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Matt Mitrione rose quickly through the UFC after stint on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’

Cheick Kongo is the most experienced and accomplished fighter Mitrione has faced

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Sam Morris

Cheick Kongo and Matt Mitrione laugh while facing off during a news conference in advance of UFC 137 Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011.

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Matt Mitrione walked into the “The Ultimate Fighter” training center, the site of Wednesday’s UFC 137 open workouts, in slow motion.

Mitrione’s steps were plodding and his head swiveled from side to side to take in views of the gym. Mitrione found it natural to reflect when placed in a venue he spent so much time in two years ago while competing on the 10th season of the UFC’s biannual reality show.

“Walking in here, it’s all changed up quite a bit,” Mitrione said. “I was talking to (my coaches) and telling them about how I was so different and this and that. It’s a trip. It was a highly stressful time to be wrapped up in something like that.”

Mitrione developed a role as the token antagonist on his season of the show. The former NFL football player acted with an arrogance that frustrated several of the other competitors. He got into a few notable feuds with cast mates before he exited the competition with a loss in the quarterfinal round.

No one expected much from Mitrione after his ouster. But he’s surprisingly found as much success as any of the other ‘TUF’ heavyweight alumni. While champion Roy Nelson and runner-up Brendan Schaub have experienced ups and downs since the show, Mitrione has gone undefeated and worked his way into the biggest test of his career.

That comes Saturday in the UFC 137 co-main event when Mitrione (5-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) meets veteran Cheick Kongo (16-6-2 MMA, 9-4-1 UFC).

“I believed in myself,” Mitrione said. “When it comes to something athletic, I can hold my own. I always thought I could get here, but I haven’t done anything yet. I’m the co-main because GSP got hurt. I really wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Mitrione rededicated himself to training as soon as he got off of “TUF” in 2009. He knew he would surprise most people, and sure enough, knocked out Marcus Jones in 10 seconds to kick off his UFC career.

As far as what went wrong on the show, Mitrione said he lost his “wide-angle focus” and didn’t know how to handle the situation.

“Being in that environment and having unfavorable editing with my antics on top of that, I hated me too on that show,” Mitrione said. “I didn’t want to watch that season. I stopped watching that season. It was a gift and a curse at the same time. It gave me a ton of notoriety. Everybody hated me and also wanted me to lose, so they paid attention to my fights.”

The hate has turned to love, as Mitrione is now one of the more popular heavyweights in the organization. His widespread travels to train have helped improve his public perception.

For his last two fights, Mitrione has traveled all over the country to learn from some of the sport’s most respected tacticians. It’s included long stints locally at Xtreme Couture, where he’s worked with the likes of noted grappling coach Neal Melanson and gym owner Randy Couture.

“It would give anyone confidence,” Mitrione said. “If I can stand around on the fence with Randy, then I feel I can hold on my own against anybody.”

Mitrione had another ‘TUF’ reunion leading up to the Kongo bout. He went down to South Florida for a while to train alongside former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, who was Mitrione’s coach on the show.

“Coach ‘Shad and I had our issues, but we get along really well,” Mitrione said. “We’re both fiery and we’re going to get the best out of each other.”

Mitrione’s work has led many to believe that it’s only a matter of time before he reaches the top of the division. He’s a slight betting favorite over Kongo.

Mitrione’s athletic background — his five-year NFL career included time with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings after graduating from Purdue — gives him quickness and strength that few fighters can match. Even Kongo, who is coming off of a memorable comeback win, is impressed with what Mitrione has done so far in his career.

“He’s a good striker,” Kongo said. “He’s very fast, but he’s not the fastest. I can’t say being bigger than me is an advantage because everyone can find a way to win.”

Mitrione was thrilled when UFC matchmaker Joe Silva offered him a bout with Kongo, but asked for extra time to prepare. He’s progressed from the character on “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Mitrione said it was hard to tell how far he has actually come, but it’s time to find out.

“It will be a good time for me to see where I’m at,” Mitrione said. “If I get my (expletive) kicked, I know I wasn’t worth anything. If I do well against him, then I know where I stand.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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