An act of volunteerism could become the most fruitful move of Matt Mitrione's career. He was the first one to raise his hand and ask to fill in for Shane Carwin when a replacement was needed, and his willingness to do so earned him a headlining fight against Roy Nelson at Saturday's Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale. It is in theory, a wonderful bit of gambling on Mitrione's part. Though he only has six professional fights, he is also 34 years old, an age where most fighters have begun their natural declines. That means time is running low on any dreams of reaching an elite level.
Mitirone has taken steps over the last year to increase his odds. The most important was the relocation of his training camp to Florida to work with the Blackzilians, and talented fighters including Alistair Overeem, Rashad Evans and Tyrone Spong, among others. It is an all-star camp, and Mitrione must certainly be buoyed by the work he's put in there.
In Nelson, he's taking on an opponent who is far more experienced, but has been somewhat uneven in his most recent performances.
Nelson, now 36, is two years the elder in the matchup, and he's also faced a greater caliber of opponent. He's squared off with Junior dos Santos, Andrei Arlovski, Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum, among others. Meanwhile, Mitrione's most significant opponent was Cheick Kongo.
It is certainly a leap for Mitrione, but perhaps not a lengthy one.
In watching Nelson's fights, the one thing that sticks out about him is that he gets hit. A lot. According to FightMetric, he absorbs 4.83 strikes per minute, an incredibly high number that is the source of most of his troubles. By comparison, he lands only 2.26 strikes per minute. While Nelson's power has won him many fights over the last few years, if he hasn't been able to land that knockout blow early, he's had a much tougher time. He was mauled by dos Santos for three rounds, pounded by Mir for three rounds, and smashed by Werdum for three rounds.
The strike totals in those fights are lopsided. For dos Santos, it was 138-40, for Mir 82-46, and for Werdum, 98-55. In three of Nelson's four UFC wins, they came in the first round, before those strike totals began to add up.
One thing we do know about Mitrione is that he's durable. We've never really seen him in trouble in a fight, including in his fight with Kongo. That bodes well for the possibility of upsetting Nelson, who is considered by most odds to be slightly more than a 2-to-1 favorite.
Another factor that plays in Mitrione's favor is that he has a huge reach advantage over Nelson, 82 inches to 73. So what does that tell us? With the likely improvements in his striking made in his time training with super strikers like Overeem and Spong, he should be able to better control range and keep the fight at a distance. And that's bad news for Nelson.
Nelson began his career as a submission specialist, but has changed his style over the years, becoming more reliant on his standup skills. He rarely tries takedowns (he has just two in his last six fights) and hasn't been particularly successful when he does, landing just 20 percent of his attempts.
Now, what factors work against Mitrione? As mentioned, his inexperience. He's only been in the game for about four years, and has had to learn on the fly. But he did perform fairly well against a longtime veteran in Kongo even while losing. In that fight, both of the first two rounds were quite close before Kongo took over in the final round to seal the win. That fight was a lesson for Mitrione, as he was forced to deal with an opponent that was waiting for him to come forward. Also, he's almost certainly at a major disadvantage on the ground against Nelson, a respected black belt.
Mitrione also had just four weeks to prepare for Nelson, so his conditioning might not be up to par, especially problematic for a match scheduled for five rounds.
Despite that, I think this is a winnable fight for Mitrione. Even though he's been out of the octagon for 14 months, Nelson does not have the kind of speed that is going to make him feel truly out of his element after so much time away. Due to that, I feel that Mitrione, with improved striking skills from his time in Florida, will better control the distance, land some power, and stay away from Nelson's big right hand. I'm calling the upset, Mitrione by decision.