The Fighting Life: Through the Looking Glass with Matt Mitrione
For the majority of human beings on the planet, perception is reality.
The individuals we meet on a daily basis and those things which become rooted in our lives are complex, but the simplest explanation is often the one most readily available.
While the "what you see is what you get" philosophy is the most easily digestible option, it is hardly ever the case in any regard.
When looking at the sphere of professional sports and the athletes involved, that particular point of view contorts into something much stranger. Those being looked at are only showing the parts of their lives they wish to be seen, and when additional information comes to light, it is typically the jagged pieces the parties involved were hoping to keep under wraps all along.
This scenario presses athletes into two distinct categories: Those who tread lightly and favor privacy and those who attack the situation unfiltered in the quest to live their lives as an open book.
While the prior is certainly the safest route to travel, the latter tends to generate the most interest. There is no doubting the fact athletes who offer uncensored sound bites and opinions take a boost in popularity, but taking that route can mean a dangerously blurred line.
Is the individual pumping the pedal of self-promotion? Or are they simply attempting to remain honest to the manner in which they've always lived their lives?
In either case, there are pitfalls along the journey, lessons to be learned, and UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione is a walking embodiment of that education. He's gone from having the momentum of being one of the top prospects in his division, to facing a strong public backlash for inappropriate comments made during a media appearance.
Following the incident, Mitrione was fined by the UFC and made a public apology to the LGBT community, all in an effort to put the incident behind him and resume his fighting career.
The situation forced Mitrione to re-think his approach to living a public life and he's been walking a much different path in the aftermath.
"I used to take a non-filtered approach, but after being fined by the UFC, I really don't say anything anymore," Mitrione told Bleacher Report. "If anyone ever paid attention to my Twitter awhile back, I had a blast on there. I wrote whatever I wanted to say and however I wanted to say it. I didn't do anything to get a rise out of people, I put stuff up there that was funny to me. I have a different kind of sense of humor and wanted to share things I thought were hilarious. But now things have changed.
"If I'm going to put out a simple tweet, I think five or six times about whether or not I'm going to get in trouble. It completely changed how I do things. Posting something on Twitter isn't worth it to me and it kind of sucks. I wasn't posting things for attention. I put out things that were funny to me. Everything across the board now, I have to triple guess. I can't afford to be non-filtered anymore and I learned that I have to approach media, social or otherwise, in a far different manner. That's the way it has to be going forward."
From his introduction to the mixed martial arts fan base as the affable former NFL player turned fighter— labeled "Meathead" on the 10th installment of The Ultimate Fighter—to the heavyweight prospect battling to establish himself as a legitimate threat in an increasingly competitive environment, the 34-year-old has hit every curve along the way with little care for touching the brake pedal.
The Lafayette, Ind. native garnered early praise for his work inside the cage as he blistered the first five opponents he faced. People love the heavyweights because they come to throw leather, and to this point, Mitrione absolutely obliged.
"I realized I was being spoon fed there," Mitrione said. "I realized I wasn't fighting the cream of the crop and was stepping in against the lower tier of the heavyweight division, but that was also appropriate. Those were the first five fights of my life—not even amateur fights—of my life. They were appropriate fights. If guys are in the UFC, they are still the best of the best. They might not be the top five in the world, but they are still somewhere in the top 30, and that is pretty hardcore for a guy with no experience.
"That's still pretty significant, but I realized what was going on. That is why I always joked about it and kind of played myself a little bit. But now things are different. I have some time in, every part of my skill set is getting better and now it is time to start making that push. I'm eight fights into my career and it's time to start doing something. I've had some feeder fights. I had a fight that was pretty tough. I lost a fight because I made the wrong decisions or couldn't pull the trigger because I didn't know what to do, so now it's time for me to start making my run."
Nevertheless, climbing up the ladder in MMA means a fighter will reach a juncture where the competition level increases, and this is where the former All-American received his first taste of resistance.
While winning five consecutive outings was no doubt impressive, back-to-back losses against competition exponentially better than anyone he'd face previously kept Mitrione from trading his prospect label in for contender tag.
He would get back on track in the form of a 19-second knockout over Phil De Fries at UFC on Fuel TV 9, but the lessons learned in his losses to Cheick Kongo and Roy Nelson provided the type of education Mitrione needed to reach the next step in his career.
"As soon as Chris [Lytle] came into the cage after the Kongo fight I told him I just didn't know what to do and he told me we would talk about it backstage," Mitrione said. "When we got backstage, he broke it down for me. He said I was too worried about the counter punch and didn't want to take him up against the wall because I wasn't confident in my wrestling. We addressed it right away. but that fight was a learning experience. I lost because I didn't know what to do. Now, those holes have been shored up. I know how to handle those situations and I sling that leather hard enough that when I catch you with one of these cinder blocks it is going to make a difference.
"If I know somebody can beat my ass at something, I will go to that person and try to learn from them. I'll get my butt whooped again and try to figure out why something landed or why I got caught in a particular submission. I'm not afraid to fail...I'm afraid of not being as good as I could possibly be. I'm not afraid to go through setbacks to achieve the goals I've set out to accomplish. If I don't try, then I'll never know, and I can't live with that."
Yet, despite all of the turns, little was revealed as to who Mitrione is as a man.
While his work inside the cage is moving to define him as a fighter, and the lightning rod media chaos has brought a spotlight on his public persona, the finer details of what lies beneath the surface has never been touched.
While he's kept his wild, goofy-eyed smile throughout, the truth of the matter is Mitrione has endured all despite standing on increasingly unstable ground.
Since he relocated his training to south Florida two years ago, the TUF alum has been working through the rigors of family situation in constant flux and has battled the adjustments that come with having to spend extended periods of time away from his three children (Jacob, Jonah and Gia).
"Leaving my children has always been the toughest thing I've had to deal with and it's rough, man," Mitrione said. "For the longest time, my daughter would call the phone 'daddy' and that is so screwed up in so many ways. But now that is not the case. I've been fortunate to have more time home this year, but in 2012, I was gone for nine months of that year.
"I was gone for nine months and that is when Gia really started to develop her personality and started to realize what was going on. She started to call the phone 'daddy' because that is the only time she saw me. That's some serious sh** and a real kick in the balls. Every time I have to leave my kids it is the hardest thing I have to do. A week before I go, I sit them down and tell them where I'm going and what is going on. Jonah walked up to me a day before I left this time and told me how sad it makes him when I leave. That killed me man. As a parent, it just rips my heart out."
Mitrione is a father above all things, and while he was fully aware the life of a professional athlete came with certain trappings, having to sacrifice time with his children is a tragic symptom of a life spent on the road.
"Being a father is my the most important thing in my life. I'm human, and I make plenty of mistakes, but being a positive role model for my children is the most important thing for me. I want them to get to a place in their minds where they are like, 'I know dad was gone a lot, but he did what he had to do to get our family in a good place, then as soon as he accomplished that, he quit that job and became dad.' That's what I hope for. It's on me because I chose this career, but this career has also been good to us in a lot of ways.
"But it's very difficult and it's hard being the third wheel in your own life," he added. "My family went to garage sales today and went on a bike ride, and I have to hear about it and get pictures about it rather than experience it with them. We could have been digging through random crap together and making fun of the dumb things people were selling, but you are always the third wheel—always—and that's rough.
"How are you the third wheel in your own family? That doesn't make sense and it is something I think about all the time. I remember seeing Joe Stevenson doing a post-fight interview and he was talking about how it kills him to be away from his kids so much. He said how much it hurt him to be away for six weeks and told his kids that 'daddy is coming home tomorrow.' Now I know exactly how that feels."
Mitrione's fighting career has come to a crucial juncture, and if he's going to accomplish the goals he set out to achieve, he will need to defeat Brendan Schaub when they square off next month at UFC 165.
The two former housemates on The Ultimate Fighter have been traveling parallel paths throughout their careers since competing on the reality program, and those paths will finally collide in Toronto.
While Mitrione has experienced his ups and downs in the heavyweight ranks, Schaub has also faced tumultuous times. After losing to Roy Nelson in the TUF 10 finale, "The Hybrid" went on to win his next four showings inside the Octagon.
That success had him on the cusp of breaking into the elite level of the division, but back-to-back knockout losses to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Ben Rothwell reshuffled him in the heavyweight deck.
The Colorado native would rebound in his next bout against Lavar Johnson, but the fight against Mitrione will determine whether he will enter the next tier of the division or drop back further in the pack. The same goes for the Chris Lytle protege and he's fully aware what's at stake against at UFC 165.
"I definitely feel Brendan is standing in the way," Mitrione said. "This probably wouldn't bother many people, but when I was filming Countdown, they showed me a clip of Brendan saying I don't have the work ethic necessary to be successful in mixed martial arts. That comment blew my mind. Who is he to question how hard I work? Him actually vocalizing and questioning my work ethic makes me want to smoke him. It makes me want to prove a point in this situation.
"I really can't wait to fight him. I'm really excited about that. It makes me want to put a showing on him. There are so many people who have invested so much time with me as far as coach Henry Hooft and coach Monday. Cyborg Arbeu has always been there, even before he had the grappling match with Brendan. People like Pablo Popovich, coach Neil Melanson, Josh Barnett...those people have all worked with me to make me a better fighter. I look forward to being able to validate the reasons those people helped me out. They know I'm sincere in wanting to learn and they do it because they care. I look forward to validate the potential they see in me. To be able to validate the time people have invested in me means a lot."
While the definitive chapters of his career are yet to be written, the definitive parts of his life are set in stone. One thing matters more than any other to Mitrione, and that is reaching his full potential in every aspect of his life.
Mistakes have been made along the way, but there have been victories as well.
These are all part of the process of becoming a better version in all facets, and much like action inside the ring, it is a something Mitrione won't shy away from as the journey continues.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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