Matt Mitrione had just finished brunch with his family to celebrate closing on a new house when a homeless man approached him and asked him for a screwdriver. Mitrione wondered why on earth some stranger was asking for an everyday handyman’s tool, so he quickly waved him off and entered his car.
That’s when he did a quick about-face.
“I was like, ‘Get a hold of yourself, guy. Help him do that,’ It’s 20 degrees outside and the guy is looking for a screwdriver for something,” Mitrione said. “So I got my Leatherman out and gave it to him.
“When I got back in the car my father was like, ‘Why did you do that for?’ Dude, I’m on my positive wave, man. I’m going to heed as many people as I possibly can. I had a rough time on that show and people are helping me out, still. I’m not trying to let this thing end, you know?”
“That show” was The Ultimate Fighter Heavyweights, an experience both enlightening and tumultuous. Mitrione got to focus on training for six weeks with a former light-heavyweight champion and earned his way into the UFC with a solid fight against Scott Junk on the show and his knockout of Marcus Jones at the TUF 10 Finale. But he was also cast as the heel on the show and spent a good portion of the six-week shoot a pariah on his own team and in the house.
“I wasn’t there (on the show), but I know him to be totally different,” said his current trainer, Pat McPherson. “I’ve seen him work through injuries in the year-and-a-half we’ve been working together. He’s a guy who will fight anybody – without hesitation quite honestly.”
That’s why it should come as no surprise when Mitrione immediately agreed to a proposed fight with Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson at UFC 113 May 8 in Montreal. Two weeks after Mitrione’s knockout of Marcus Jones eight seconds into the second round, Ferguson wasn’t a blip on Mitrione’s radar. Fans who spend every waking moment on message boards wanted to see it. All Mitrone wanted was to close the book on TUF 10 for good and believed that Ferguson was better suited at light heavyweight.
But Mitrione quickly realized that the show is why he’s getting these opportunities at all.
(Mitrione finishes Jones at the TUF Finale.)
“By me being a dick on the show – let’s call it what it is – it allowed me to be on the main card to fight Marcus and allows me to be on a main card of a [pay-per-view] in a foreign country,” Mitrione said. “That’s phenomenal. People want to see me lose. That’s cool, great. Paying money to see me lose and watch me keep winning, that’s great.
To be fair, Mitrione was mild as far as Ultimate Fighter villains go. He never pissed in anyone’s bed or jerked off in someone’s sushi platter. Nor did he destroy doors and furniture, throw a glass at anyone, or turn the mansion into a bunkhouse battle royal. Yet being around him created negative tension that spread around the house and filtered down to his coaches. The worst part about it was how it affected his relationship with his coaches, none of whom knew the whole story.
“There was not much positive going on there as far as a relationship,” Mitrione said. “They had all the right to be that way because they didn’t know I had an agreement with [Scott] Junk. They didn’t know that Junk threw me under the bus. They didn’t know any of that stuff, nor that I was kind of playing around or that I was getting frustrated with the biased coaching, the attitudes and the gossiping – which I brought all on myself.”
That early-season drama colored the way his coaches and teammates viewed his response to post-fight swelling of the brain after the Junk match. For days there were questions about whether he would be cleared to fight again, or if he if he even wanted to be. But like everything else Mitrione did while taping the show, he had ulterior motives. Each day spent in a doctor’s office afforded Mitrione a chance to speak with his wife, which he says kept him centered in the storm he had helped create around himself.
“Straight honest truth: If he was in my gym he would not be fighting unless he was seeing a sports psychologist,” says Trevor Wittman. An accomplished boxing trainer and member of Greg Jackson’s network of coaches, Wittman believes that, “everybody at this level of the fight game needs to have some type of mental coach. It’s doesn’t mean you have problems in your head. That’s how hard the sport is.”
UFC 113 will be an opportunity for Mitrione to prove his mental mettle, and it’s one he relishes. “I like Kimbo,” says Mitrione. “He’s a cool, cool dude, but I can’t wait to punch him in the face. I can’t wait to get out there and show the whole fucking crowd that, holy shit, this guy improved by leaps and bounds.”
Mitrione suffered a wrist injury in the Jones fight and didn’t resume training until Jan. 5, when he began working in earnest on his takedown defense and ground game with UFC vet Jake O’Brien. McPherson is also working to eliminate the “ghetto puncher” habits that see “Meathead” keeping his hands low and his chin high.
Outside of the cage, Mitrione is pouring all of his energy into building the sports nutrition company he founded called Engineer Design Nutrition (EDEN). Taking advantage of resources available at his alma mater and the Purdue Research Park, EDEN has grown quickly, finding its way into college and pro locker rooms and retail outlets in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mitrione knows that his TUF appearance made his name, but he wants to put all that drama to bed. He sent Marcus Jones a friendly text after their fight and he wants to let Rashad Evans know that he appreciates the job he did preparing his TUF team. Mitrione is an affable guy and wants to be liked but has made peace with the fact that, “if what you see on TV is what you believe, and you think that was an accurate representation, then you’re probably never going to like me.”
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