(CBS New York)- Matt Mitrione has been in the MMA world for close to 10 years.
He’s fought in both the UFC and Bellator promotions and experienced both the highs and lows of the fight game. That experience has given him an honest perspective on the sport that he has chosen to make a career of. As he gets ready to headline the Bellator 215 card at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut with his fight against Sergei Kharitonov, Mitrione dropped by the CBS Local studios to discuss his career, the strain that chasing a career puts on all of our lives and his football career.
Mitrione spent the 2002 season with the New York Giants, playing in nine games during the team’s 10-6 season which saw them bow out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round in a tough 39-38 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He suffered a foot injury in that game that required multiple surgeries and sidelined him for all of 2003 before the team then left him go in 2004. After brief stints with the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings, Mitrione knew the game was done with him, so he began looking for the next step. With some push from his friend Jayson Werth, he got into fighting and has never looked back.
And, of course, with the fight coming up on Friday, we delved into his respect for his upcoming opponent. Mitrione thinks very highly of Kharitonov, putting him in the same legendary class as Fedor Emelianenko largely because of Kharitonov’s longevity.
“Kharitonov is a legend man. He is really on par with Fedor. Fedor didn’t lose for ten years, but Kharitonov lost four times in ten years,” said Mitrione. “Really, that is kind of the same thing. And, the people he lost to, he lost in different sports. He did MMA, he did kickboxing, and he has done everything across the board. He is just tough. He’s durable. He’s powerful. He is a medaled boxer in Russia. He is so good at what he does, he doesn’t make mistakes and he is big. He’s 6’5″ and 280 pounds. That is a big dude with a lot of power. He did to Roy Nelson in one round what I couldn’t do to Roy in three. He knocked Roy out, slept him bad. Dropped him on his face kind of bad. I couldn’t do that to Roy in three rounds.”
Mitrione’s own fight against Nelson in February of 2018 went to the scorecards with Mitrione grabbing a win via majority decision. Going up against an opponent powerful enough to knock out the 249-pound Nelson, something that only three opponents have done in Nelson’s career, Mitrione knows he’s going to have to continuously move to keep Kharitonov’s power at bay.
“I know that if you stand there and get beat up by him, that is a butt-whooping you don’t want to take,” continued Mitrione. “Luckily, that is not really the way I fight. But, in that fight against Roy, Roy was winning that fight for a good two or three minutes of the four and a half minute fight. Kharitonov dropped one strong jab on him, changed Roy up and Roy stood there and got beat up. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to me and if it does, I better get on my bike and start moving myself around then.”
That movement and willingness to react are part of what has allowed Mitrione to survive and thrive as long as he has in MMA. Another part of that, and his biggest piece of advice for young fighters looking to get into MMA, is to not waste time sparring in the gym. Rather, he would advise young fighters to focus on their distance and timing in training and save taking hits for when they are getting paid.
“This is probably not going to resonate as well, overall but the secret to the fight game is giving a punch and taking a punch,” said Mitrione. “Once you know that you can give a punch and take a punch the secret becomes distance and timing. I only get punched in the face for money. I don’t wear big gloves. I don’t go sparring. I’m saving my brain cells for my children. I put on MMA gloves and I throw for location. I throw for distance. And I don’t put on big gloves not to not even hit each other but because when you put on big gloves and you’re working, they are 16 ounces. MMA gloves are four ounces. They are much smaller and more compact.”
“There are a lot of things that in MMA gloves that slip through that wouldn’t with 16 ounce gloves,” continued Mitrione. “Learn how to fight with small gloves on and don’t waste your brain in the gym. There is no reason to. You don’t get paid for it. The guy you’re fighting doesn’t get paid for it. Save your brain. Work on distance and timing. Work on location once you know you can take a punch and give a punch.”
While Mitrione is a professional fighter with a level of acclaim and celebrity that most people don’t reach, he acknowledged that he struggled with the same battle that anyone looking to build a career does. His job took him all over the world and the pursuit of that career did have an impact on his home life. He has now found the balance between the two but he knows just how difficult it can be.
“Every person that is on the paper chase, everybody that has a hustle struggles with that,” said Mitrione. “Do you work two jobs or do you go home and help with this at home? Do you help your kids with homework or do you go out and run this instead? There is always that kind of a hustle that is difficult to balance. Fortunately, my pay has increased, so I have been to a situation where I can have more freedom and I’m home now. I’m a stay at home dad that goes and fights people for money when I do.”
“It’s funny, my middle son Jonah, I remember we were driving in the car one day and he was like, ‘Why do dads fight for money,” and I was like, well, it’s not every dad brother,” said Mitrione laughing. “It’s a little bit different than what we are here, but it’s just the lifestyle they have always known. They can’t remember me playing football but they know that this career I have here I am fortunate where I can go and read to my kids at school. I’m involved. I drop things off for them, do chores and do things at school with them. Perfect example, on Friday I fight, on Saturday I fly home first thing land at 1:30 and have a father-daughter dance that starts at five o’clock. I’m fortunate enough where I’m in a situation that I can do all of that and make it work. For everybody else, that is a tough hustle. That is the struggle. Is the extra paycheck worth the family time? And that is the balance.”
For more of our interview with Matt, including how he got into fighting, when he knew his football career was over and stories from playing college football with Drew Brees, check out the video above. He fights Sergei Kharitonov in the headline bout of Bellator 215 which can be seen Friday, February 15th on Paramount Network and DAZN.