In the ever-shifting land of UFC heavyweights, Matt Mitrione could make some serious headway on Saturday with a victory over Ben Rothwell at UFC Fight Night 68 in New Orleans.
So why would the 36-year-old former pro football player -- who is riding a three-fight win streak in which he knocked out all three opponents in the first round -- make waves by criticizing the Reebok sponsorship deal publicly?
Because, he says, that’s who he is. When the tier of how Reebok would distribute pay came out – a tier-system based on tenure ranging from $2,500 to $40,000 – Mitrione voiced his displeasure through his Twitter feed.
"Congrats @Reebok, you got the deal of the century. Unfortunately, it was at the cost of the fights. Hope all the bad press is worth it. @UFC."
Mitrione said during Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour that he tries not to filter himself when expressing his genuine feelings.
"The way I was raised by my mother and my father is that if I see something I do agree with, I speak out on it," he told Ariel Helwani. "And sometimes I’m an example of where keeping it real goes wrong. I do my best…I live my life to be as open and honest as I can. If I see something I don’t agree with I typically say something.
"So maybe that gets me in trouble sometimes, but that also let’s me sleep at night, because at least I express my genuine opinion and people know where I stand."
The consensus among many fighters and media is that you don’t rock the boat in the UFC for fear of repercussion. Mitrione said he never thought about the consequences of his actions, and doesn’t regret being vocal about a deal that doesn’t benefit the fighters. Even if it means he is booked into a less than ideal fight next.
"If you’re going to get punished by the UFC, right, they’re going to try and give you a bad fight, so that way you’ll get smoked and you’ll look terrible and you’ll lose your next fight or whatever," he said. "In my school of thought, if you do something to get in the bad grace of the UFC and you’ll get a bad match-up. And if that’s the case, I feel like right now I’m the best fighter in the world I feel like. So I don’t think there’s a bad match-up I can get. So I think I’d be very prepared against anybody I’d come up against."
Mitrione is coming off a performance of the night knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC on FOX 13 in December. Before then he knocked out Derrick Lewis and Shawn Jordan, meaning he has finished his opponents via KO/TKO in four of his last five fights.
A victory over Rothwell, whom he called "durable as hell" and hard to put away, could potentially catapult him into the upper reaches of the division.
Mitrione said ahead of the Reebok deal, which begins to take effect in July, he has lost a couple of sponsors but also gained a new one.
"I’ve had two companies jump ship," he said. "And I just signed a pretty good sponsor, Wing Stop, a chicken wing joint with 750 stores nationwide. I just signed them, and they’re going to be one of my primary sponsors this camp. And they’ve been great to me, man, they’ve actually been very good. I think there’s a chance it might go on after the UFC puts the rule into effect."
The new Reebok deal is structured so that all fighters on the roster must be in their designated Reebok gear for all UFC appearances during Fight Week, weigh-ins and for the fight itself. Most fighters who’ve been vocal about the new deal aren’t worried about homogeny so much as the loss of pay. Fighters from Sara McMann to Brendan Schaub have publicly criticized the deal and expressed their concerns over losing out on potential sponsorship money.
The deal has prompted some people to wonder about a fighter’s association, which would present a unified front against sweeping decisions that effect all fighters. Mitrione said that such things are difficult to accomplish, especially if the top five fighters on the roster aren’t involved. He cited fighters like Ronda Rousey (who has a more exclusive deal with Reebok) and Jose Aldo.
Aldo, who lambasted the Reebok deal on record this past week, was the first of the champions to truly criticize the deal. For that, Mitrione said he was in complete agreement.
"I think he’s very accurate, I think he’s highly accurate," he said. "I think he’s right and I think he’s got huge stones to say it. He’s the first champion to say it, the first highly paid guy -- which, I’m assuming he’s highly paid, because nobody’s beating him. The dude’s a monster.
"So I think he has huge stones and he’s doing it for the greater good, and it’s not the same ‘greater good’ as the Reebok deal. I think it takes huge stones on his part and I respect him a lot for doing it, for sure. Especially because he has a lot to lose, but he also knows that they, I think he feels they really can’t do that much to him because he’s the man. He knows that."