Chael Sonnen says a lot of things. Most of what he says is said for a reason – usually pertaining to an upcoming fight and promotion he wants to sell – and most of it should be ignored. But one thing he has been saying a lot recently is this: Matt Mitrione, in his opinion, is the best heavyweight in the world.
Before you sigh and roll your eyes, though, consider: Sonnen isn’t lauding Mitrione because doing so will increase his own bank balance or secure him a future fight. He’s not doing it for his own benefit. Instead, Sonnen appears to be speaking openly and honestly, albeit going against the grain, and wants to make it clear that although the rest of the world go for Miocic or Velasquez or Werdum or Ngannou, ‘The American Gangster’ isn’t buying the hype. Give me Mitrione, a 38-year-old former pro footballer who has been stopped by Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell, he says, over and over again, ever the contrarian. Indeed, for whatever reason, Sonnen seems to believe in Matt Mitrione with a conviction Matt Mitrione perhaps doesn’t even possess.
In love with the Illinois-native’s potential, Sonnen has an image in his head of Mitrione putting it all together on one night, perhaps this Saturday (June 24) when he meets Fedor Emelianenko, the man most people consider the greatest heavyweight of all-time, and silencing those who never deemed him capable enough. On this night, Mitrione uses every ounce of his athleticism and speed, impressive for a big man, as well as all he has learned in a seven-and-a-half-year MMA career to finally fulfil his undoubted potential and become number one. It’s an image Sonnen sees clearly. One that, for him, will come as no surprise.
It’s also something Mitrione has been waiting to materialise for much of his fighting life. Three years ago, in fact, when still in the UFC, he told Fighters Only, “I think I’ve underachieved in my career so far.
“My end goal, no bullshit, is to just perform to my ability. I don’t care what comes of it. It doesn’t matter. I just want to one day perform as well as I possibly can. However long that takes, it doesn’t matter. I want my opus. I didn’t get that in football. I was young and I was partying too much. But this is a sport in which I can; I control everything in it. So long as I prepare right and maintain my focus, I will get my performance.”
Whatever it is he’s waiting for, it needs to happen soon. Mitrione, though discussed as if a prospect full of potential, turns thirty-nine next month. The last time he mentioned “my performance” it was 2014 and he was a weeks away from stopping Gabriel Gonzaga inside the first round. After that, however, his ambitions were put in check first by Ben Rothwell, who submitted him, and then by Travis Browne, who knocked him out. Cut from the UFC, he has since been picking up the pieces in Bellator.
“I don’t get overly excited,” he said. “I’m normally even keel when it comes to fighting. But I skull-f**k things badly. It’s called paralysis by analysis. I think too much, I watch too much film. It effects the way I perform. I’m the son of a psychiatrist, so I know all about this stuff. I don’t think my father would be able to analyse me. He created this freak.
“Coach Henri (Hooft) would always get on to me about it. He’d be like, ‘Dude, just stop. Let it go and relax a little bit.’ So I did. I don’t even watch film of my opponent anymore. It works for me because it means I can’t overanalyse and think too much about stuff.”
Perhaps the setbacks, rather than stunt his progress, have served only to make serious a man who once treated fighting with a cocksure swagger and general nonchalance; a man who seemed to make light of everything; the wins, the defeats, the whole punching people in the face thing. Maybe, in hindsight, we’l come to realise the low pooints have straightened him out; straightened out his cheeky smirk and his carefree attitude.
The next defeat, after all, could well be his last.
“The Cheick Kongo and Brendan Schaub losses were really, really hard,” Mitrione recalled. “The Brendan one was the hardest. I found that really difficult. I like Brendan, I think he’s a good person. It would be really difficult to fight him again. It was difficult the first time. We’re friends. I did not show up to that fight at all and I skull-f**ked that to pieces.
“I think my ground game is as good as his, but I didn’t show it at all. In hindsight, I didn’t prepare for arm-in chokes the way I should have. Everybody knows that’s his choke. He wants to go for a d’arce. I didn’t practice it, I didn’t drill it and I screwed up. It happens.
“At the same time, I get on to my children about quitting things like soccer practice and everything else, and that’s the reason I didn’t tap. It was a blood choke, I put my thumbs up and then I went to sleep. How can I tell my children not to quit if I tap out? In my mind, I was thinking, f**k him, he got me, but I’m not going to quit.”
In the end, ‘Meathead’ Mitrione doesn’t need to prove Chael Sonnen right, nor prove to anyone he’s the best heavyweight on the planet. He might not even have to get the win over Fedor this weekend.
What he does need to do, however, if only for peace of mind and closure, is deliver the performance he’s been searching for since 2009, the year he became a professional fighter. Because only then will Matt Mitrione, 11-5, feel sufficiently content and thus ready to call it a day.
“I haven’t thought about the end at all,” he said. “My body’s not in bad shape, and, for all the dumb things I’ve done, that’s really impressive.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t competing. I’ve got some TV show offers, but it’s not competing. They just want me to slow down my speech and take speech lessons. I don’t want to entertain those offers yet. I want to perform to my ability. If I have my fight, I might walk away after that. But my thirst won’t be quenched until after that performance.”