When I first read that headline, I had the same gut reaction most people had. "Roy Nelson, obviously."
After all Roy Nelson is, according to many lists, a top-10 heavyweight, fighting against a relatively popular, but not highly-ranked, Matt Mitrione. Mitrione is a dangerous opponent. Very dangerous, even.
He has beaten some solid heavyweights and owns solid hands. He is more than capable of using his serious reach advantage to land a few big hits early, then snowball the same way Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum did.
Really, though, Matt Mitrione is the fighter with far, far more at stake here. Why?
Because of life.
As we see more and more with mid-level UFC fighters, Matt Mitrione is having tough times financially. He joins guys like Pat Barry and Tom Lawlor in the “I have no money” club. This, after all, comes with the territory. Mitrione's last fight was a loss to Cheick Kongo in October 2011. You can listen to his candid, honest discussion on fighter pay with The MMA Hour here (fast forward to 16:00 to get to that specific discussion).
Now, Matt Mitrione is coming in to fight Roy Nelson—an opponent who is widely favored to win and a considerable step above his last opponent (who, again, beat him). We all know that Roy Nelson is a solid heavyweight fighter, so I won't go in-depth about that. Suffice it to say, this is a very difficult fight for Matt Mitrione to step into on any kind of schedule, never mind short notice after a year out of the cage.
Headlining a card, Mitrione is looking at a decent payday. However, if you look at the UFC over the couple years, it is perplexingly trigger-happy when it comes to booting out heavyweights. Todd Duffee, who became an overnight sensation with his seven-second knockout of Tim Hague, was booted from the UFC for still vague reasons. TUF10 castmate to Nelson and Mitrione, Jon Madsen was inexplicably ejected from the promotion in 2011 despite amassing a 4-1 record in the UFC.
It is very, very possible that we could see Mitrione gas against Nelson, do just enough to survive to get a boring decision, lose and get cut from the UFC. It is comparably likely that we could see Mitrione get knocked out in the first round (which is something Nelson tends to do to inexperienced opponents), then lose one more time and, once again, get cut.
Obviously, the flip side is that if Mitrione scores a big win over Nelson (keep in mind, Nelson survived three rounds with Junior dos Santos), he rockets up the division's rankings. With that comes increased exposure, sponsorship deals, endorsements, better placement on fight cards and so on.
This is a gamble. Every MMA fight is. But when you're a father of three watching your checkbook get redder and redder, month after month, Matt Mitrione just plain has to feel some level of pressure, especially working for a company as willing to throw pink slips around as the UFC. The pressure increases even more now that Zuffa is probably going to be looking to lighten its roster a bit, given Strikeforce's imminent closure and the addition of a women's division.
Really, it's obvious who has more on the line. As much as Dana White hates Roy Nelson, his future with the UFC is on solid footing, at least through this fight. Mitrione, meanwhile, is just another pawn the UFC is willing to move towards the bottom line at the end of the board that may or may not survive the game.
Looking back on this after writing it, it's a macabre picture I've just painted. Still, it is true.
While MMA is undoubtedly entertaining for you and me, for the fighters, it's their livelihood. When you're in Matt Mitrione's position, the financial security of his family is on the line when he steps into that cage.
Financial security is a lot to have on the line when you have four people counting on you. Divisional rankings and the title picture don't even come close to that.