ‘the NFL injury dropout.’
Mitrione has arrived as a UFC mainstay and the 32-year-old is progressing like a young gun just bursting onto the scene. He fights with poise beyond his experience, and proved that by defeating Christian Morecraft via KO in UFC on Versus 4. He’s confident, charismatic, and most importantly, competitive. Mitrione’s proven himself against the likes of Morecraft, Joey Beltran, Tim Hague, Kimbo Slice and Marcus Jones (former NFL player).
His heavy hands, calm demeanor and undefeated record suggest that he’s ready to ramp up his competition. But is Mitrione really prepared to fight the top MMA pros?
“I want to fight a top guy,” Mitrione recently said on The MMA Hour radio program at MMAFighting.com. “I like and respect Frank Mir. He and I are cool, and I think it would be a really fun fight. (But) I made so many mistakes (against Morecraft). I wonder if anyone else who fights feels the way I do after they fight. If I would have made those mistakes against Cheick Kongo or Frank Mir, I would’ve lost. It makes me wonder what the right step is next. My hands, I can scrap with anybody. Technique wise, ehh …”
Who could Mitrione see in his next fight? Here are five possibilities:
- Cheick Kongo: With both Kongo and Mitrione coming off of impressive wins, UFC fans around the country are thirsting for this matchup. Although it does bring a lot of intrigue, Kongo is still a cut above Meathead. Kongo’s fought 10 more UFC fights than Mitrione and has years of experience on Meathead. Yes it would sell and bring a lot of hype, but it’s not the right fight for Mitrione moving forward.
- Frank Mir: If Kongo is too much for Mitirone to handle, than Mir definitely shouldn’t be his next opponent. After UFC on Versus 4 fighter and analyst Stephan Bonnar said Mitrione should meet Mir in his next fight. But the former UFC champion is head and shoulders above the still raw Mitrione. He’s arguably a top 10 heavyweight, while Mitrione is still wavering between the second and third tier of heavyweight fighters. If Mitrione wins another fight or two, I can see this matchup, but not after only five fights.
- Dave Herman: Pee-Wee appears to be the happy medium for Mitrione. Herman is 21-2 at the professional level, but he’s still new to UFC (only one fight) and is a bit untested. He also has a wrestling background and could give Mitrione trouble on the ground, which is something he really hasn’t seen yet. Mitrione versus Herman is the ideal fight moving forward.
- Stefan Struve: The 6-foot-11 Skyscraper is a definite possibility for Mitrione. He’s more of a second-tier fighter but has also taken on the likes of Junior Dos Santos (TKO loss in 2009). He’s much more tested than Mitrione but fights the same talent level as Mitrione. He defeated Morecraft (KO) at UFC 117 and is coming off of a loss to Travis Browne. Herman still seems ideal, but Struve is a close second.
- Roy Nelson: Big Country has lost two fights in a row, but both came to JDS and Mir by unanimous decision. He defeated Struve by TKO in UFC Fight Night 21 and is in need of a win. He proved he couldn’t hang with Mir and JDS, but would be a good matchup for a surging Mitrione. He’s a few years older than Mitrione and brings power Mitrione hasn’t seen. Although it would be a competitive fight, Mitrione needs someone younger and on the rise rather than a declining Nelson.
Mitrione’s shown more than enough to defeat his most recent opponents, but what needs to happen for him to make the jump into the second tier of heavyweight contenders?
He’s obviously full of power, but if he’s not connecting Meathead is vulnerable. His defense is sub-par and his wrestling is nearly non-existent. He has solid kickboxing skills from learning under Duke Roufus and is quick on his feet for his size, but he needs to learn how to fight on ground and improve his defense to become more complete.
Once Mitrione does that, the next step would be to challenge the likes JDS or Cain Velasquez. At this point of his career, Mitrione isn’t even close. He can hang with almost anyone on his feet due to his heavy hands, but he isn’t as quick as JDS or Velasquez and wouldn’t last long against the top-tier heavyweights.
But regardless of who Mitrione ends up facing in his next fight and where he ranks among heavyweight fighters, it’s clear he’s made his presence felt in not only UFC, but the sport of MMA. Where he started out on The Ultimate Fighter and where he’s at now is a pleasant surprise.
He’s proven that the fighter-to-athlete route can lead to success. Matt Mitrione is no longer a former NFL player who knows how to fight, he’s become a full-fledged MMA fighter with a bright future ahead of him. A slow and steady push will prove to benefit him in the long-term. He has become a star in the UFC and, given the current vacuum of stars in the company (due to injuries, inactivity, too many shows), has positioned himself to take advantage of the current Heavyweight landscape.