Former N.F.L. Everymen Look for Success in M.M.A.
Back in the summer of 2004, when Brock Lesnar left the scripted world of professional wrestling to try out for the Minnesota Vikings, mixed martial arts was largely considered a brutal and unruly spectacle. It was banned in numerous states and its top athletes were paid far less than their counterparts in more established sports.
Today mixed martial arts has become both lucrative and mainstream, and Lesnar, 32, who never made the Vikings, is the U.F.C. heavyweight champion.
This fall, a number of former pro football players are trying to follow in his footsteps. As part of the cast of Spike TV’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, Marcus Jones, Matt Mitrione, Brendan Schaub and Wes Shivers will compete for a chance to fight in the U.F.C.
(Credit: Kevin Lynch/Spike TV) Matt Mitrione hopes his athleticism can help make up for his lack of mixed martial arts experience.
If you don’t remember these guys, you’re probably not alone. Mitrione, a backup defensive lineman for the Giants, left the N.F.L. because of injuries. Shivers played one season at offensive tackle for the Falcons and Schaub, a fullback, never made it past the Bills practice squad. In other words, they’re not exactly Pro Bowlers.
Jones, 36, a former first-round draft pick, is the most high profile of the four. In 2000, he had 13 sacks as a defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he left the N.F.L. in 2003 because of injuries. He had planned to take two years off to heal and then return. But one night, roughly two years ago, while hanging out with friends from college and talking about the U.F.C., Jones and his friends cleared out the living room furniture and began to spar.
“I was a big guy who had never thrown a punch,” he said.
After five minutes, Jones was exhausted. A smaller friend of his put him in a choke hold and Jones tapped out. From then on, he began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“Now I feel great,” Jones said. “My first four or five months, I lost 70 pounds.”
DESCRIPTION(Credit: Kevin Lynch/Spike TV) Jones, who once weighed as much as 325 pounds, has slimmed down to roughly 250 pounds since he began training in jiu-jitsu
His cardio, he said, has never been better.
“In M.M.A. man, there is no way out. It’s like playing two-minute football for five minutes.”
Mitrione, 31, said that intensity is part of what attracted him to the sport. A former Shotokan karate practitioner, he stopped training in martial arts in high school after he found success in football.
“Fighting is socially acceptable now,” he said. “Five years ago it wasn’t.”
After injuries forced him to leave football in 2005, he started a supplement company. But he never lost the desire to compete.
“In the N.F.L., there are no other amateur leagues,” he said. “If you get cut, you can’t chase it down for five or six years.”
Mitrione and his former N.F.L cohorts aren’t the first former pro football players to enter the cage. Alonzo Spellman, a former defensive end who struggled with a bipolar disorder, won his first and only M.M.A. fight in 2006. And Bobby Jones (offensive line) and Michael Westbrook (wide receiver) have also earned mixed martial arts victories.
But success in football doesn’t always translate into success in M.M.A. Just ask Johnnie Morton, perhaps the best football player to dabble in fighting. In 2007, the former wide receiver was knocked out in just 38 seconds by Bernard Ackah, a comedian from the Ivory Coast. After the fight, Morton was suspended for refusing to take a drug test.
While the former N.F.L. players may not have made it in football, they are all explosive athletes, according to Rashad Evans, one of the coaches on the show, especially compared with the average heavyweight in mixed martial arts. And Lesnar’s success, Evans said, has proved that power and athleticism can go a long way.
Yet technique is still vital in mixed martial arts, and unlike Lesnar, who was an N.C.A.A. wrestling champion, the former N.F.L. players are largely green. They may initially struggle because of their raw and and rudimentary skills.
Nonetheless, as with Lesnar before them, their presence within the sport’s ranks perhaps says something about where mixed martial arts is going in the future and the caliber of athletes it may be able to attract.
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