For months, Matt Mitrione has been looking for a bigger opportunity.
A scheduled bout with Phil De Fries has been on the books for some time, but that didn't stop the former All-American defensive lineman from attempting to get a fight with a higher profile.
It was a course of action which lead Mitrione on a jagged path up-and-under the proverbial bus with UFC President Dana White.
However, this weekend, the former NFL player turned mixed-martial-artist will get his wish when he faces heavyweight slugger Roy Nelson.
Both men were cast mates on Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, with Nelson eventually winning the tournament by defeating Brendan Schaub.
Coming onto the show Mitrione had minimal experience, but has flourished in his time since winning five-out-of-six Octagon appearances.
When the two men square off this Saturday night in Las Vegas, Mitrione believes his performance will display how far he's come.
"I feel like this fight will show the progression I have made as a mixed martial artist," Mitrione told Bleacher Report.
"I think it has been pretty well publicized now that I didn't have a clue what I was doing when I was on The Ultimate Fighter. I had only been training for six months before I got there.
"I feel like I'm a damn good fighter right now. I train at the Blackzilians camp with guys like Rashad Evans, Alistair Overeem, Thiago Silva, and Vitor Belfort and those guys have all noticed the improvements I've made. Those are top tier fighters and that tells me I'm doing something right.
"I feel like it will be a great display of the things I've learned, but the biggest thing, I've gained all kinds of knew knowledge since I came down to South Florida in March.
"Now it's up to me to use that knowledge at the right time, the right way, and show I've become a striker, not just a brawler who has tricks. That's up to me and I think that is the cool part. I need to come out and effectively utilize what I've been learning."
The bout with Nelson will be Mitrione's first since October of 2011. Following a unanimous decision loss to veteran Cheick Kongo.
The 34-year was slated to face Rob Broughton on two occasions, but the matchup with the British heavyweight was ultimately scrapped and a bout with De Fries was set for UFC 155.
With the fight with De Fries on the horizon, Mitrione lobbied for a fight with former light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Dana White ultimately shot down the idea, and became upset with Mitrione when he rejected a short notice bout in Strikeforce with Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier.
Following Shane Carwin's withdraw from the TUF 16 Finale due to injury, Mitrione stepped up to the fill the void.
While it will be the first action he's seen in over a year, Mitrione feels Nelson is the caliber of opponent he deserves to face and the decision to take the fight with "Big Country" had nothing to do with the previous criticism from White.
"So many people have told me they think I took this fight with Roy to get back in good with Dana and that has absolutely nothing to do with why I wanted this fight," said Mitrione.
"I respect Dana but that isn't going to stop me from doing what I feel is right. If he wants to chastise me in the media for decisions I've made, then that is just the way things are. Sure it sucks, but I'm a man with options. I'm an intelligent and articulate person with a college degree and I can do whatever I want in the world.
"Fighting isn't the only thing I have. If I'm ever forced out because they don't like the way I handle myself then I'll figure something else out. I always have. But as far as being a fighter, they aren't going to find a fighter with more heart, drive, and love for the fight than me.
"I should be fighting in these type of fights. I should be fighting someone in Roy's position. To be honest, I see Roy and Kongo on almost the same level. Roy is probably at a little higher level but it is where I belong. It's where I should be.
"When I fought Kongo, I didn't get beat by Kongo. I lost a decision that was questionable. I definitely didn't get man-handled or had the type of performance where people came out saying I definitely wasn't as good as Kongo. I don't think that happened at all. Whatever position that is; I'll let the crowd decide that. But I feel I belong in this conversation and believe I'll be able to prove that on Saturday."
After the announcement of Mitrione taking Carwin's place, Nelson voiced his feelings that Mitrione made things personal by asking for the fight. Additional tension was added when Mitrione declined VADA testing which Nelson has been strongly advocating for months due to the short-notice nature of the bout.
While the former Purdue standout holds no ill-will towards Nelson, he believes there is no way to avoid making things personal when two men are locked in a cage to scrap it out.
"Dude it is personal any way you cut it," Mitrione said.
"Fighting is a very personal thing. I'm going to try to put my shin through his body. I'm going to try to put my fist on the backside of his face. He's going to try to do the exact same thing to me. Of course that is personal, but as soon as it is over, I'll go buy Roy a beer with my win money.
"I harbor no animosity towards him but this is fight week. Roy is a friend of mine but if I knock him down, I'm not going to stop trying to punch a hole in his face. Roy will do the exact same thing to me."
Nelson has earned his reputation as one of the heavyweight division's toughest fighters.
The former IFL champion has the power to end fights abruptly with a thundering overhand and top-level ground skills to finish his opposition on the mat.
While these are steep challenges Mitrione will certainly face, the motivations for the fight go far beyond the bright lights of the Octagon.
"I could really a f*** less if people who get paid to have opinions think I have a chance or not," Mitrione said.
"I have spent so much time away from my family. My three-year old calls the phone 'daddy' and that f**** me up. This fight is an opportunity for me to justify being away and once I beat Roy it puts me in a different conversation.
"As far as I'm concerned, Roy Nelson is the only person standing in my way of financial independence and freedom for the most part. It will allow me to write my own ticket for the next stretch and that's how I see it. Whether that is right or wrong, I could care less.
"In my own opinion, I don't think too many people are giving me much of a chance to win this.They don't think I can knock him out. They don't think I can finish him on the ground. They don't think I have good enough wrestling to stay off the ground with him.
"They know I have a good chin and won't get knocked out, but most people believe I'll get taken down and TKO'd there. That is what people seem to expect and I think I'm a whole lot better than what people give me credit for.
"There is so much I've never shown and I've only gotten better since coming down to South Florida. This fight isn't so much about shutting up the critics or the haters, but for me it is really about justifying having to spend so much time away from my family."
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