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Mitrione faces biggest hurdle on fast track

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Matt Mitrione has been riding a wave since the day he got serious as an MMA fighter just two years ago.

With no professional fights on his record, he got onto “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show in its 10th and most-watched season because the show’s producers wanted to build the season around Kimbo Slice and ex-NFL football players.

Most successful “TUF” seasons feature one guy who the public just can’t stand, and in late 2009, Mitrione was clearly that fighter.

A grudge with another former NFL player on the show, Marcus Jones, meant Mitrione’s first UFC fight was shown live on Spike TV. Due to Slice’s presence, the Dec. 2009 show in Las Vegas was among the highest rated televised fight cards in UFC history. Mitrione scored a spectacular second-round knockout in front of a lot of eyeballs and his career was on its way.

“The best and worst thing about the show is the same answer,” said Mitrione (5-0), who faces French striker Cheick Kongo (26-6-2) in the co-main event of UFC 137 on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. “I stole the show from Kimbo and everyone else. I got an enormous amount of attention. It’s great when people want to see you win or lose. But it was the worst thing because it cost me so much stress and anxiety. I lost focus. … If you ask people on the show, they will tell you that the person who wins the show isn’t the best fighter on the show, but the person who maintains focus the longest.”

Since his “Ultimate Fighter” experience, though, Mitrione has gone from the subject of fan scorn to one of the UFC’s most popular up-and-coming fighters.

“I’ve done a 180,” he said in reference to how fans perceive him. “I’ve gone from death threats and people hating me so much I felt bad for my family to now I get e-mails and texts about motivating people. I have ADHD, and parents and kids [who also have ADHD] write to me about how I motivate them and that means a lot to me.”

Since the win over Jones, Mitrione’s story has been the same, as he has defeated one mid-level heavyweight after another. Every opponent, even Slice, who Mitrione beat in just his second pro fight, had him trumped in terms of experience. But his athleticism, as a former All-Big 10 defensive tackle at Purdue and marginal NFL player, along with his quickness at 260 pounds has allowed him to run through the second tier of heavyweights.

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That race has led him to Kongo (26-6-2), one of the most experienced fighters in the division.

“I’m just hoping and praying I don’t get my ass kicked in front of everyone,” said Mitrione, who felt his rapid rise has been both a blessing and a curse.

The good is he’s been in the spotlight and made his name quickly, which is a must when you are getting started in the sport just before your 31st birthday. The bad is that he’s having to play catch up in fighting skill against every opponent. Since he continues winning, the opponents get continually tougher. He’s been impressive enough that there is a demand from fans for him to take a big step up, and Kongo more that fills the bill.

“I understand people have much more experience than I do, but I’m cool with that,” he said. “When I got offered this fight by [UFC matchmaker Joe] Silva, I told him, ‘I’d love to have this fight, but please give me a little more time. Give me the latest date possible.’ I’m very green. I’m learning. I’ve only been in the fight game for two years and it’s really a developmental thing for me. Mentally, I can handle the pressure, stress and competition.

“That’s going to be the way it is for the rest of my career,” he continued. “As far as I’m concerned, athleticism and attention to detail can make up for a tremendous amount of inexperience. The fact I haven’t had gloves on and haven’t been punched and kicked in the face my whole life doesn’t mean I can’t compete. Maybe it’s my arrogance of being an NFL guy. But when I start scrapping, I don’t feel outmatched. I train with Tyrone Spong [one of the world’s best heavyweight kickboxers] and Pat Barry. I never dread it. On the ground, I’ll roll with black belts and white belts and I feel I can roll and hold me own.”

The other reason lack of experience is a major disadvantage is because even as a quick learner, once his skill set finally rounds out, then his age becomes a factor.

“I’m 33 and I’ve got a lot of mileage on me,” he said. “I’m enjoying the ride. I’m capitalizing on the ride I’m on. As long as I keep myself honest, everyone can tell me how good I am, as long as I’m honest and know that I haven’t accomplished a damn thing.”

Mitrione’s football background taught him a lot of lessons. Even though he’s had enough success and garnered enough popularity that one loss to Kongo isn’t likely to end his UFC tenure, his NFL experience, bouncing around from team to team for six years, has led him to constantly worry about his sports future.

“Honestly, it’s the NFL player in me,” he explained. “I feel as soon as I lose I’m at a risk of getting fired. If I lose in a bad way, I can get cut. I’m very conscious of that. Just because I’ve done okay against lower-end talent doesn’t mean a damn thing to the UFC. A lot of guys with winning records get cut.”

Mitrione spent six years bouncing around NFL camps, playing the 2002 season with the New York Giants and 2005 season with the Minnesota Vikings as a 300-pound lineman.

“I was always worried about [being cut] in those days,” he said. “If there’s a time in your life to be secure that you have a job, it’s if you’re a top-20 guy. On a 53-man roster, I ranged from No. 43 to No. 55. I knew I could get cut at any time for no reason other than I’m not good enough. The ax can drop very quickly.”

On the other hand, most fighters getting into the UFC have to deal with nerves of having all eyes on them, going from smaller shows with little fanfare to the big stage. But Mitrione is not going to have stage fright.

“I’ve played in front of 110,000 people at Michigan,” he said. “The relevance of where it’s at is irrelevant.”

Kongo’s main claim to fame is his accurate striking. During his UFC career, he’s landed 61.3 percent of his strikes, second best in UFC history behind only Anderson Silva. He dropped Cain Velasquez three times and went the distance with the current champion, the only fighter Velasquez didn’t put away in his career. His most impressive performance would have been in his last fight on June 26 in Pittsburgh, when Barry had him all but out cold, knocking him down twice. But Kongo came back immediately with a right hook and uppercut that laid Barry out flat in one of the most spectacular finishes in UFC history.

“All that did is it shows me that Cheick’s resilient,” said Mitrione. “He’s not going to let the fight just stop. He’s going to do everything he can to keep scrapping. And he’s got a ton of heart, so that’s what he showed me over anything else. And what I’ve learned from him is that I know that if you get in trouble, he’s too active and a wrestler on top of a fighter, so he’s a beast. He does everything he can to make sure that he has a fighting chance to win at all times.”

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