For the third time in just over a month, Zuffa is in panic mode trying to find a main event for one of its cards. The stress of this particularly rough stretch, however, has resulted in public opinion turning various entities. The latest victim of this is UFC heavyweight and former TUF 10 competitor Matt Mitrione over the awkward position he found himself in when he was offered a seriously lopsided match with Strikeforce's Daniel Cormier.
The criticism recently leveled against him, however, is somewhat unfounded. Comparing him with Jon Jones, meanwhile, is completely off-base.
Everyone remembers the UFC 151 fiasco where Jones' opponent, Dan Henderson, suffered a leg injury that forced him out of the bout. Jones turned down a fight with Chael Sonnen, who was willing to step in on eight days' notice after a lengthy layoff following his UFC 148 loss to Anderson Silva, forcing the UFC to cancel the headline-less event.
In recent weeks, an interested eye has been turned to the UFC's sister promotion, Strikeforce, who recently canceled an event of their own following a knee injury suffered by Gilbert Melendez.
While the UFC now owns the majority of star-caliber fighters from Strikeforce's roster, Cormier remains one of the hottest commodities still under the control of the California-based promotion.
Cormier rocketed up the heavyweight rankings and became one of the top prospects in MMA after winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. Cormier, unfortunately, remains with his old boss, even though the UFC has taken almost everyone else in his weight class, leaving Cormier without a readily-available opponent. Because of how his contract is structured (and a frustratingly-assertive Showtime), he must fight one more time before he is allowed to join Antonio Silva, Lavar Johnson and Fabricio Werdum in the UFC.
Zuffa has struggled to find an opponent for the de facto Strikeforce heavyweight champion (he has a belt, so that makes him champion, right?). Initially, he was linked to former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, but a surge of hate on Twitter ended up nixing the veteran's chances. For a long while, he was scheduled to face Frank Mir, but yet another injury has taken that fight off the table.
Now, Zuffa is scrambling to find somebody (anybody!) to face Cormier. Apparently, Mitrione was one of the first choices to be the fifth choice to headline the card, slated for November 3 and turned the fight down.
Naturally, Dana White did not like this. The fan response has been similarly grumpy. Ultimately, though, in terms of where Mitrione is in his career, it would be absolutely insane to take a bout with Cormier right now.
Mitrione is one of the rare fighters who actually had his professional MMA debut in the UFC. After his debut, where he knocked out Marcus “Big Baby” Jones, Mitrione made a habit of racking wins, working his way up to a 5-0 record (with four of those victories coming by way of knockout) and that earned him a shot at some stiffer competition.
That stiffer competition was French kickboxer Cheick Kongo. While Kongo is known for his heavy hands and powerful knees, he beat Mitrione by effectively out-working him in the clinch. That loss, Mitrione's latest fight, came October 29, 2011.
Kongo is a solid heavyweight fighter by any metric. That said, he is not in the Top 10. In fact, he has not beaten any of the Top 10 fighters he has faced. Now, however, Mitrione is being asked to fight against a near-unanimous top-five heavyweight?
On top of everything else, Mitrione already has a fight scheduled. He is more than a month deep into preparing for a fight at UFC 155 against Phil De Fries.
While Dana White ripped Mitrione for “not taking a big opportunity,” the numbers seriously suggest that fighting at UFC 155 is the bigger opportunity. UFC 155 has two of the UFC's biggest draws of 2012 scheduled to fight in Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez rematch and Chael Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin. On top of that, the UFC's so-called “year end” events tend to be among the biggest, and have averaged about 800,000 buys since 2008 (those events being UFC 92, UFC 107, UFC 124 and UFC 141).
Even if Mitrione finds himself fighting on the preliminary card (which is likely to be the case), Cormier vs. Barnett, which was undeniably a bigger fight than Cormier vs. Mitrione would have been, drew just 463,000 viewers. FX prelim bouts, meanwhile, tend to draw more than double that.
Fans have been comparing Mitrione, since this news broke, to Jon Jones. That, however, is not apt.
The fact of the matter is that Jones would have been a heavy favorite against Sonnen. Mitrione would have been a heavy underdog against Cormier. Jones did not have a fight slated when he was offered Sonnen, due to Henderson's knee injury. Mitrione has already spent a month preparing for De Fries.
Above all, Mitrione would not have gotten anything by fighting Cormier. Even if he beat Cormier by some fluke, he would end up in the same position Chris Weidman is in now, and would have to, at the very least, face off with an Alistair Overeem, or Werdum, to have the degree of fame required in the UFC to get a title shot against a big name like Velasquez or Dos Santos.
Because of that, it is hard to criticize Mitrione for deciding against a fight with Cormier. Granted, there may have been some behind-the-scenes incentive for Mitrione to take the fight (that is, a healthy bonus check). Short of that, however, Mitrione should not be blamed for refusing to be food for Cormier.
He already has a job to do. Beat De Fries. He should not be berated for sticking to it.