Move to UFC not easy for other athletes

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.


This list of professional athletes who have tried to transition from their sport into mixed martial arts is long but not too distinguished.

Jose Canseco, for one. The retired baseball slugger-slash-steroid proponent was knocked out in 77 seconds in his MMA debut in Japan a couple of years ago. Canseco hurt his knee, and his girlfriend had to help him out of the ring. He has yet to make a second appearance.

Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Johnnie Morton was knocked out in 38 seconds in his only MMA fight. Former NFL star Herschel Walker decisively won his first two fights and has talked of continuing his MMA moonlighting, but the dude's 49 years old — no spring chicken for MMA, or any other sport this side of chess, for that matter.

Then there's Matt Mitrione. Since retiring from the NFL, the former New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle has risen through the MMA ranks: competing on the 10th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" and earning the nickname "Meathead," compiling a 5-0 UFC record, and this weekend fighting the co-main event at UFC 137 in Las Vegas against French heavyweight Cheick Kongo. Win this fight and a chance at the heavyweight title might not be far off for Mitrione.

Transitioning from another sporting field onto the Octagon seems like it should be easy for big, strong professional athletes. Especially an NFL player, coming from the biggest and baddest of sports. If you got the muscles, got the quickness and got the mental toughness you developed playing another sport, it ought to transfer to the Octagon.


Not quite.

"Most of us professional athletes have a pretty fragile ego," Mitrione said on a recent morning, as he lazed on a couch and waited for his coach to wake up so he could continue training for Saturday's big fight. "I think most of the time, athletically, we — other football or baseball or hockey players — should be able to handle anybody physically. We should be fine against anybody. We're tough, we got good hand-eye coordination. But (UFC fighters), they're so used to punching someone, kicking in the face, the timing of it, and they're so good at that because they've done it all their life."

Then there's the fighting mentality that's different than any other sport. You're going to get hit. You're probably going to get hit hard. You might even get knocked down. But your success will depend on how you react when things turn against you.

"If you can't handle that punch to the face or your nose bleeding, athletes' egos are going to collapse, and then it's totally different," Mitrione said. "If your ego can handle getting beat up a bit in front of five million people, or even getting your (butt) whooped in front of five million people, you'll be good at this sport."

The biggest difference between the NFL and the UFC is in the training, Mitrione said. In the NFL, you're looking for explosive power that lasts a few seconds at a time. Preparation in the NFL can be a grind, but it's more the mental aspect than the physical: watching game tape, having team meetings. It's ultimately about two and a half hours a day of physical training, aiming for a top-heavy, explosive strength.

In the UFC, though, Mitrione has changed his training to develop full-body strength. When you're training for the Octagon instead of the gridiron, you're training for all-day power, that stamina that ensures you won't wilt in the final round of a hard-fought fight. The training camp itself is a grind. Every day Mitrione is on the mat for two stints of two hours apiece. On top of that is cardio: long bike rides where he sustains a 20-mile-per-hour pace, or going jogging with his dogs. And you have to be more conscious about your diet, because you're judged on your appearance as well as your performance.

But the biggest difference: In the Octagon, you're all alone.

"The NFL teaches you that it's paramount and pertinent to rely on 10 other people do their job," Mitrione said. "With the Vikings, Kevin Williams, he was phenomenal, just so good, and coach Baker (Brian Baker, the former Vikings defensive line coach) would always say to him, 'Just 'cause you can doesn't mean you should.' Doing it all yourself can throws everyone else off. In the NFL, it's OK to trust people, but in this sport you can't."

Mitrione's switch from the NFL to the UFC wasn't something he'd planned. He suffered a foot injury during the 2003 playoffs, had seven surgeries and spent 16 months on crutches before coming back to the game. In 2005 he got cut — and his first child was born the following week. He needed a job, and the former Purdue University star got one: Designing and selling employee benefit packages.

"I felt like a shell," he said. "I was looking for something to sink my competitive teeth into, sink my soul into."

His buddy Jayson Werth, now an outfielder for the Washington Nationals, asked Mitrione if he wanted to join in an amateur fight Werth was putting together. Mitrione did. Then he competed in "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show, and in 2009 made his UFC debut. He won his first fight by knockout.

He misses football: the camaraderie, the team atmosphere, the pomp and circumstance surrounding every game. But he's in better shape. He's not as strong as he was in football — he used to squat 600 pounds and now barely breaks 400 — but when he grapples with old football player friends, they're gassed after two minutes while Mitrione can go all day. And Mitrione, now 33, believes his time playing college and pro football makes him a better fighter. For one, he studies tape more intensely than just about any UFC fighter. And football made him tough: He played through a foot injury at Purdue, he won an MMA fight with a broken left hand. And then there's the bounce-back ability that football taught him.

"My coach thinks I'm successful at mixed martial arts because I look at rounds like plays," Mitrione said. "Some fighters come out, things don't go well in the first round and they collapse. When there's a break between rounds, I just say, 'OK, it's a new play.' I smile, bounce around and get ready for the next round, a fresh start.

"It's like, 'OK, a guy 'caked me on that last play, or I couldn't get to the quarterback. OK, now it's a new play.'"

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter (@reidforgrave) or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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