Athlete Spotlight: Interview with Matt Mitrione

MMA Heavyweight Grapples at The Garden

 “I’m fighting a Russian. And in this political climate, there couldn’t be a more appropriate, sexier match-up,” says Matt Mitrione. He’s right but does not seem the slightest bit phased by it. The heavy-handed striker will step into the Bellator cage squaring up against MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko, considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. This is a fact that has Mitrione anticipating the June 24 fight, not agonizing over it.

“Competition is my drug of choice. That’s my vice, and I love being in the moment, whether I’m winning or losing or anything else.” Mitrione (11-5) and Emelianenko (36-4, 1 NC) will be grappling at Madison Square Garden for the first Bellator mixed martial arts event in the state of New York in a double main event that will also feature light heavyweights Chael Sonnen (29-15-1) vs. Wanderlei Silva (35-12-1, 1 NC). After a morning of training leading up to the bill later this month, Matt talked with New York City Monthly about the daily routine of an MMA fighter, the energy of the New York crowd, and the overlooked beauty of the sport.

Obviously, a lot of physical preparation goes into training. What’s your typical day like?

Most of the time, I train in the morning, about 9 o’clock, in Indianapolis. Train for about an hour, whether that’s stand up or grappling or wall work. And then I come back home. I make lunch. I take a nap. And then I go back out and either do strength training or I do a lot of flexibility training. I would do stretching or some form of weight training, and then I grapple, and then I’m done for the day.

What’s a normal day of eating for you?

A good friend of mine is a guy named Pat McAfee, who was a punter for the Colt;, he just retired. He is involved in a nutrition company, a food prep company called Herculean. And Herculean and I have kind of signed on together where through this camp they are helping me out. And we are doing five meals a day, and they average probably right around 450 calories a meal.

I get all five of those during my midday, and then I have a nighttime snack as well, but I make that myself. And then I have two or three protein shakes throughout the day. And then in the morning time I have steel cut oats with a scoop of protein, like 25 grams of protein added into it, and blueberries and strawberries. On a daily basis, I try to pull in 4,500 calories.

Aside from the physical preparation, emotionally what’s it like to get in the cage with someone? How do you hype up for an event, but then also what does it take to wind down after?

That’s a really educated question about the winding down part. I’m really glad you asked that. As far as the emotional prep, it’s really not much. I grew up getting in fights all the time because I have a really big mouth and I use it way too much. So I grew up getting beat up a lot, so the anxiety and emotional response of losing a fight, potentially, doesn’t scare me anymore. So because of that, it’s not really an emotional work up to fight somebody. But it’s an interesting experience while you are fighting.

At times, it’s completely silent and all you can hear … You can hear him breathing. You can hear his corner yelling things to him. You can hear your feet moving around on the pad, like the impact on the plywood boards underneath it. So that’s a really interesting thing, you actually can find yourself thinking, like, ‘Wow, I’m actually fighting right now. I’m actually in the middle of a fight right now.’ It’s a rather surreal experience. I haven’t had that feeling in probably like four or five, maybe six fights. But I know for roughly for my first 10, I definitely had that feeling and it was really a trip.

And then afterwards, I play a very casual persona because that’s how I feel. I don’t get worked up over fighting. I always have my friends go out after a fight. But I really don’t drink after fights. I have too much pent up, whatever that is, probably an emotional response or adrenaline. I don’t really drink. I go out, I’ll be a little bit social. But then that night, I don’t really sleep well for probably three or four days after.

And then I’ll be able to start to wind down and relax. But really the most important thing is getting home and getting back to a normal life with very limited violence and being around my children.

Wow, so you really ride that, like you said, emotional adrenaline for quite some time after a match.

Yeah, I do. Like for example, a lot of people listen to crazy aggressive, hardcore, violent music before they fight, whether it’s hip-hop or metal or whatever else. I watch YouTube videos on people that, like on America’s Got Talent. I watch videos on people that are expected to fail and do incredibly successful jobs, in their moment of glory. And so that’s kind of my motivation. So it’s a very calming influence. We listen to opera. We listen to like, John Denver. We listen to certain things that are pretty casual. So I don’t need to get amped up for a fight. I actually try to calm myself down because I get hype on my own pretty easily.

What’s a common misconception about the sport that you want to set the story straight on?

It really bothers me how the sport is viewed as barbaric or a Neanderthal game. It is a moving, physical chess match and yes, of course there is violence in there. But the set-ups, the strategy, the physical movements of our sport I think are incredible and are really beautiful. Especially as you set traps, and people fall for the traps. It might be a round and a half or two rounds before your trap finally works. And once it does you have to be able to capitalize on it at the moment that it does. And I find that to be a beautiful thing. I wish that [people] would give the grappling, and the strategy of it, more consideration versus just go in there and kill each other.

Before you career in Bellator, you were in the NFL and played for the Giants. How would you describe the energy of the New York crowd for these types of major sporting events?

There’s no crowd like a New York crowd. Especially when they want to support you. It’s incredible. The energy that they bring is purely motivational. And on top of that, New York’s going to be a home crowd for me. I’ve got so much family there, so that’s really inspiring by itself.

In addition to having so much family there, I played for the Giants. I’m an American, and New York is remarkably hardcore American. And I’m fighting a Russian. And in this political climate, there couldn’t be a more appropriate, sexier match-up. This is Rocky IV on a worldly scale, which is pretty damn cool. You’ve got a Midwestern hillbilly fighting the greatest fighter of all time, that happens to be a Russian. Who is a petition of government. That had to ask Putin’s permission to fight me outside of Russia. That’s a pretty damn big deal. That’s pretty cool.

Just keeping in the NFL realm for just one more minute. Who is a current NFL star that you would like to face in a match if he were to get into MMA? And why?

I trained with him down in Florida. And I like him a lot. He’s a really good dude. And he’s insanely athletic, and that’s the reason why I would want to fight him: Shane Ray.

He’s so athletic and he’s so good at everything he does. And his transfer of power from his hips to his hands, and his movement. Athletically, he’s in a league of his own. Like, there’s really not many people like him. He’s a friend of mine. I respect him a tremendous amount. But I think he would give me an insanely difficult match-up, and I think that would be a lot of fun.

It really says a lot about you that you’re choosing someone who you anticipate would give you a hard time. You are always looking for a square match.

Hell yeah. I’m a lifelong competitor. I’m one of the most athletic people in the world, in my opinion. And competition is my life-source. Why would I want to do anything against anybody where I know I could beat or have a leg up on? I want to be checked. That’s why I live the life I live.

Overall, what is it you most enjoy about the sport? And how do you hope that translates to the crowd at the Garden when you come this month?

You know, what I enjoy the most about the sport is really the maturity of it. It is a grinding, physical chess match of endurance and will and ability. And I love it. And I really get a kick out of it.

Competition is my drug of choice. That’s my vice, and I love being in the moment, whether I’m winning or losing or anything else. I love the thrill of competition, and the crowd knows it. Anybody that’s ever seen me fight knows it. And I can’t hide it. So that’s what happens, that’s the feeling I have.