From reality-show renegade to bona-fide fighter, Matt Mitrione is making a name for himself.
“I’m really interested in this fight,” says Matt Mitrione about his upcoming heavyweight throw-down with Cheick Kongo at UFC 137. The ever-improving fighter with a 5-0 record in the UFC addresses each of his fights as a classroom test rather than a bloody brawl. “Maybe I get away with screwing up because other guys haven’t been as good as Kongo. Or maybe I make the same mistakes, and he makes a highlight reel out of me. At least I’ll know if I’m legit or not.”
For better or worse, everything about Matt Mitrione has to do with testing himself to see where he stands amongst the rest. Before he became the polarizing personality on The Ultimate Fighter, before his stint in the NFL, and before being an All-Big Ten defensive tackle for the Purdue Boilermakers, the fighter affectionately known as “Meathead” had always gone the uphill route to success. It’s never the easiest path, but it’s most certainly the Meathead path.
“I was a complete fuck-off in high school,” says the 33-year-old about his younger years. “My GPA was a 1.42, and I did nothing academically.” Despite being an All-American two-position football player at Sacred Heart Griffin High School in Springfield, Ill., Mitrione’s grades prevented him from qualifying for a scholarship. So what did he do? “I really had to humble myself,” he says. “I went from a Catholic school to a public school, sat out a year of football, got my GPA back up, and made my way into college. That’s a lot of mental determination when you’re 17 years old.”
Once he made it onto the Purdue football team, he appeared destined for a career in the NFL. However, an injury during his senior season left him an undrafted free agent who had to scratch his way onto an NFL team. Short tenures with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings may have been fulfilling to some, but Mitrione wasn’t satisfied.
After coming to grips with the notion that a career in football would be short lived, Mitrione decided to go back and give his first love a try. As a teenager, Mitrione had been infatuated with mixed martial arts. Aside from playing football, he also practiced Shotokan karate and competed in a kickboxing competition before heading off to Purdue. However, due to his scholarship obligations, combat sports were strictly prohibited. Here was a guy who hadn’t participated in combat sports since high school, seeking to make a career as a mixed martial artist. Again, the Meathead way came into play.
As his NFL career wound down, Mitrione sought out Purdue wrestling coach and former Dream and Pride FC fighter Tom Erikson to see where he was as a mixed martial artist. “I told Tom that I was thinking about fighting, and I needed to see where I was at with wrestling,” says Mitrione. “I knew he was a great wrestler, but I didn’t know the caliber of how good he really was—he just kicked the shit out of me. I realized that I wasn’t prepared to fight at all.”
Undeterred, Mitrione arrived at the Integrated Fighting Academy in Indianapolis, Ind., as a raw talent who desperately needed to add some dimension to his skill set if he was ever going to make it in MMA. That’s where he met his inspiration and mentor in the form of now-retired welterweight Chris Lytle.
“I respect Chris a lot,” he says about Lytle, who helped transfer his gridiron grittiness to the cage. “He’s always a professional and always down to fight no matter what. When he goes out to scrap, he goes to earn his money. I was raised to really respect hard work and leadership and that’s exactly what Chris represents.”
He then caught wind from his good friend—Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who owns the Illinois MMA promotion Capital City Cage Wars—that The Ultimate Fighter was looking for heavyweights and all he had to do was submit a video to be considered. Despite being greener than fresh grass, Mitrione decided
to give TUF a shot.
“The producers of TUF had heard that I was kind of weird but a potential talent,” Mitrione says. “They asked me to send over a video, and I did. It’s pretty hysterical. They thought I was funny and apparently somewhat abrasive, so they brought me in for an interview and realized that I was too much of a dickhead to pass up.”
With nothing but a few months of MMA training to rely on, Mitrione entered the house alongside bigger names, including street fighting legend Kimbo Slice and former IFL Heavyweight Champion Roy Nelson. But these names and faces meant nothing to Meathead—all he saw was a bunch of guys who needed their asses kicked.
“Maybe it’s my ignorance, but I figured that my hands and feet would carry me as far as they could. I thought I had a chance to win it,” Mitrione says. “I had no idea who Roy Nelson was. I introduced myself to him, and when I asked him who he was, I think he was kind of surprised that I didn’t know anything about him. Everyone else was just a face.”
Mitrione would ultimately lose to James McSweeney in the quarterfinals, but his controversial demeanor also made him one of the standouts on the show. Because of his polarizing persona, Meathead became a despised but mustsee personality. His interactions with everyone from Rashad Evans to Scott Junk painted Meathead as an aloof jerk who really didn’t take the competition seriously.
“There was definitely some creative editing,” he says when talking about how he was framed on the show. “A lot of those antics were just me entertaining myself and my way to keep my sanity.”
But the idea that he wasn’t taking mixed martial arts seriously was immediately put to rest. Under the tutelage of Lytle, Mitrione roared out of the gates and squashed the naysayers with one impressive performance after another.
In his first official pro fight, most expected the monstrous figure of Marcus Jones to take out Mitrione at the TUF finale. Those who did were treated to a highlight-reel, second-round knockout by the ex-football player. Some anticipated that Kimbo Slice would flatten him in his second fight. Wrong again. This time the 6’3” heavyweight chopped down Kimbo with brutal leg kicks before scoring another second round stoppage. A unanimous-decision victory over Joey Beltran and annihilations of both Tim Hague and Christian Morecraft finally proved that Matt Mitrione was for real. But despite the victories, Mitrione doesn’t see what the big deal is.
“I’m flattered that people say that I’ve improved so much, but I feel that I have so much to learn, and I really don’t see this growth yet,” he says. With the heavyweight division in the process of being shaken out, fans are looking for new blood to step in and contend for the title. With his upcoming test against devastating striker Cheick Kongo, Meathead will figure out where he falls in the heavyweight hierarchy.
Life has been nothing but a series of tests for Matt Mitrione. From the gridiron to the Octagon and everything in between, he has managed to pass all of his challenges the only way he knows how—the Meathead way. Things won’t be any different on October 29. “I know that I’ve been through so much athletically and emotionally in my life that I can handle anything that comes my way,” he says, “especially if it’s just one person trying to kick my ass.”
Maybe it’s my ignorance, but I figured that my hands and feet would carry me as far as they could. I thought I had a chance to win it.”