In the two years since his MMA debut as part of The Ultimate Fighter, Matt Mitrione has evolved into a top 20 Heavyweight. Under the guidance of Duke Roufus, Mitrione has amassed a 5-0 record, with that record coming primarily courtesy of an ever improving strand-up game.
At UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz, Mitrione will face the toughest test of his young career as he faces UFC veteran gatekeeper Cheick Kongo. A former professional kickboxer who also possesses solid ground skills, Kongo will truly push Mitrione's game and force him to prove he belongs this high up the card. For Mitrione to win, he will need to outstrike the kickboxer. Can he? Let's break down the striking game of "Meathead" and see what we can figure out.
Mitrione has developed a surprisingly decent stand-up game. I say surprisingly because of both his inexperience, and the very questionable stand-up skills he displayed on The Ultimate Fighter. But Duke Roufus has worked well for Mitrione, taking his natural strengths and using them to build his striking. In particular, Mitrione has three strengths:
- The inside leg kick. Mitrione is a south paw, which gives him the perfect opening for this kick. With his rear (left) leg, Mitrione throws a kick to the inside upper thigh of his opponent's lead (left) leg. This is a great kick, made particularly effective when you and your opponent have opposite stances. Mitrione gets the most of this kick too, extending the legs and rotating the hips to get a lot of power. When it lands cleanly, it hits a sensitive spot on the leg, and can have a very damaging effect. Mitrione used this kick best against Kimbo Slice, but has had success with in it many fights.
- Movement. This is Joe Rogan's favorite Mitrione talking point, and it is a good point. Mitrione is very light on his feet, particularly given his size. He is able to move in and out much faster than most Heavyweights, and he uses this movement well both offensively and defensively. When defending, Mitrione can quickly evade attacks by moving away. He does a good job moving off to the side and not straight back, preventing himself from getting trapped. Offensively, he is quick to jump in and land punches. This can surprise an opponent who perceives Mitrione as being outside, and therefor lets his defenses down. This was a big part of the Christian Morecraft and Tim Hague KO's.
- The straight left. Mitrione's best punch is the straight left down the middle. Since he's a south paw, this is a powerful cross, not a jab as it is for most fighters. Mitrione does a good jab landing it right down the middle and inside his opponent's defenses. He extends the arm through the punch, and throws it with relaxed control. This punch becomes more effective when he combines it with the movement - jumping inside range and hitting the left in one motion that proves too fast for many of his slower Heavyweight opponents.
Overall, it's a far improved stand-up game to his initial work. He now has power in his hands and his legs, and combines that with motion for a good all-around striking game. Add in a chin that has proven to be durable so far, and you have some decided strengths.
More analysis in the full entry.
Despite Mitrione's improvements in striking, he continues to show some of the same mistakes, primarily in the area of defense. Mitrione has two chief defensive holes.
- Keeping his chin up. Mitrione often lifts his head when he strikes, exposing his chin to a potentially damaging counter-strike. This is especially noticeable when he is pulled into a shoot-out with both men throwing multiple shots. Mitrione has a tendency to lean back with his head up - an instinctual way to avoid being hit, but also a position that leaves that chin up and out and can result in a knock out. Mitrione's friend Pat Barry made a very similar mistake against Kongo, and he paid dearly. He needs to tuck that chin and keep it tight against his chest.
- Dropping his hands. This is much better than when he started, but still a problem area. Mitrione is very loose in his stance, which helps the movement discussed above, but can cause him problems in his hand positioning. He frequently will paw out with his right hand, or let his hands drop down to his body at times. Like the chin issue, this also becomes more pronounced during exchanges. Against Morecraft, Mitrione began defending kicks by dropping his hands down, which is a huge problem, as a skilled striker can see that and adjust their kick to go up and connect with the now exposed head.
So far, Mitrione has used movement and a strong chin to overcome these defensive holes. But he's also never faced a striker with the technical skill of Kongo, as more of his opponents have been brawlers.
And finally, a few gifs to illustrate what we've been talking about.
First up, here's that nice inside leg kick, landed against Kimbo. Good kick, but notice how Mitrione drops his hands as he kicks, giving Kimbo an easy opening for the right:
Here's a quick movement inside that he used to KO Morecraft:
This clip shows a lot of Mitrione's tendencies - the nice left, the inside leg kick, and the sloppy defense when attacking:
I think the photo at the top sums Mitrione up rather nicely. Powerful left hand that connects and rocks Morecraft, all while Mitrione's chin is way up and his right hand way down. In the end, his striking game is a mixed bag. He has excellent technique on those lefts and inside leg kicks, and can put together combinations very well. But he also has these basic holes in his defenses that can leave his chin out there. Kongo has a demonstrated ability to find that exposed chin, so the question for Mitrione will be, can he avoid Kongo long enough to put his game to work and earn the KO? If he can, he deserves his spot at the top of the card. We'll find out at UFC 137.