Matt Mitrione is moving on from the UFC, but keeping one eye on Travis Browne.
The 37-year-old heavyweight recently signed a four-fight deal with Bellator MMA. Mitrione joins Benson Henderson as the most legitimate, high profile free agent signings in Scott Coker’s tenure as Bellator president. As enthusiastic as he is to enter the Bellator cage, he is still thinking about his UFC fight from this past January with Travis Browne.
“The only fight I really want in my heart of hearts is my Travis Browne fight back, but that’s not going to happen right now,” says Mitrione. “Before that happened, I never poked anybody in their eye, ever, and it never happened to me.”
Mitrione filed a 12-page grievance appealing the decision of the fight, as the fight was stopped—and restarted—twice after Brown poked Mitrione in the eye. He also believes a penalty should have been enforced after Browne’s first eye poke.
“You don’t get a warning for a face mask in football,” says Mitrione. “And a face mask penalty is going to be substantially less intrusive than an eye gouge in the middle of a fight, especially when I’m coming forward aggressively—because that’s my job—and you’re extending your hand out to stop my momentum, and your thumb or your pinkie goes into my eye. That’s going to be a massive moment in the fight, no matter how you want to position it or play it.
“A point needs to be taken away immediately, and the second time—per the rules, any compounding of fouls is a disqualification. Sorry that you can’t control your own body. Better luck next time, and hopefully your opponent doesn’t need to have surgery on his eye.”
Despite arguments from UFC president Dana White, the repeated pokes opened the door for serious injuries. Mitrione suffered a ghastly looking broken orbital bone as well as a separated shoulder, and he is taking action against the officiating of the fight.
“I have a 12-page grievance against that fight, and it’s primarily against the referee, Gary Forman,” says Mitrione. “It’s also against the [Massachusetts] Commission because I’m on camera telling the doctors I can’t see and I need more time to stop seeing double. That means I’m impaired from the infractions that Travis did upon me the second time in less than three minutes of live time. The doctors needed to call the fight.
“I’m not a rational human being at that point. I’m a killer coming to kill. I’m not going to blow the whistle on myself—the doctor needs to protect me from myself. Otherwise, what the hell is the reason to have a commission or a referee? Let us just fight to the death.”
A piece of the grievance also touches upon why Gary Forman should not have even been issued a referee’s license. The UFC has offered zero support.
“I’ve done all this myself,” says Mitrione. “But they knew I was coming up on my last fight. [Zuffa Chairman and CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] knew I was looking forward to going to free agency, and they don’t want the No. 14 guy in the world to beat the No. 6 guy in the world, who is firmly under their control.”
Despite Mitrione’s status as a homegrown talent, the UFC did not make much of an effort to ensure he stayed with the promotion.
“The UFC was a non-factor,” reveals Mitrione. “I got a phone call from Lorenzo the day they decided not to match my offer, and it was all very respectful. Lorenzo wished me the best of luck. A couple days later, I got a back-end bonus from the UFC and I got an email about it, so I texted Dana. I said, ‘Thanks a lot for the bonus,’ and ‘By the looks of it, I’m going to end up with Bellator, and I just wanted to say thanks for the opportunity to start this crazy ride.’ Dana wrote back, ‘No hard feelings. It was a pleasure to have your around. Go over there and kick some a--.’”
Mitrione explained that it was best for business if Browne won their fight, as he was entering free agency and Brown is locked into a contract with the UFC. Even after the disputed finish, he still believes the best is yet to come in his career as a mixed martial artist.
“I had a conversation with Lorenzo after I lost to [Ben] Rothwell and before I was offered Travis Browne, and I was renegotiating my contract,” explains Mitrione. “One of the things we talked about was that I’ve lost a few times, but I’ve never had my a-- kicked. I’ve never been out-performed and I’ve never been out-dueled. I’ve lost because I made mistakes.
“That’s why I still have a tremendous upside. I’m still out-performing people who are fifteen years younger than me, and I have the knowledge for it now. But it is what it is. Maybe I’m a little too outspoken. Maybe I voice too many opinions. You never know what they are thinking.”
The disconnect with the UFC allowed Bellator an opportunity to persuade Mitrione to change promotions. Individual endorsement deals are forbidden in the UFC, but fair game in Bellator.
“A lot of guys have reached out to me and asked, ‘Have your sponsors been back in touch with you?’” says Mitrione. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve got, so that’s a primary concern, as well as the money, and that’s why fighters love Scott Coker. Everybody that’s ever fought for him told me that you’ll see he really cares. Everything is fighter-based, which makes more sense for us.”
Mitrione wants to win Bellator’s heavyweight championship, which is currently held by Vitaly Minakov.
“That’s always the goal,” says Mitrione. “My goal was to be a UFC champ, and I was still in the process of doing it. In the Travis Browne fight, I was very realistically in that pursuit had I won that fight.”
The 6’3”, 250-pound ex-NFL player will also help reshape the promotion’s entire image after the sideshow spectacle Kimbo Slice-Dada 5000.
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
“Scott Coker is a really intelligent man,” says Mitrione. “He’s a really good business man and has been running organizations for a long time. He knows, whether it is fortunate or unfortunate, that there is a massive market for freak show fights. If that freak show fight needs to happen to bring eyes to his genuine talent and the people he really wants to develop, then maybe it’s worth it. Maybe people get paid more from sponsors because there is a freak show fight connected to the card. If that fight has to happen, his legitimate guys get a lot more notoriety on that card, and then those fights happen less and less.”
No date has been set for his Bellator debut, but Mitrione admitted that he is not a patient man.
Mitrione also expressed gratitude to his supporters, who have grown exponentially from his start on The Ultimate Fighter in 2009.
“I have such a dedicated, loyal, genuine fan base,” says Mitrione. “I remember being told one time by the UFC, and I don’t know how they quantify all this, that I had an 85% fan disapproval rating when I got off the show. Then three years ago, I had over a 90% fan approval rate. That speaks volumes to me. I have a fan base that cares and is so invested. I don’t know why I’m that fortunate, but a minute doesn’t go by when I am not thankful.
"I had a girlfriend that lived down in Florida, and she would get so upset that I would dedicate time to Twitter and respond to people. But if it’s not for the people I interact with, I would have no job. Other than being a parent, this is the reason I was put on this earth. I’m not going to take that for granted.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.