Carl Seumanutafa isn't a household name, but when you see him as a 255-pound man that's going to try and take your head off later that night, you tend to pay attention. Matt Mitrione is seeing Seumanutafa's movements unfold in front of him on the St. Louis sidewalks. He sees himself chopping Seumanutafa down, one big swing of the ax at a time. Mitrione refers to the big Samoan as Carl, though he knows how to pronounce his last name just fine, every syllable a little island he flits right across. Carl is just easier. And it's set-up, alright — everyone knows that. After fighting Derrick Lewis and Ben Rothwell and Travis Browne, some of the most lethal butchers in the UFC, Mitrione is expected to walk right through a relative no-name like Carl in his Bellator debut.
Which, of course, is a thankless task. Seumanutafa is a real life human being — a hydrant of a man, powerful, with technique and four-ounce gloves. He trains with legit fighters at the Skrap Pack in San Francisco. At one point, he even trained with Mitrione himself. "Meat," as friends call Mitrione, might be the only man in America who can't take him for granted. His first gig as a free agent coming over to Bellator feels like a trap fight.
Yet one of the things you notice right away about Matt Mitrione on fight day is that he's not an over-thinker. He's just a dude with an appointment later on, and right now, just hours before he and Carl will attempt to do one another harm, that appointment exists in the abstract. It's been a different fight camp, and not just because it's a different promotion. His five-year old daughter, Gia, had an accident a few days ago back in Indiana, where she walked through a plate of glass. A shard went into her armpit and cut through her ulnar nerve, which severely altered the range of motion and dexterity in her hand. The first part of fight week has been one of hospitals, specialists and worry for Mitrione, the father. How much nerve damage will his baby suffer?
The second part is the familiarization process of being in a new promotion. Gone are the days of UFC taskmasters scheduling out his every move during fight week. At Bellator, things are organized, but a little looser. It's the morning of the fight, for instance, and he's not wholly sure what time his bout takes place that night at the Scottrade Center. He knows he's on the main card. But he doesn't know when the shuttle will arrive to take him to the arena, nor when they'll wrap his hands, nor when he'll make the walk. There's no Burt Watson, the UFC's longtime (yet ultimately expendable) babysitter to the stars. There's just the sense that you should be ready to be ready.
"At the UFC, it was like there was a noose around your neck," Mitrione says, shuffling along in Jordan flip-flops without fear of reprimand after playing along (reluctantly) with the UFC's Reebok deal. "At Bellator, it's more of a loose leash."
He likes the hands-off approach. Mitrione is relaxed. He carries that same look of bemused indifference we've come to know from his days competing in the UFC. It's a benign face, a cocksure jock Muppet — sleepy light blue eyes, eyebrows always raised in perpetual wonder, and a half smirk/smile that he breaks out when he's about to talk a little shit (which is frequent). His voice is like wire static. He has a knob coming off his collar bone at the shoulder that you can see bulging from his MTV T-shirt, a souvenir from his fight with Travis Browne where he suffered a second-degree separation — but it's an old injury, too. It goes back to his collegiate days playing football at Purdue.
Though he's been a professional fighter since 2009 after a stint in the NFL with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, he still thinks in terms of football.
"Look at that," he says, cradling a gallon of alkaline water in his arms like a football. "Five points of pressure. That ball isn't going anywhere. Just like when I ran back that interception against Michigan State."
On the morning of the fight, Mitrione wants to get some air. It's muggy and hot in St. Louis already, but there's a little organic market called Culnaria where he can pick up a sandwich and some granola, the extent of what he'll eat on fight day, and more alkaline water, which his training partner Ed Jones swears is a kind of holy water with healing power. He beat cancer five years ago and alkaline water, he believes wholeheartedly, was the magic tonic.
Jones, whom Mitrione has dubbed "Butta" for what I gather are purely juvenile reasons, refers to himself as not just a training partner but Mitrione's "heterosexual life partner." They are the best of friends. Under their breath, they have fun setting the PC world on fire. The inside jokes are centered on race (Jones is black), body size (Jones is thick), and anything that might be taken out of context (which they love).
They are both big men.
Big enough for people to notice. One man approaches them at the entrance of the grocery store and marvels like they are rare dumb mammals at a petting zoo, squeezing biceps and asking what it is they could possibly be. Mitrione says he's a fighter, and the man's eyes light up. "Where you fighting?" he asks. "I'm fighting at the Scottrade Center tonight," Mitrione says. The man, a comedian it seems, makes dramatic gestures — fainting, falling over, gasping — as if that news is just too much for him to process. "I know better than to fuck with you," he says, ducking behind Jones.
He then asks Jones what he does. "Me? I'm the bodyguard," he says.
The man turns his head and casts an Arnold Jackson-like sideways look. "Why is it the black man always security?" he jokes.
Everyone laughs, but with the formalities out of the way, the straggler gets down to brass tacks. He knew there was something going on at the Scottrade Center because he sleeps on the sixth floor of the parking lot, he says, and saw the movement. He's homeless. He could use some help. Really, he was hoping Mitrione would sign an autograph. He disappears and comes back with a box of pretzels and a pen, and Mitrione signs it. Mitrione doesn't mind at all. In fact, he seems to embrace life's little inconveniences as they happen. What could be better? He tolerates the man the whole way through the store. And even as the man leaves, and he sees the signed box of pretzels sitting at the checkout unpaid for, Mitrione just laughs.
It's all an adventure.
Afterwards, spotting a boutique coffeehouse called The Perch down the street, Mitrione wants to stop in to get the others of his faction back at the room — former UFC fighter Chris Lytle and former boxing champion Lamon Brewster — some coffee. When he walks in, the owner, a sweet woman named Carolyn, squeals and fans her face with her fingers. She knows who Mitrione is. As Mitrione sits down, she immediately begins telling him stories, about how she segued out of corporate America and got her shop, about how she lost 35 pounds (and how she's gunning to lose 35 more), about her mother's battle with dementia. She can't get it all out fast enough. Mitrione loves her, though. She is his people. Midwest through and through. He talks about his own family's battles with dementia, and off they go.
At some point, UFC fighter Leslie Smith comes in for some oatmeal. Carolyn squeals again. It's great having the circus in town. Smith is from the Skrap Pack, too, same gym as Carl Seumanutafa, but Mitrione doesn't know anything about that. He doesn't watch fights. He didn't see Smith's recent fight with Cyborg Justino, that savage undertaking in Brazil. Mitrione is a tumbleweed. He's proud of his oblivion. And as Carolyn kisses him, it feels like the cage is a million miles from that coffeehouse. That Smith never nearly lost an ear in her fight with Jessica Eye, a bloody, dangling piece of flesh that she wanted to ignore (but couldn't), or that Mitrione's eye had never swelled to the size of an ostrich egg in his last fight with Browne after an eye poke.
That kind of chaos has no place in a boutique shop full of baubles and dainties and happy nothings. This is the kind of place where you actively deny such things. But Jesus Christ, Mitrione is just hours from doing it again. You wouldn't even know it.
What fighters do on the day of a fight is largely, in terms of human drama, uninteresting. For Mitrione's crew, it's mostly lounging about telling stories. Lamon Brewster, who upset Wladimir Klitschko in 2004 to win the WBO heavyweight title in the boxing ring, is fortunately a storyteller. When Mitrione gets back to the room, Brewster has the covers pulled up to his neck — yet he comes to life at the sight of "Meat," whom he says, for this weekend anyway, he's taken the liberty of "living through." As a spiritual man, he says he prays for the world at large 15 hours a day, even as he's carrying on a conversation about something else entirely.
Brewster's piety is an old reassuring faith, the kind that has played over the fight game for as long as it's been around. It's God and God's will, the ring or the cage, doesn't matter — even the most hazardous occupations are seen through with divinity. There are no wayward souls, and God makes no mistakes. Mitrione is right where he needs to be. Mitrione feels good having Brewster with him. Even the Sugarfire Smoke House they visited yesterday on Washington and St. Charles draws sermon from Brewster, particularly the "sugar pie," which Mitrione calls "crack pie" for its addictive qualities.
"You know what gooey butter cake is? It's like gooey butter cake in pie form," Mitrione says, quickly adding that he doesn't even have a sweet tooth. His path has many forks. And speaking of heavenly matters, they rave about the brisket, too. "'Butta' ate several families of animals yesterday," Mitrione says. "That's families, mind you. His stretch marks have stretch marks."
Mitrione is eating his sandwich sparingly — a bite here, a bite there — before his last workout in prep for the fight. He likes an empty stomach on fight night. Meanwhile Brewster says he was a mean son of a bitch to be around on fight day, somebody you'd want to steer clear of. But living vicariously through Mitrione, he's a gentle, glowing soul. He tells stories of the greats, and how they came to pass through his heavy hands. Of Lennox Lewis, how he dropped him in sparring while helping him train, and worried he'd lost his payday. He talks about his father, who drank himself so blotto at one of his fights in Las Vegas he had to be escorted out. (It wasn't until it was revealed he was Lamon's father that he was promptly ushered back in). He talks about his friend James Toney — good 'ol James — whom he says calls him all the time, often greeting him with nothing more than an accusatory, "mm-hmm."
"He's taken so many punches, he probably doesn't even know he's dialing you," Lytle says, looking up from his cell phone. "In fact, he's wondering why you called."
"How do you even understand what Toney's saying," Jones asks.
"The thing is, I speak punch drunk," Brewster says.
Brewster is blind in his left eye. He pulls his glasses off to show the blue swirling planet that sits in the socket. It was Robert Helenius, a Finnish fighter, that took that piece of him. "The dirty brat had something in his glove," Brewster says with a cheerful note of acceptance, as if everything happens for a reason. The glaucoma produced such pressure that it "felt like a lead-toed boot kicking from behind the eye," he says. It was only through the good graces of medical marijuana that he tolerated the pain.
If Mitrione is following along, he's not letting on. Lying on his bed watching SportsCenter on mute, he wafts in and out of the conversation, adding a little witticism here or there, and talks to his kids on his cell phone. His family will be joining him after the fight. As luck would have it, there's a world-renowned nerve specialist right here in St. Louis, and Gia will have surgery here the following week. He says he wants to take her to the City Museum, a playground of repurposed industrial steel parts (cranes, fire truck ladders, airplanes, etc).
To make matters crazier, Mitrione will not only fight Seumanutafa in a little bit, but he will put on his suit and commentate the kickboxing fights afterwards, as part of the dual Dynamite 2 show. It's part of his new gig with Bellator — the analyst. He also has another fight lined up after Carl, which at this point is top secret. It's in three weeks in London, against Oli Thompson. He doesn't utter a word of this. So much hinges on him winning. Mitrione may not be able to take Seumanutafa for granted, but everybody else is. And he just sits on his bed, as if the afternoon will stretch on forever and he'll stretch right along with it, and float through every chamber of the pressure cooker that sits in front of him like a song with a slow build.
Breaking the reverie is Charles Stanback, whom Mitrione and his other guys call "Black Cat." He's another in the motley gang of Indianapolis-based training partners that Mitrione uses. "He can pick up a refrigerator and carry it across the cage," Mitrione says. Stanback, who also has a football background, is careful to step over the banner that is stretched out on the floor, featuring a number of sponsors that not so long ago Mitrione had to do away with.
"Oh, hey, I just saw your guy in the elevator," Stanback says.
"Who? Oh, Carl?" Mitrione says. He's fiddling with a big gold chain with a gold chicken leg on it, just some faux-bling courtesy of Wing Stop. "Right on."
As if Carl was just an old buddy he'd catch up with later. As if he hadn't just spent the last six weeks thinking about ways to bust Mitrione's big head wide open. Carl has more to gain in this fight than Mitrione; he was homeless not long ago. This fight means everything for him to win. Just like it means everything for Mitrione to lose.
Mitrione finally gets up and showers, which strikes some of his corner as odd given that they are about to go work out with his Blackzilians' coach Henri Hooft downstairs and get sweaty again.
"Trust me, it's better this way," Lytle says. "This is a courtesy he's paying everyone."
Mitrione is lying on the floor of Michael Chandler's small dressing room in the bowels of the Scottrade Center, while Jones and Brewster are talking over him. Lytle is putting together the list of sponsors to thank on a sheet of paper, listening to the NHL draft on the TV. With the fight on Spike TV — which Mitrione knows well from his stint on The Ultimate Fighter 10, the Kimbo Slice season, the highest-rated season in the franchise — he'll have a nice platform to flick at his sponsor dollars and pay back some love.
"Don't be greedy if he doesn't fall right away," Brewster says over the room, which right now is a sanctuary but very soon will become a hive of activity with Chandler and his overlapping faction (Hooft and company), cutmen, commissioners and referees. "Think of yourself as ax and he's the tree. Every time you hit him, you're weakening him. You'll weaken him and weaken him. Pretty soon he's going to fall. Just like any tree, if you hit it enough."
"I've fought that dude 25 times," Mitrione says out loud, his voice so sleepy it's barely audible. "I fight him everyday."
"You fight him everyday," says Jones.
"You, Lamon, Charles, it's all the same dude," Mitrione says, convincing himself it's true. "He's the same as Gonzaga was. Same as Derrick Lewis. It's all the same thing."
"Be smart, whatever smart is, be it," Brewster says. "Sometimes when you're cutting down a tree you want it to go faster so you can get onto other things. We're going to take as much time as we need."
"I ain't got nothing else to do, man," Mitrione says, not opening his eyes.
"No need to be a chainsaw," says Jones.
"Right! Don't be a chainsaw," Brewster says.
What goes through a fighter's mind less than an hour before a fight? For Mitrione, it's like cramming for a test, and he powers through some meditation on his back, one foot dangling on his knee. He could be chewing on a straw of wheat on a raft. He's thinking of Carl, of chopping Carl down. He's envisioning his movement, seeing things play out in slow detail, the punch that does Carl in. He's thinking of his daughter. But, like everyone trying to address a pressing task seriously — especially one of throwing and dodging punches under a spotlight while mostly naked — the little things keep nagging at him.
"Yo, where are my gloves?" he suddenly belts out. "Right here," says Lytle. "What size are they? Large? How are my hands going to fit in them?" "They'll fit, we'll work on them." "Chris, you got that paper with the sponsors on it?" "Right here."
It's mostly a process of killing time; of speeding things up and slowing things down, depending on the thing itself. The old veteran Brewster fills that time talking about siphoning a man's reserves.
"The best advice my father ever gave me, he said, ‘every time you touch his tank, you're taking a little bit of gas," he says. "Pretty soon the car wobbles, things are rattling, the hubcaps are coming off and the tires, too."
"The best advice I got was don't get no bitches pregnant," says Jones.
Mitrione is now off the ground. He's got a picture book that his children put together, of him and his three kids — little Gia and her brothers, Jacob and Jonah. And he's looking through it. He's got a smile on his face. The book has quotes accompanying the pictures. On one page he lingers over, there's a picture of the three of them on a porch swing back home in West Lafayette in Nov. 2015, home of his Boilermakers, with Gia sticking her tongue out. The exchange is very Mitrione-like.
Jacob says, "Gia, do your boogers taste good?"
Gia says, "Yes! They taste like jelly beans!"
Chips off the old block. Those moments before a fight become a magnifying glass of introspection. The whole man is made vulnerable.
Mitrione, who has spent his entire career to this point fighting in the UFC, is now at 37 years old opening a new chapter in his life. Mitrione, who almost never hears the scorecards — either he goes out, or his opponent does. Mitrione, who has put his foot in his mouth so many times that he's gotten himself suspended for his own meatheadedness. There was that Fallon Fox thing. There was the Tito Ortiz thing, where he cracked jokes about Tito's then wife Jenna Jameson. There was the time he fired his agent Malki Kawa live on television, and showed up to his media day for Travis Browne barefoot, so as not to get fined for violating the Reebok deal. Mitrione, the fighter. Mitrione, the football player. Mitrione, the father. Pride and identity, those silly imposters. Which wins what? It's a lot to bring to the cage, but then again, the cage was made for self-discovery.
"My ego costs me money," he said earlier that morning. "My ego is expensive. If I had not continued on after getting poked in the eye against Browne, if I had not been so egotistical, who knows where I'd be?"
He might not be moments away from fighting Carl Seumanutafa in Bellator. Such is the crossroads of every fight. Win, go one way. Lose, go the other. He lost against Browne controversially, and Browne is now fighting Cain Velasquez. He beat the late-Kimbo Slice, and sent one of the sport's most compelling stars on a five-year odyssey out of MMA. Carl can't be taken for granted. He came to St. Louis in part to battle everybody's givens.
But Mitrione is not an over-thinker. He came to St. Louis to get paid. The Wing Stop hats are being dished out. The gold necklaces with gold chicken legs dangling are being worn. T-shirts with DipYourCar.com are being slipped into while another UFC casualty, Stitch Duran, wraps his hands. The sound of tape being ripped time and again on the knuckle is the soundtrack now. Protect the knuckle, that song says, not the thing those knuckles will be crashing into.
Then referee Big John McCarthy comes in for final instructions, like a priest dressed in black.
"Big John's my ref, huh?" Mitrione says, shaking his hand while still an octave below total ease.
McCarthy runs down his expectations and the rules with the routine voice of a cop reading rights. Only, he personalizes it. Though he's never reffed a fight of his before, he calls Mitrione by name. He circles the area that constitutes the back of the head. He emphasizes signals, such as putting his whole hand on the mat instead of a couple of fingers to indicate he's downed. "I'm old, I can't see, I'm not going to see those fingers," he warns.
"If you get to a point in the fight, not saying it's going to happen, where you get hit with a shot and it hurts you, and you go down, your job is just to show me through actions that you want to be there," McCarthy says. "Fighting back, movement, if you get hold of him bring him close. That's what I'm looking for. It's when you start to hide from the fight when we're going to have a problem. If you start to do that, you're going to hear me call out your name, I'm going to say, ‘Matt, you need move, get out.' If you hear ‘move, get out,' it's telling you that ugly fucker's going to stop my fight. I want you to try and move your position, take away what he's attacking you with. I don't care if you're successful, I just care that you try."
Lytle, who has to leave back to Indianapolis after the fight with a shift at the firehouse beginning at 7 o'clock in the morning, is half-listening in, especially when McCarthy cites him as "that sick fuck in your corner" when continuing on with his instructions. McCarthy knows he's got the room. Lytle still has the gleam, too. It's why in retirement he's fishing for a fight with Wanderlei Silva, who is also lurking around the Scottrade Center. All of these guys are living through Mitrione tonight.
"No matter what happens, I'll be fine," Mitrione says, as McCarthy finishes up. "I'm a grown ass man, and I'll cry uncle if I need to. As long as I'm still awake, I'll get myself out."
He hits some pads with Henri Hooft, loud thwaps and grunts that drown out the bustling carnival that has become his dressing room. He's nearly ready. He takes one last call from his son, Jonah.
"Hey man, I love you," he says. "No matter what happens — no matter what happens — I'll be fine. I'll call you after I make this money. I love you, my dude."
They take Mitrione out for Bellator's opening ceremony, where he and Carl will stroll down the catwalk together, followed by the other fighters, behind music and loud pyrotechnics. He comes backstage after the pageantry, and now he's officially on deck. They grease his brow back there. Check his gloves. Somebody drapes an American flag over his shoulders, and he paces. There are hugs. Hooft, Brewster, ‘Butta' Jones — all his architects. There are last words. Assurances. Reminders of what to do. If there was ever a moment of doubt, Mitrione never shows it. He has the tempest in a jar.
"See you on the other side," somebody says.
"See you on the other side," he says back.
And with that, Mitrione goes towards a part in the curtain where lights are swirling and the crowd is heard, stepping through as the opening chords to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" take on a whole new meaning.
Mitrione does win, but he has to have Lytle rehash the sequence of events when he gets back to the locker room. That’s because for a minute there he lost. Seumanutafa clocked him with a bazooka of a right hand just 30 seconds in, which crumpled Mitrione where he stood. Carl came in to finish the job with hammerfists, and for a brief moment Mitrione did exactly what McCarthy had warned him against — he covered up and hid. McCarthy was at his shins, ready to stop the fight. But, given an extra beat, Mitrione pumped his legs and spun, as the Samoan, for some reason, opted to grapple. To try and take his back. That gave Mitrione time enough to recover, and the window he needed to turn the tide. A couple of minutes later, while Seumanutafa was on his back trying to time out an upkick, Mitrione shot a right hand down through his chin.
It was a trap fight, alright, but Mitrione wins.
Bellator announces his quick turnaround bout with big Oli Thompson while he’s still in the cage, right there in a pile of his own wits, which are freshly scattered about. Mitrione, materializing again, is only too happy to confront the British strongman.
The fight game.
Mitrione admits he was on "auto-pilot" there for a bit, but now he’s having perfectly articulate conversations with his cornermen, with his family, with Jimmy Smith the cageside analyst, and with Missouri commissioners, who put him through concussion protocols. He even has a endearing conversation with Carl himself, who stops by the locker room to offer his congratulations and exchange quick war stories. Still, Mitrione’s seeing all the uneasy shifting going on in social media, wondering how he can fight Thompson after taking that Seumanutafa punch so clean on the chin. That bothers him more than the punch. Before he showers, he sends out a tweet that he’s fine. He says he loves the concern, but has a look of, "can you believe this shit?"
And in moments, he reappears in a sharp gray suit, a Wing Stop hat, and his Jordan flip-flops, ready to call the action ringside for the kickboxing portion of the show on Spike TV. Shock absorbent Mitrione. The meathead. The jock with the hard cranium, inside of which there’s a vault of shaken mystery. He takes the punch, confesses he doesn’t remember it, puts his molecules back together, gets the knockout, and now presents himself with a wave of his hand as if to say, "See? Mint condition." Though Bellator says it jumped the gun in announcing the Thompson fight, and that he’ll need to undergo an MRI to get official clearance, Mitrione remains exactly as he was heading in. That is, unaffected. He has the details of the fight in his pocket. He has some money. He has a trip to London planned, where he’ll fight a bigger man than Carl.
He’ll have his daughter at his side in the morning. Yet between then and now, he’s not thinking about Thompson or concussions or even how he dodged a bullet in his first Bellator fight. He’s thinking bout Sugarfire. He's ready for some barbecue. It’s as simple as that for the man they call "Meat."
It’s just that simple man.