In the final hurrah of a weekend jam-packed with exceptional unarmed combat, the inimitable Roy Nelson faces former NFL athlete and TUF 10 entry Matt Mitrione. The heavyweight tilt serves as the headliner for tonight's The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale, which goes live from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino with a 9:00 p.m. launch date for the FX channel's main card after we scroll through a double-dose of prelims on Facebook (5:30 p.m. ET) and Fuel TV (7:00 p.m. ET).
Now, to make things interesting from the perspective of the devil's advocate: I haven't heard of a single fan, media member or otherwise semi-cognitive mammal picking Mitrione in this fight ... but I honestly believe he's got a halfway decent chance here. My intention isn't to convince anyone of anything; rather to highlight a few aspects that might be work-able for "Meathead" and, if all else fails, hopefully to merely ratchet up your interest on the competitiveness of the match up.
But, first -- it's no mystery why Roy "Big Country" Nelson (17-7) is the substantial favorite. He has 4 key selling points: a devastating right hand that's Dan Henderson "H-Bomb"-esque, an exemplary history of tackling top competition and arguably the most technically effective grasp of positional grappling in the heavyweight landscape (with an honorable mention for style points going to his jerry-curled mullet).
Nelson has also been continuously deluged by criticism in regards to his unusually rotund shape, but most of that is fueled by acknowledgement for his talent and the notion that he'd be exponentially more fearsome if he thinned out. Overall, Nelson's handled that endless scrutiny like a champ with laid-back humor and by proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he's an elite heavyweight.
Matt Mitrione (5-1) has his share of distinctive characteristics as well. Among the outpouring of former NFL crossovers participating on Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, Mitrione, along with Brendan Schaub, has proved that he's a legitimate mixed martial artist and not just a novelty. Along with fellow TUF offsprings Matt Riddle and Amir Sadollah, Mitrione also represents the rare breed of fighter whose entire MMA career has transpired in the Octagon.
"Meathead" turned out to be a pleasant surprise on TUF 10. Initially being painted as an odd-ball outsider, Mitrione raised eyebrows when he unreeled a shockingly effective set of hands in dispatching Scott Junk. While Junk is far from a household name, he'd already accrued 9 MMA fights with 6 wins (one over King of the Cage leviathan Jimmy Ambriz), his only losses were to former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez (in Junk's MMA debut) and past UFC heavyweight Christian Wellisch and he fought to a draw with Hawaiian Lolohea Mahe (who's now 6-2 and has only lost to Lavar Johnson and Shane del Rosario).
So, under a microscope, Mitrione's win over Junk was extremely impressive and a harbinger of his future potential. He sustained that mystique post-TUF by staying undefeated in 5 turns, with each opponent representing a gradual increase in clout (Marcus Jones by KO, Kimbo Slice by TKO, Joey Beltran by decision, Tim Hague and Christian Morecraft by [T]KO), until towering French kickboxer Cheick Kongo handed him his first loss by decision at UFC 147.
With Nelson's pathways toward victory being rather obvious, I think Mitrione could play spoiler and take a proverbial whiz in everyone's cereal tonight.
While Nelson's punching power and overall striking status are more proven, almost of all that can be attributed to his kitchen sink for a chin and home-run haymakers. Here's a few bullets that might make you re-think that "Big Country" will clown him on the feet:
- Mitrione's boxing is considerably more technical.
- He has an often overlooked and thoroughly astounding 82" reach measurement.
- The difference in quickness and hand-speed between the two is night and day.
- All the buzz about his NFL background is for one reason -- Mitrione has an unparalleled strength-to-agility and might be the most athletic heavyweight in the game.
This is pretty self-explanatory. Nelson charges forward in a straight line and telegraphs his overhand right from a mile away. Sure, it's highly effective but we're all aware of the perils associated with being predictable and obvious in MMA -- and Nelson is just that. Mitrione has exorbitant hand speed, his combinations are unbelievably tight and straight for an MMA newcomer and he packs a decent amount of wallop when he connects. I'm hesitant to write all that off on the grounds that Nelson hits hard and is virtually impervious to punches.
These are knuckle-dragging proportions for a 6'3" fighter. Mitrione will enjoy a 3" height advantages and a considerable 9" of reach over Nelson. This, in conjunction with his compact combinations and the next category, could make a huge difference.
Quickness and Hand-Speed
Not only will Mitrione be the more polished, diverse and rangy boxer, but he'll have a monumental edge in punching delivery. For overall cage motion, Mitrione is fleet afoot, light on his toes and -- when he's on his game -- quite effective at popping in and out of range with streaking heaters.
NFL-level Agility and Athleticism
Mitrione is toast on the mat -- plain and simple. To avoid being buried under Nelson's complex fundamentals and considerable girth, his footwork will be pivotal in staying out of the cage corners and averting the chances of Nelson weighing on him in the clinch; his physical strength could be a sufficient tool to compensate where his sprawling technique is yet to develop and, even though he has a rare knack for finding a way, Nelson is not a stellar wrestler. He grounds opponents through sheer determination and tenacity rather than a top-level wrestling acumen.
To summarize, I'm open to the notion that Mitrione could put all of that together and pull off the upset. His reach, footwork, agility and tight combinations have the collective capability to keep Nelson at a distance, who will likely barrel straight forward while heaving his overhand right. If Nelson is able to connect and tie up -- a scenario much more likely than changing levels and springing for a double from outside -- Mitrione might have the strength and low center of gravity to dig underhooks, halt the initial onslaught and pivot out of Nelson's clinch embrace.
However, at the end of the day, logic points toward Nelson having the better chance of implementing his game.
My Prediction: Roy Nelson by submission.