Mitrione applies NFL lessons to his MMA career

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UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione was a standout lineman at Purdue University

Matt Mitrione was, by his own admission, a below-average NFL player. He struggled just to remain on a practice squad week to week.

Such, though, is not the case with his second professional career. The athleticism that helped him to earn an NFL paycheck is evident in making him one of the better heavyweight prospects in mixed martial arts.

No, Mitrione isn't close to being ready to fight Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez anytime soon. And you can add guys like Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir and Fedor Emelianenko to that list.

But if Mitrione continues the progress he's made in his brief MMA career, it's no stretch to think that someday, he'll be in fights against that level of competition.

"He has championship-caliber skills," highly regarded coach Duke Roufus said of Mitrione, who fights veteran Tim Hague on Saturday at the UFC Fight for the Troops 2 card at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas.

Mitrione has been known as much for his outrageous personality as for his skills in his brief time in MMA. He was a member of the cast of Season 10 of "The Ultimate Fighter," when he earned the nickname "Meathead" from his coach, Rashad Evans.

And as he's progressed, he's been noted as much for the firing of his then-manager, Malki Kawa, in the cage after his win over Joey Beltran at UFC 119, as he has for any of his talents.

That, though, is missing the fact that Mitrione is a very talented fighter who is showing a great aptitude for MMA. Not every prospect realizes his full potential, but if Mitrione manages to realize his, the UFC may have a new star on its hands.

He's 6-feet-4, more than 260 pounds and has always been heavy-handed. But veteran UFC welterweight Chris Lytle, who has trained with Mitrione in Indianapolis, said the big man is developing an all-around game.

"Matt is as athletic as they come," Lytle said. "It really surprised me about him. And you know what that did? It really drove home the point to me what a great caliber of athletes they have in the NFL. We were running sprints and he's faster than I am and he's 260-some pounds. He's a big man and he's very aggressive, but he doesn't just have to play the big, strong guy role.

"He wants to learn and wants to make himself a complete fighter and he's worked hard to do that. He's worked on his submissions from the bottom and he's shown the athletic ability and the desire to become a complete fighter."

He's been so focused on improving his wrestling and jiu-jitsu and being able to seamlessly transition from one to the other that he's hardly paid any attention to the NFL playoffs.

Ask him who he picks to go to the Super Bowl and you'll get a blank stare. His past as an ex-NFL player is what has gained him a bit of notoriety in the MMA world, but it's not who he is. He's a fighter to the core now.

He hasn't watch the NFL playoffs, he said, because he wanted to use his free time to focus on Hague.

"I have a 290-pound man who is training to kick my ass in front of two million people on national television (on Spike), so I don't have the luxury of watching anyone else play a game," he said.

Curiously, though, Mitrione believes injuries he suffered in his NFL career wound up being a blessing. He was a marginal talent and no one in the league was going to spend much time trying to develop him when he was battling injuries.

That opened his eyes and made him realize he needed to think about what is going to come next.

"I couldn't care less (about the NFL)," Mitrione said. "I had such a great time in college (at Purdue). I was drunk, chasing tail and I was an extremely good college football player. I lived in the moment. I had a great time. When I got to the NFL, I was a below-average player. I was lucky to get in, to a certain extent, and I was lucky to make my place.

"The (foot) injury in a way turned out to be a good thing, because it forced me to move on and get me prepared for the rest of my life."

Mitrione normally trains with Roufus in Milwaukee, but chose not to go there for the Hague camp because his wife had a child in November. Roufus, though, believes Mitrione is eventually going to be a major player in the UFC's heavyweight division.

He joked that he should sell pay-per-view of the sparring sessions Mitrione has had with fellow heavyweight Pat Barry, who fights Beltran on Saturday's card.

Mitrione remains raw, but Roufus said the talent and the desire are clearly there.

"The heavyweight division has gotten these super athletes in it and the guys are similar to those you see in the NFL," Roufus said. "They're big, fast, powerful and intelligent. The division is night and day better than it was not that long ago. There was a time it was laughable, but now, these guys are really talented.

"Matt's a guy who fits right in. He still has a lot to learn, but he's very adept. He has a quick learning curve. Remember, this is a guy who went on TUF with basically no real fights and he's learning in the UFC. There aren't many guys who are talented enough and strong enough mentally to do that."

One of the remnants from Mitrione's football career that has helped him is his ability to break down films. He's able to spot weaknesses because he knows what to look for when he's watching and isn't simply viewing a fight as a fan.

It's given him a good handle on where he is and what he needs to do to continue his ascent. And while Hague is most dangerous on the ground, Mitrione said he won't complain if the fight gets there.

"If I'm on my back, I feel like I know what I'll need to do," Mitrione said. "There's always so much to learn, but I feel like I have more than just my hands to rely on now."