(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
"Meathead" Matt Mitrione has always been smarter than he looks. The former Purdue University football star was a leading villain during the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, drawing the ire of teammates and coaches alike when he sat out of some training after experiencing wooziness after a tough fight with veteran Scott Junk. They said he didn't have a fighter's heart. Three fights into his UFC career, all three impressive wins, it's obvious that wasn't the case. Bloody Elbow caught up with Mitrione to talk about life, football, and a little about fighting.
Jonathan Snowden: So, are you feeling pretty good about things? Settling in to a what is basically a new job: professional cage fighter.
Matt Mitrione: Wow, that's kind of a trip. This is a job. You're the first person to really bring that to my attention. I guess I am. It's funny, when I went on the show I had a sports nutrition company called Eden and that was pretty much my full time job. Ever since the show, I train full time now. So it's been difficult to oversee a lot of that stuff. I've actually had to let Eden kind of go by the wayside. So I have enough physical and mental energy to concentrate on fighting. Training, breaking down film, traveling, helping other people train for their camps. It's interesting and you're right - it has become a full time job. That's what I do primarily to support my family now.
Jonathan Snowden: It's got to be pretty cool though, to have that on your resume, because I remember on The Ultimate Fighter when the talking point was you didn't have what it takes to be a fighter. Because of your injury at the time. Does it feel good to stick it in their face?
Matt Mitrione: Actually, to be honest, no. I'm so used to competing and so used to being doubted. When people hate or say derogatory things about me, it doesn't feel good to say "Ha" because I always believed in myself. When that situation came up, I was like 'Pff. It's stupid. I can't believe you'd actually think something like that.' I would have never gotten to the point I have in my athletic careers, careers plural, if I didn't really believe in myself, bust my stones, but also know what I was capable of.
Jonathan Snowden: Speaking of athletic careers: are you still a football fan? What's your team? Do you support the teams you played for or the local team?
Matt Mitrione: I'm a Giants guy. They took a chance on me and brought me into the NFL. My whole family is from that area too, so I've grown close to the Blue. But honestly, I'm so far removed from college football and the NFL that I couldn't tell you if they made the playoffs or not this year.
Jonathan Snowden: They didn't. They missed out on the last game of the season.
Matt Mitrione: Man, that's brutal. But the Saints are in. I'm actually still real close with Jeremy Shockey. I still care about Jeremy, he's a friend of mine and I want him to be successful. Plus I played college ball with(Saints quarterback Drew) Brees. Brees was part of my recruiting class at Purdue. We have a pretty long history together.
Jonathan Snowden: I looked you up in the Purdue media guide today and saw you there with your funny Flock of Seagulls or Wolverine from the X-Men haircut.
Matt Mitrione: Bro, I was a fat, fat, chubby kid back in the day. With those media pictures we would do whatever we wanted to do. Wear pink sunglasses and fake mustaches. Then our coach at the time decided to kibosh anything fun or exciting. So I had my hair like that, but other than that they wouldn't let us do any fun stuff.
Jonathan Snowden: Beyond your haircut, you were a real, big time college football player. Sometimes promoters exaggerate things, but you were the real thing.
Matt Mitrione: Yeah man. I was good bro. I was good enough to get in the NFL, not only that good enough to get playing time. I was good enough to be active - I was never on the practice squad. I was athletic. When I was in college I was a run stopper because I didn't know how to use my hips. But I was quick enough and strong enough to get by other people. When I got to the NFL, I wasn't stronger than other people. I was in the bottom quarter, probably, in strength among NFL players on the line.
So I had to change my game. And that's when I became a pass rusher. It's funny, I made that transition immediately because I knew I wasn't going to be a run stopper in the NFL. Because I didn't weigh 350 pounds. I did get up to 315 pounds, but I was really fat, soft and dumpy back then. I was strong as an ox for a little while though. I squatted the house for a little while. I did a 700 pound squat or something like that.
Jonathan Snowden: How important is mass like that in MMA? Is there a reason you aren't carrying nearly as much weight as you might?
Matt Mitrione: I'm not naturally that big. I lift as I'm supposed to now and don't lift for bulk. This is my natural weight and 250-260 pounds. In between fights I'll get up to 270. Right now I'm probably 273. I've been lifting and I'm drinking a ton of water.But I lost that weight almost immediately when I got injured in the NFL. It was a foot injury and I didn't walk for 16 months. My caloric expenditure went down considerably so my caloric intake went down considerably. As a result I lost a lot of weight, but it wasn't really muscle. Kind of body fat I guess. I went from being a fat kid to a thinner man.
Jonathan Snowden: You were listed as the Springfield, Illinois 1998 Toughman champion. So you've kind of been into this for awhile. You've wanted to do stuff like this for more than a minute.
Matt Mitrione: For sure man. I love the ability to compete. No matter what the situation is, I test myself. Whether it's physically, spiritually, emotionally -whatever it is I test myself. I was sitting out of football for a year. And hopefully someone will hear this and it will apply to them. I didn't take high school academics seriously at all. I just kind of dicked around and by the time I was going to get a scholarship to play football, my GPA wasn't high enough. So I didn't qualify for what's called the NCAA Clearing House. When I didn't qualify I had to go back to high school for a fifth year. I failed Catholic High School because I failed religion.
I had to go for a fifth year to a public high school in the same city. And that was really humbling. You're an All American football player in a small town of 100,000 people and then you don't graduate from high school and your GPA isn't high enough? It was really embarrassing. I had to sit out of football and couldn't really do anything competitive. As a result I started getting into Shitō-ryū, which is Okinawan style karate,started training and wanted something to compete at. So I ended up jumping in the tough man contest.
More from Mitrione after the break, including his thoughts on the Pettis kick and his opponent Tim Hague.
Matt Mitrione: It sucks man. Because I am an intelligent guy. I thought I could do absolutely nothing and skate by because of my athletic prowess. It cost me. I had to go back to high school for a fifth year and retake classes I got F's or D's and they were mindless classes. Stuff I could have gotten A's in for sure if I wasn't messing around. I didn't got to high school, I went to school high. I'd burn a joint on the way to school and I wouldn't pay any attention. I was being a jock. I was being an idiot. It came back to bite me in the butt.
Jonathan Snowden: They didn't know they were supposed to just graduate the star football player?
Matt Mitrione: (Laughs). Apparently they didn't. They did not get that memo.
Jonathan Snowden: Let's talk about Tim Hague for a moment, you fight coming up. This is a guy who beat your teammate Pat Barry. Is that something that means anything to you?
Matt Mitrione: It is. Pat is an important guy to me. The fact that he beat him? Yeah, that's important to me. It will stick around a little bit. But MMA is funny - even though we are teammates it's still an individual show. I've got to get out there and get my paycheck, get my win bonus for my family. And that's what I'm going to do. It sucks that Pat lost and if I happen to knock Tim down and he's bordering on conscious, I'll throw an extra yoke in there to knock him to sleep for Pat. But other than that, I'm going to try to win this for me.
Jonathan Snowden: Does it build your confidence that he's lost to Joey Beltran, who you beat? Or, because he beat Pat, do you assume he's got to be a pretty tough guy?
Matt Mitrione: First of all, I know that Tim can take a shot. Tim's been kicked in the face more times than I can count on videos and he takes them. So I know Tim can take a punch. I know from that, too, that's he's got some holes in his standup game and I'm planning on exploiting that. I feel like he's a tough kid, he doesn't get knocked out with a single punch, except for the Duffee fight, and he's got good ground. He's a capable fighter. I'm looking forward to it because I think it's a good test for me at this point in my career.
Jonathan Snowden: I'm sure people are going to ask you this non stop, but your teammate Anthony Pettis did the craziest thing anybody has ever seen, jumping off the cage to land a kick on Ben Henderson. Even at 270 pounds, how many times have you practiced that kick?
Matt Mitrione: I've practiced that kick off the cage probably 75 times. Since he pulled it off in a fight, I've practiced it another 30 times. There's a really good chance I'm going to do something embarrassing or awesome in this fight. I don't really know what it is. It kind of depends on where the gas tank is.
Now, will I do it in the last minute of a championship fight? I don't know if I'm that creative or that witty of a fighter. Wasn't that kick phenomenal? It was so beautiful.
Jonathan Snowden: It took balls just to do it. But to land it and actually knock the guy down? That was incredible. I've never seen anything like it.
Matt Mitrione: Have you tried that kick yet? Don't bullshit me. Be honest with me. You've tried it right?
Jonathan Snowden: Yeah. We went out to the baseball field to see if we could do it off the fence. I'm out of shape, true, but it was hard as hell. I don't see how he did it.
Matt Mitrione: I'm going to tell my wife that. They went out to the baseball field and actually tried it off the backstop...I'm going to be honest with you man. Fourth minute of the fifth round? That's big time. And the fact that he did it with the same foot he jumped off the cage with. It's completely remarkable. I never tried one quite like that until I saw him try that. I've tried different attacks off the wall, but to see him do that was amazing.
Jonathan Snowden: What does coach Duke Roufus think of all this? A lot of coaches would discourage people from doing something crazy like that because it could backfire badly. Yet he seems fine with it.
Matt Mitrione: Coach Duke has a way of coaching where he will not change what you do. And you're surrounded by people who are doing just off the wall things. And sooner or later you're going to try it out. Pat Barry's liver punches are humbling and humiliating. If you didn't throw body punches, you're going to start to see if you can have the same effect on somebody's body that Pat does.
With Pettis, his jiu jitsu is dirty. He's so clean on the ground. And needless to say, his striking is really creative. And once you see him do all his stuff, you want to try. And Coach Duke isn't a guy that will restrict that. He'll say 'If it lands, great. And if you look like a dumb ass and get knocked out, don't do that anymore.'
Jonathan Snowden: What's the mood like there, hearing that Anthony's not going to get that title shot?
Matt Mitrione: People are a little upset about it. I'll tell you what I think they should do. I think they should name Edgar, Maynard, and Anthony Pettis as coaches for The Ultimate Fighter. Have three teams and the winner of each fight can either pick the next fight, like they do now, or choose to sit out because they think their team needs the rest.
If you're not winning you can just sit there and stew. And being on that show, watching other people compete while you just sit around and chill sucks. A three coach show would be great. And it's fair to Anthony. He gets to have great training, get his face seen and get all that publicity and be where he needs to be.
Jonathan Snowden: There is a ton of crazy stuff on the internet, but I have not heard this idea yet. Congratulations.
Matt Mitrione: It's like a round robin and go from there. If Gray or Anthony win, they get to fight Edgar for the title. If Edgar wins, he gets to choose who he wants to fight.
Jonathan Snowden: Brilliant but I don't think it's going to happen.
Matt Mitrione: I know TUF executives read your site. Make it happen.
Jonathan Snowden: They must, everybody else does. Last question. In this sport, if you're not growing, you're fading. How do you need to improve to be where you need to be to make a run at this thing?
Matt Mitrione: You know, I'm fortunate that I'm athletic and I pick things up well. But that also gives me challenges. Because sometimes I'm driving a Ferrari when my skill level should actually have me in a Volkswagen. For me I need to work on spacing and controlling my explosiveness. Using it when I need to but settling down when I don't. And for me, wrestling is always going to be an Achilles heel. It's something that's foreign to me. I can do it in practice, but like everything else, I've got to go out there and prove I can do it in a fight. If I can't go out and do it in a fight, what the hell am I practicing it for? I need to make sure I'm as well versed as I think I am and show that in my fights.
Mitrione fights Tim Hague at UFC: Fight for the Troops 2, January 22, 2011 on Spike TV.