When Bellator MMA unveiled the brackets for its heavyweight grand prix last year, oddsmakers tabbed Matt Mitrione as one of the early favorites. Mitrione opened with 9/4 odds to win the bracket, while light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader was listed as a close second at 14/5.
Mitrione will face Roy Nelson in the first round of the tournament at Bellator 194 on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Friday night. The card will be televised on the Paramount Network beginning at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.
According to the man known as “Meathead,” that favorite status was well deserved.
“I felt like I should be the No. 1 pick or the favorite to win,” Mitrione told Sherdog.com. “I’m the best heavyweight Bellator has to offer, and until somebody comes in and whoops me, I’m gonna feel that way until the very end. Roy’s a great challenge. Roy has probably the best chance of beating me. I feel right now that I’m pretty damn good, so Roy better bring his cookies with him.”
In fact, Nelson already owns a victory over Mitrione. “Big Country” defeated his fellow “Ultimate Fighter 10” cast member via first-round technical knockout at the “TUF 16” finale on Dec. 15, 2012.
It seems curious that Mitrione and Nelson would be paired immediately, but the Bellator heavyweight grand prix doesn’t utilize a seeding system. Case in point: Chael Sonnen and Quinton Jackson, the two biggest underdogs in the bracket, squared off in a first-round matchup at Bellator 192, with Sonnen advancing by unanimous decision.
While Mitrione would have likely been the No. 1 seed in such a format, he understands why Bellator went the way it did.
“I think seeding makes sense. I asked those questions,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all superfights. The first round is to do it as much as they can to get eyes [on the tournament]. Which is fine, I understand it.
“I have to beat Roy anyway. If I get the title I’d have to fight Roy most likely pretty soon afterwards, if not the next fight. I might as well beat him on the way to get to a title. It’s all the same thing, right?”
When Mitrione first squared off against Nelson, the former NFL player was just six fights into his mixed martial arts career. The 39-year-old has gone 7-3 in 10 bouts since then, and he expects to enter the rematch as a much wiser version of his former self.
“I learned don’t flare your left elbow out when you throw a straight. I learned don’t overextend yourself and get outside your lead knee. I’ve learned a couple things about fighting since then,” Mitrione said. “I learned that from my fight with Roy. Other than that, I feel like I’ve just gotten better. I’ve learned patience and persistence.
“It’s kind of a maturation process. That was the my [seventh] fight I’ve ever had. Ever. So, from that I learned something….I’m a veteran now. I’m an old man of the game.”
There are two more scheduled matchups after Mitrione vs. Nelson: Frank Mir and Fedor Emelianenko will square off in April, while Bader and Muhammed Lawal will meet in May. Mitrione hasn’t thought too much about future opponents for himself, but he has taken some time to peruse the other fights in the tournament.
“I’m a football guy. We’re brainwashed into one week at a time, one play at a time. I haven’t looked past anything as far as matchups for me,” he said. “I think Fedor-Frank is a really exciting fight. If it goes to the ground I think the fan base will have aneurysm out of pure pleasure. As far as Bader and Mo, I’m not quite sold on that one. As far as me fighting whoever, I haven’t begun to think about it.”
That said, Mitrione does have a plan for the vacant Bellator heavyweight belt should he deliver on his favored status and make it through the grand prix. It doesn’t sound as though the championship hardware will make it anywhere near Mitrione’s trophy case.
“[What] the title means to me is that it is a big tangible gift I can give to my children that helps validate all the time I’ve had to spend away from them,” Mitrione said. “And the opportunities and occurrences and events that I’ve had to miss due to building my career.
“When I get home, if they’re sleeping, I’m gonna lay it at the foot of their bed and wait for them to wake up and play with it and run around and get crazy. Throw it around and dent it…break windows with it. It’s not mine, it’s theirs.”