(Esther Lin/MMAFighting)Finding Legitimacy: Matt Mitrione Jay Anderson December 17, 2014 Spotlight Just over a year ago, things weren’t exactly looking up for UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione. At UFC 165 in Toronto in September 2013, Mitrione suffered his third loss in four fights, a D’Arce choke submission loss to Brendan Schaub in the first round, part of a bout that saw him unable to mount much offence at all. Schaub controlled, Schaub stifled, and for those of us in attendance, it was pretty much considered an ugly fight — but the fantastic main event that followed later in the evening between Alexander Gustafsson and Jon Jones made us forget all about it. For Mitrione, however, it was a heavy blow, especially as it came after a suspension from the promotion for disparaging comments made about transgender fighter Fallon Fox. At that point, a cut from the UFC wouldn’t have come as a shock. Certainly, another loss and things would have started looking hairy. 2014 suddenly became a make or break year in the career of Mitrione. Luckily for “Meathead,” he made it. In a fantastic turnaround, Mitrione has gone three for three in 2014, and is suddenly looking like he has a much higher upside than expected in the thin ranks of the UFC heavyweight division. There are a couple of key reasons for it, not the least of which is experience. Unlike almost every other fighter in the promotion these days, Mitrione has never fought professionally outside the UFC. He’s a product of The Ultimate Fighter Season 10, the heavyweight season, and had no pro experience before joining the show. His background was football, and he’d gone through some short stints with a couple of NFL teams, but injuries there took their toll. After taking up MMA, he made it into the TUF house and past his first fight on the reality show before being eliminated, then jumped into professional competition at the finale, defeating cast mate Marcus Jones by KO to start off a five fight win streak (Jones would never set foot in the cage again, retiring after the bout). The 5-0 streak would end with a loss to Cheick Kongo, then a brutal TKO to Roy Nelson (also a TUF 10 alumni), and it very much looked like Mitrione had reached his ceiling. He was big, strong, and athletic, but so are a lot of guys with football backgrounds. He bounced back with a win over Phil De Fries before the Fox suspension and Schaub loss, and suddenly he was just another bit of cannon fodder in the heavyweight division. Still, fighting solely in the UFC had given Mitrione an edge in top level experience. Mitrione is the man who sent Kimbo Slice packing from the UFC (though Big Country had already taken the wind out of those sails on The Ultimate Fighter), and that’s probably one of the weaker opponent’s Mitrione has faced in his career. Wins over Beltran, Hague, Morecraft, and De Fries, and time in the cage with Kongo and Nelson — that’s something Mitrione wasn’t going to find in the regionals. So while the learning curve was steep, it began to pay dividends. To start 2014, Mitrione knocked out Shawn Jordan, a fellow heavy hitter. He was to follow that up with a fight against the returning Stefan Struve at UFC 175, but health issues kept Struve from the octagon, and instead, Mitrione was booked into a bout with the scary Derrick Lewis, which resulted in another KO win. That earned him former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC on Fox 13, and he made the most of it, earning his third first-round stoppage of 2013, and at long last, adding a real “name” to his win column. It was more than just experience that got him here, however. At a backstage interview posted on UFC.com, Mitrione gave a lot of credit to his coaches and training partners, specifically Henri Hooft (who coaches with the Blackzilians), who he said offered his services for free when Mitrione wasn’t earning anything. That’s no doubt huge, and if Mitrione can continue on with that sort of dedication and support behind him, he may just find himself in the top ten before long. What’s next for “Meathead?” Possibly a look into the top ten of the heavyweight division. While Alistair Overeem (who also fought and won at UFC on Fox 13) is an option, and sits ranked 11th currently, Ben Rothwell, ranked 10th, would also be a great fight for fans, and with Overeem talking about taking some time off, the Rothwell option may be the better one. Either way, it looks like Matt Mitrione has finally found legitimacy in the UFC’s heavyweight division.