Mitrione believes sports return will be lift to pandemic lockdown and recalls knockout of legend Fedor Emelianenko in 2017
Bellator heavyweight Matt Mitrione is firmly of the belief fight sports offer escapism and that the one thing people are currently looking for is some form of escape from the pandemic forcing much of the world into lockdown.
It is for this reason he sees the sense in staging events again and why he hopes Bellator will get him into fighting come July or August time.
“That’s the reason why sports are so important to the fabric of the world,” Mitrione said. “Real life sport is reality TV and it allows us all to escape. That’s the reason why shutting things down like this isn’t great and people go nuts. They can’t get lost in something that isn’t predetermined. They can’t handle it. That’s the reason why as entertainers it’s so important for us to get back on the marquees and start working again.
“I think Bellator starts having events in early July, but probably not with crowds. It’ll be like The Ultimate Fighter I think.”
For now, Mitrione must wait. He had been due replace Josh Barnett, who failed his pre-fight medical, in a fight against Ronny Markes at Bellator 241 on March 13, 2020 only for the whole event to be cancelled due to the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic. His last fight, meanwhile, a second-round stoppage loss against Sergei Kharitonov, took place all the way back in August.
Like the rest of the world, he is currently sitting tight, abiding the rules, hoping to get back to work again soon.
“I’m in Indiana and nobody cares, nobody wears masks,” Mitrione said. “My wife has a southern-style bonnet everywhere we go. She took this giant chunk out of my hair as a joke and I wanted to do the same thing, but I accidentally nicked a huge barb out of her hair. It was like bald; it was the top layer of her hair too. It was not well done on my part. I thought I had good hand-eye coordination, but her hair…she rocks it like a bad bitch. It’s role play at the moment because she has different looks so I get a different girl every time.”
If nothing else this current period of downtime offers people a chance for reflection and Mitrione, aware he will be out of action for the best part of a year, has done plenty of that in recent weeks. Looking back on his career, he accepts his standout career moment, the one he returns to frequently, might be the thrilling first round knockout of the great Fedor Emelianenko in June 2017.
“That dramatic moment happened on the most iconic stage in sports: Madison Square Garden,” Mitrione recalled. “I was walking through the hallways before and there were so many iconic moments in sport up there on the walls. So many moments of madness. Pure elation, destruction, despair and madness! I remember thinking I’ve got a chance to be immortalised on this wall from a moment. Not that I’m saying my career has been Hall of Fame worthy, but that moment in Madison Square Garden could possibly live forever.”
The fight had been a long time in the making. That too required patience.
Back in February 2017, in fact, when the pair were originally set to fight, Mitrione pulled out of the fight on the day due to kidney stones. That’s a far tougher memory for him to recall.
“When I would pee afterwards, it looked like a murder scene,” Mitrione said. “Worst memory. Pain that was inexplicable.
“A smack in the nuts is pretty intense because it feels like your balls go up into your lower abdomen. This was if a snowflake were razor blades – then trying to piss that out. But you feel that over your kidneys, sitting over the top of your hip bones at the back. You feel all the pressure of a plugged hose. You feel all that pressure with the razor blades passing through it. The razor blades aren’t constant, and the pressure isn’t constant, so it ebbs and flows, all the way to the end of your dingy. From your kidneys all in the way into your dingy.”
It was over 10 years ago now that Mitrione, a former NFL player, burst on to the mixed martial arts scene as a participant on The Ultimate Fighter, yet it was perhaps his breakout win over Kimbo Slice, a fellow TUF competitor, that really put his name up in lights and signalled the arrival of a heavyweight worth keeping an eye on.
“Pat Barry got me through that fight,” Mitrione remembered of the Kimbo win. “He got me prepared and did everything he had to do to get me to that fight. We were dancing in the back. Before they pulled the curtain, we were dancing. It was foolish but he was so good at just letting everyone chill. Pat Barry is a hell of a good friend of mine. Ten years. Baby Kimbo is a good boy too.”
In the 10 years that have passed since that fight Mitrione has had plenty of ups and downs and fought most of the notable heavyweights of his era. He has big wins over the likes of Derrick Lewis, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson, and of course Fedor. He has also come up short from time to time but knows, based on his experience, that there is often more to take from a defeat than there is from a victory. Not just that, Mitrione has shown in an 11-year pro fighting career the importance of sticking around and coming back stronger. Wait long enough and things start to open up. He understands this now.
“I think that was a tremendous learning experience,” Mitrione said of a 2018 loss to Ryan Bader in the Bellator heavyweight Grand Prix semi-final. “I’d like to fight Bader (again).
“I will say this, most traditional heavyweights are going to struggle with a guy like Ryan Bader and most traditional heavyweights are going to struggle with a guy like Linton Vassell. Linton beat Kharitonov like he stole something. Once he got him on the ground it was over. Linton’s tough. I’ve been underneath Linton a lot of times in practise. It’s a miserable experience, he is very good on top. He’s smothering and exhausting. He’s good. There’s not a lot of heavyweights that have developed that shot, takedown game and smother you on top. It’s frustrating.
“I don’t know who’s earned it. I would like to think I have. I’d like to think Kharitonov has. Even Cheick Kongo. I think one of the things is you have to have a position of excitement when you fight. It can’t be edging decisions. You have to let your balls hang and let it go. You’ll win some and lose some, but you’ll have a fanbase that respects that you don’t always play it safe. I understand it’s mixed martial arts and I’m not bitching about the sport, I’m just saying it’s a very complicated quagmire of blah. I don’t know the answer.”
As for Kharitonov, the only man Mitrione faced (twice) in 2019, the Florida native remains open to going there again, though suspects the Russian won’t be quite so keen.
“I doubt he would want to,” Mitrione, now 41, said, “but that would be a fun rematch. I was frustrated at first. I was frustrated with the whole mouthpiece situation and frustration I let it bother me as much as it did. I can’t take away his durability and his capacity to handle stress. I was getting out on him a lot in the first round. I broke his nose, I thought I ruptured his spleen. His body was getting pretty bad. I kicked him so much in his stomach and shins. I was beating him up. He kept the course. He’s a very, very weathered and tough person. He’s a vet and a real pro.
“I think it (a third fight) would be interesting. I think he’s really that tough and I respect him a lot. I think if we had another fight, cool. I don’t know if the masses want that. He knows me and I know him. It would be a tough fight. It wouldn’t be a fight that’s fun for either one of us. He’s tough and durable and I’m very mobile. It’s a game of who can stick to the game plan the best.”