They weren’t “old” when they first faced off, back in 2012, but they weren’t young, for fighters, and oh was it ever a lifetime ago.
Roy Nelson, then 36, but of course had that majestic beard and marvelous mullet, and Matt Mitrione, then 34, had only six MMA bouts tucked into his shorts, after transitioning from pro football to cage fighting. They were doing their thing, back then, under the umbrella of the Fertitta topped UFC, and after Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter “reality” show played out, they rumbled in the main event in Las Vegas, as Dana White presided.
None present could peer into the future, and know that Nelson (23-14), the pot-bellied bar-brawler looking Las Vegan who looked like he’d be totally cool with Burger King being his sole sponsor, would drop and stop Mitrione (12-5), the Indiana resident who gained a heavy fan club with his zesty personality shown on TUF. And they’d surely not have known that these years later, the two heavyweights, now that much closer to their end zone of fighting than the beginning of the road, would be battling under the Bellator umbrella.
Both men got together in a NY eatery, earlier in the week, and sat five feet from each other, while subjects like the Trump tax plan, fighting under the UFC banner and how that differed from the Bellator one and how to steer clear of germs, before fight night, were in play.
Both men showed no hint of nervous energy, meant to try and inject fear or doubt into the foe, as they awaited fight night, Bellator 194, at Mohegan Sun, in Connecticut, and on the Parmount TV Network. Nelson is 41..
…and Mitrione 36..
..and these are seasoned pros, pretty much past the point of such tomfoolery.
Maybe the element I was most curious about, beyond the big picture “how is Bellator different than UFC” was how that first face-off would affect them both headed into this one. In the first tango, “Big Country” Nelson beat a Mitrione left to the punch, and fired a right uppercut. Timed it beautifully, really, sent Mitrione, an ex NFLer, onto his back, where he tried to cover up as the mulleted maniac rained fire down on his noggin. He turtled up, covered his head without success, as Nelson’s home run right hand in round one did sufficient damage that Mitrione couldn’t get his senses. Mitrione told me he isn't fixated on the least on that 2012 event, and gave props to the bearded man’s effort on that evening.
“No it does not pop into my head,” Mitrione said, “and the reason why is and maybe this is me trivializing it or maybe this is me making excuses, I had a lot of things going on in my life, I wasn’t as focused as I should have been, it was my sixth fight ever, after a 14 month layoff, I got hit with an uppercut, my mouthpiece wasn’t in my mouth. I had three surgeries in the interim, it is what it is. Am I detracting from that, absolutely not, he was the first guy to legitimately knock me down.”
He was a bit green, is now 39, no longer green, and “I feel like I’m pretty good right now!”
He thinks he has more momentum right now, better than Nelson’s, said his last showings were KOs, and fun to watch. (I’ll say—he and Fedor knocked each other down and MM jumped at the Russian, smacked him and forced a ref stoppage, in round one, at MSG in NYC, last June. )
Mitrione said that he’s very happy in Bellator—this is his fourth Bellator waltz—and he appreciates the way this crew handles PR. It’s more a personal feel, with people treating him like a Regular Joe, in a good way. The ex footballer says MMAers, by and large, like having this group around, as a true alternative to UFC. “I think UFC is kind of in a sinking position right now,” the Illinois native, who loves spending time with his three kids, told me. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, and I think that’s the UFC’s position right now.”
But maybe they get that Rousey or McGregor type walking in the door any day, though, right? Aren’t these things cyclical? Sure, he allowed, but we both agreed you ideally need that superlative combo of fighting excellence and charisma, of a personality that pops. And sometimes a guy has it, but he’s not American, and thus maybe doesn’t connect with US fight fans enough to become a superstar.
Nelson, who chowed happily, his wife by his side, and sometimes popped in while me and Mitrione talked over the new Trump budget which just came out, told me that he isn’t assuming he snags the win in the same way in this rematch. So, really, that previous win doesn’t give him immense confidence in this sequel. No, he said, because the match was short, and “it happened in the past, and we’re looking forward.” He’s improved, he insisted, just plain gotten better, so that will mean more than anything, in his mind.
This is his second Bellator bout, he continued, and he’s happy here. “I think the biggest difference is please and thank you go a long way,” he said. In UFC, they’d made clear they’d like him to lose the beard and mullet, he said, and he might have been more inclined to capitulate if he’d not been so much ordered as asked, nicely.
These two heavies are fighting inside a heavyweight tournament, so it will play out along the way and take some time to deem who is the Bellator top draw at heavy. This outfit loves to sign on “names,” even if these athletes are not in their athletic prime, so the tourney is a winner in the name recognition department, zero doubt. Trash talking kingpin Chael Sonnen downed “Rampage” Jackson in one quarter final. Ryan Bader and Frank Mir, UFC expats, will waltz, in May, as will Fedor Emelianenko, the aged Russian cage general, with Frank Mir, long a UFC presence, in April.
Finally, I asked Nelson and Mitrione about a most crucial aspect of the fighting life: staying healthy. That is, staying away from germs, and not contracting a dreaded bug near fight time. Mitrione told me he drinks jugs upon jugs of water, ever since he had kidney stones, and lately, he’s been labeling his jugs “dad’s,” so his kids don’t sneak sips and maybe dose him with a flu bug. Nelson, I noted he shook my hand at the meet n greet and I didn’t see him dousing himself with Purell after. How does he keep colds and the flu from invading his system? “It’s definitely something that I worry about, I am older, so I’m prone to the flu. I try to wash my hands, try to be more observant of what’s goin’ on.”
Oh, and lastly, no surprise here, both dudes predict they win on Feb. 16. What say you, reader? Who wins, Nelson versus Mitrione, and how?