Matt Mitrione will put his undefeated record on the line at UFC 137. | Photo: Dave Mandel
It has been more than four months since Cheick Kongo came back from the figurative dead to knock out Matt Mitrione’s former training partner, Pat Barry, at UFC Live 4, and the man they call “Meathead” has been hard at work preparing for the challenge. He will face the French kickboxer in the UFC 137 co-main event on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Despite his undefeated record -- which includes wins over Tim Hague, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, Joey Beltran and Marcus Jones -- Mitrione claims his primary motivation is to keep his roster spot in the UFC.
“You can have one bad fight and be cut and not ever come back,” he says. “Even if you’re on a win streak, you’re only as good as your last performance. Even if I lose, I want to put on a good performance and give the fans and bosses the show they want from me.”
Mitrione considers himself “pretty far away” from title contention, far enough in fact that he does not yet concern himself with such pursuits.
“My job is to punch Cheick Kongo in the face, or to kick him, or to make him quit in some way, shape or form,” he says. “My job is not to worry about if I’m in title contention or anything else. I can promise you I don’t really care about something like that. If they paid me to think about that then I would, but they don’t. They pay me to prepare to perform.”
Mitrione has been training at Indianapolis’ Integrated Fighting Academy, a gym that was started from the ground up by catch wrestling coach Jason Godsey. Other notable IFA products include UFC veterans Chris Lytle, Jake O’Brien and Shamar Bailey. Mitrione, who competed on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” originally came to the team under the tutelage of MMA trainer Pat McPherson. The gym has gone through several iterations.
“Everyone had moved onto something else,” Mitrione recalls. “People went to different gyms. It all got dissolved and we got split up, but we all wanted to work together, so a couple jiu-jitsu schools in the area got together and started their own place [and called it the Integrated Fighting Academy].”
The gym is housed in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse, with four-inch padding. It has partnered with grappling guru Neil Melanson and follows his catch wrestling program at the facility. Mitrione has also worked with Adam Wilder on muay Thai and trained at Imperial Athletics with Tyrone Spong and Tim Robinson. Before he returned to Indianapolis, Mitrione studied under former world kickboxing champion Duke Roufus, but he left the Roufusport camp right around the same time Barry departed.
“I left Roufusport because there wasn’t as much wrestling or ground work as I needed,” Mitrione says. “It was very good for me to learn the beginnings of kickboxing, but Pat Barry was my training partner and coach more so than Coach Duke was and there weren’t that many big bodies up there, so, by the time Pat left, it was my time to leave also.”
Mitrione has spent time comparing his game to Barry’s after his former training partner lost to Kongo in
dramatic fashion in June.
“My style and Pat’s style are similar but different. We’re both aggressive strikers. I feel we both understand the nuances of the standup game, Pat a bit more than me, but I’m picking it up quickly,” he says. “I’ll probably fight about the same as Pat did. I feel like I’m pretty calm and collected and put together, but when the lights on [and] nobody’s home, that might not be my time to go to the ground.
“It’s about how fast I can compute what the situation is,” Mitrione adds. “It’s up to me to be able to tell that and get a good feel for it. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of when it’s time to finish on the ground. Maybe this time I’ll feel comfortable enough to hop out there and see what happens [and] punch him until they say stop.”
Mitrione, who has stopped four of his first five opponents, has given particular attention to ground fighting and clinch work.
“As far as the ground, we’re just working on dealing with some of the problems that Cheick Kongo might present should he attempt or eventually get Matt on the ground,” Melanson says. “This is an offense camp. We’re focusing on a lot of offense. We’re working on stopping Cheick Kongo one way or the other. We’re not going in there to survive.”
Melanson saw how the Kongo-Barry fight unfolded.
“We’ve learned from other people’s mistakes,” he says. “We also know his chin is a bit of a switch. We’ve been working on making good decisions on what follows those moments and whether or not it goes to a wrestling or grappling situation or Matt has to take a step back. Definitely Matt has the power to create that situation. Cheick is resilient, and that’s great for him. He got lucky in the past that other people rushed in, and Matt’s not going to make that mistake.”
Melanson has confidence in Mitrione, who last fought on the Kongo-Barry undercard in June and knocked out the 6-foot-6 Christian Morecraft with second-round punches.
“Cheick is gonna be the same Cheick Kongo -- a big strong guy and dangerous -- but I don’t see Matt having a problem in any dimension of the game,” Melanson says. “If it comes to the third round, Matt will be eating his lunch.”
Mitrione, who entered MMA after a brief career in professional football, has worked on establishing dominant positions under wrestling coach Ryan Root.
“From a wrestling perspective, we’ve been working on helping Matt to really put himself in a position to win the fight from wherever he chooses to,” Root says. “We’ve been working on superior positions; he’ll be putting himself in a superior position. We’ve expanded his arsenal in this camp, and he is a threat from any position.”
Mitrione has also focused on his conditioning.
“I feel like I’m in really good cardio shape right now,” he says. “I make sure I get my cardio in the pace and tempo of my workouts. I don’t necessarily do the rowing machine, but I listen to my body. I haven’t done any standup in a couple of days -- whatever. I kind of do what my body says I’m going to. I’m 33 years old. I need to listen to my body a whole lot more than I used to.”