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NFL players turned MMA fighters tell of pioneering a new career path

MMA's doors are open for former football players when their NFL careers are over.

Sixty-seven seconds into the first round, Matt Mitrione and Fedor Emelianenko collided with simultaneous right hands that knocked both fighters to the canvas. Mitrione scrambled to his feet first and seven seconds later landed another right hand that knocked the 40-year-old Russian unconscious, securing Mitrione the biggest victory of his career.

“He’s easily the best person I’ve ever fought,” Mitrione said of Emelianenko after the fight. “He’s not arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time; he is the greatest heavyweight of all time. He’s arguably the greatest fighter of all time.”

The pinnacle of Mitrione’s athletic career was supposed to be on the gridiron — maybe a game-winning sack in the Super Bowl. Instead, it came in front of more than 12,000 fans in Madison Square Garden in June.

Seconds after his knockout victory at Bellator 180, Mitrione put on the jersey he donned during his time with the New York Giants — appealing to the hometown fans he once played in front of at Giants Stadium.

It wasn’t an unexpected result: Mitrione entered the night as the slight betting favorite. But it would have been unfathomable just eight or so years ago, before Mitrione and others blazed a trail for former football players to try their hand at mixed martial arts.

A journey from the football field to the cage

“Who wants to get punched in the face willingly? That’s crazy.” — Matt Mitrione, MMA heavyweight

Mitrione started 35 consecutive games from 1998 to 2000 at defensive tackle for Purdue — a team that had Drew Brees at the time and made the Rose Bowl in 2000. But even with a collegiate career that included 36 tackles for loss, Mitrione wasn’t selected in the NFL draft.

He battled his way on to the Giants’ roster as an undrafted free agent, appearing in nine games with the team in 2002.

But his time with the team was doomed by a foot injury that kept him out for the entire 2003 season. The Giants released Mitrione in 2004 and attempts to keep his NFL career alive with the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings fizzled.

By the end of 2005, Mitrione was out of the NFL for good.

Mitrione’s post-football career began when he started a sports nutrition company that sold supplements. One of his buyers was childhood friend and then-Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, who first offered the former NFL defensive lineman a chance to fight.

“Werth became an amateur MMA promoter and asked me to come on one of his shows and help sell some tickets, so I said OK,” Mitrione said. “I just wanted to use the opportunity to make sure that Werth was happy — he wasn’t charging any money to take our product to the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies. So I was like ‘Well, this is something that will appease him and will be good for the company as well. It’ll be fun for me to do it.’”

A career in the sport wasn’t close to a reality in his mind, though.

“Who wants to get punched in the face willingly? That’s crazy,” Mitrione said. “I was training for about six months — I got injured — I ended up not fighting on [Werth’s] show. I became friends with a guy he was training with and six months later, I was on The Ultimate Fighter and that was the beginning of my career. I only went on The Ultimate Fighter to promote my company.”

After a win in the first round of The Ultimate Fighter — the UFC’s reality show — Mitrione lost in the quarterfinals. But he did enough to impress the promotion and earn a spot on the UFC’s roster. In December 2009 he made his professional MMA debut with the UFC.

Nearly eight years later, Mitrione’s 17th professional fight was against Emelianenko, a legend in the sport who decimated all challengers for the first decade of his career. Several years removed from his prime, Emelianenko aimed to recapture some of his former glory in New York City.

Mitrione shut the lights out on that dream with a thunderous punch.

Never has he fought on a bigger stage and never has he stood across from a more well-known fighter. It may even be the most significant victory ever for the brief list of former NFL players who have made the transition to MMA.

MMA is a tough road to financial success

“If you’re planning to be a pro MMA fighter, you’re not going to do it to make a big paycheck right away ... you’re doing it for the love of it.” Austen Lane, MMA heavyweight

Conor McGregor is on track to receive upwards of $100 million when he fights Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match on Aug. 26. It will be easily the largest payday of the brash Irishman’s career in combat sports, but he’s also made a more than comfortable living in his four years in the UFC.

McGregor’s monumental rise to become the biggest star in the sport has meant multimillion-dollar checks for his most recent MMA fights. In June, he cracked the top 25 of Forbes’ list of the highest-paid athletes.

But his pay is far from the norm. His rough climb to the top, however, is a story many fighters can relate to.

A week before McGregor’s first fight in the UFC in April 2013, he collected a welfare check of €180 (roughly $204). This, despite the fact that he accumulated a 12-2 record as a professional fighter in Europe.

“It takes a lot of time, obviously a lot of effort, and a lot of fights just to get in the position to where you’re making a lot of money,” Ariel Helwani of said. “People think that just because you make it to the UFC that you’ve made it — and it can take you 10 years to get to the UFC — but typically unless you’re some kind of big free agent signing that they’ve signed, you’re going to come in making $10,000 to show and $10,000 if you win. You might get a bonus here and there, but you’re not making big money at all.”

That’s a stark contrast when compared to NFL players who have a minimum salary set at $465,000 for the 2017 season.

Austen Lane, 29, spent three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars before bouncing between the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears in 2013 and 2014. After five years in the NFL, the 6’6 defensive end retired with 17 career starts and three sacks under his belt, collecting about $2.37 million in earnings along the way.

Now, Lane is an MMA fighter who made his professional debut in April and defeated his first opponent by technical knockout in 14 seconds.

His second fight was just as quick, with Lane knocking out another opponent in a matter of seconds. But a 2-0 record means he still has a long way to go before he gets any kind of significant pay for fighting.

“If you’re planning to be a pro MMA fighter, you’re not going to do it to make a big paycheck right away,” Lane said. “I think that might turn some guys off. If you’re trying to be a pro MMA fighter, you’re doing it for the love of it.

“You go from [an NFL salary] to fighting on your first pro MMA card and making about $600 a fight. Obviously there’s a definite pay discrepancy, and that’s even in the UFC too. You look at UFC fighters, they’re not making millions of dollars.”

For Lane, the love of the sport is there. He was just 6 years old when the UFC’s inaugural event was held in November 1993, but Lane remembers getting a VHS of UFC 1 and watching it with his stepdad as an elementary school student.

Even during his NFL career, Lane was already looking forward to a career in fighting.

“When I was with my last team, the Bears, I was doing jiu-jitsu tournaments during the offseason, which is probably frowned upon because of risk of injury,” Lane said. “When I won them I couldn’t accept the cash prizes. I’d just sneak out the back door and say ‘Hey, sorry I can’t accept anything like that.’ So when I was with my last team in Chicago, I kind of knew what I was going to do next and that was MMA for sure.”

For Eryk Anders, a love of MMA came much later.

Seven years ago, he became a hero in a single play at Alabama — drilling Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the back in the final three minutes of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. The sack forced a fumble that gave the ball back to the Crimson Tide and essentially put the game on ice.

Anders’ venture into the NFL was much less fruitful. He signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent, but didn’t stick with the team through training camp. He then had brief stints in the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League.

Still in the middle of his athletic prime, Anders had to face the reality that his football career had run off the rails before it ever left the station.

“I was working the 9-to-5, just doing the desk-job thing, which did not satisfy me at all,” Anders said. “I had the urge to compete in something and there’s just not a whole lot of things for adults to compete in.”

That competitive drive led him to an MMA gym in Alabama. Two months later, he was lined up across from another fighter.

“It wasn’t sanctioned, it was in a boxing ring in a bar in Huntsville, Alabama,” Anders said. “That was my first fight and I don’t recommend anybody doing that because I didn’t know anything. Luckily I came out on the good end of it — I knocked the guy out in 53 seconds and I’ve been at it ever since.

“I thought it would be fun and that happened about five years ago. Now I do this full time. I coach jiu jitsu, boxing, I train people, and I train myself.”

Anders, 30, currently has an 9-0 record as a professional fighter. He earned a first championship belt in June with a unanimous decision victory that made him Legacy Fighting Alliance’s middleweight title holder. Four weeks later, he made his UFC debut against Rafael Natal, a tough veteran with 16 previous UFC fights on his resume.

The big stage didn’t intimidate Anders, though. It took him less than three minutes to knock Natal out and formally announce himself as one of the most promising up-and-coming contenders in the UFC’s middleweight division.

But for both Lane and Anders, the prospect of making money anywhere near the equivalent of McGregor, or even a player on an NFL practice squad, is far on the horizon. Couple that with the danger of stepping into a cage across from another man aiming to injure and MMA is a road that still doesn’t draw many former football players.

The threat of injury may deter more former NFL players

“People are punching you in the face. No matter how tough somebody is, when they have pads on them, the game changes a whole lot.” — Eryk Anders, MMA middleweight

Johnnie Morton racked up 8,719 receiving yards over 12 seasons in the NFL. He’s behind only Calvin Johnson and Herman Moore on the Detroit Lions’ all-time franchise list in the category.

But at age 35, he decided to give MMA a try. After training for only two months, he got in the ring in June 2007 to disastrous results.

Just 38 seconds into his first fight, Morton was clubbed with a right hand that left him motionless on his back. Adding insult to injury, news that the former receiver tested positive for steroids broke less than two weeks later.

Morton never fought again.

It’s the most obvious and inherent risk that comes with fighting in mixed martial arts. No matter how well someone’s physical skills translate or how well the fight pays that athlete, there’s still a realistic chance of a loss that carries devastating consequences.

“A lot of guys have egos that couldn’t handle getting beat up in front of family, friends, everyone on the block, loved ones, grandma, grandpa,” Mitrione said. “I have a big mouth and I’m pretty obnoxious. So I fought a lot and got beat up a lot, so that concern wasn’t overwhelming for me. Getting my ass kicked in front of five million people wasn’t that much of a concern for me.”

But Mitrione played sparingly in just nine NFL games. Those with more longevity with the sport bring with them much more bumps, bruises and the possibility of a history of concussions.

“When I tell people I used to play in the NFL and now I do MMA, the biggest thing they say is ‘Aren’t you worried about CTE and head injuries?’” Lane said. “[In football], we’re banging heads in practice at least 40 or 50 times a day and this just goes on and on and on. In MMA, I only spar really hard like two or three times a week, and that’s with headgear and 14-ounce gloves. I definitely think concussions are a problem more in the NFL by far than training in MMA.”

Still, both sports bring the risk of head injuries in a way that other sports don’t. That alone can be enough to dissuade other former football players from fighting professionally.

Do similarities between football and MMA allow for easier transitions?

“They’re both leverage sports. They’re both speed sports. And they’re both power sports.” — Tareq Azim, MMA coach

Brock Lesnar is a bona fide freak of nature. He’s on the short list of athletes who have ever had an NFL contract and a professional MMA fight — a list that includes others like Herschel Walker, Bob Sapp and Brendan Schaub — but his story is much different from the rest.

A 6’3, 265-pound mountain of muscle, Lesnar was the 2000 NCAA Heavyweight Champion in wrestling during his time at the University of Minnesota. He parlayed that into a successful career in pro wrestling, becoming a WWE champion just two years later.

In 2004, Lesnar decided to put aside his wrestling career and attempt to make it in the NFL, despite not playing football since high school. He earned a contract with the Minnesota Vikings and spent the preseason with the team, but didn’t make the final roster.

He returned to wrestling, but two years later, Lesnar again announced a departure. This time, he dove into the world of MMA and in his fourth pro fight, won the UFC heavyweight championship.

The formula for success for Lesnar in all of his ventures has been simple: He’s bigger and stronger than his competition and surprisingly agile given his size.

They are the same advantages that have led to success for Mitrione, Lane, Anders, and other former NFL players who have transitioned into MMA — even if those attributes aren’t as pronounced as they are with Lesnar.

“There’s a lot of correlation [between football and MMA] because it’s extremely physical, right? It’s physical abuse,” said Tareq Azim, founder of Empower Gym. “They’re both combat sports. They’re both leverage sports. They’re both speed sports. And they’re both power sports.”

Azim was a linebacker at Fresno State, but brought with him a lifetime of training in martial arts. He says his understanding of leverage and hand techniques gave him advantages on the field.

Now he’s an MMA coach who works with championship-level fighters like Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez, as well as NFL players like Marshawn Lynch and Marcus Peters.

“They’re not coming in here fighting. They’re learning the art, they’re learning it as a craft, they’re learning it as a sport, and they’re learning how to apply it to their chosen fields,” Azim said.

Before Lane retired from the NFL to pursue a career in MMA, he found the benefits of training in both sports.

“I wanted to find a boxing gym just to keep my hands fast,” Lane said. “I really liked jiu jitsu too, because it was really good for my hips. It opened them up and made me a lot more loose and more mobile.”

Many of the same physical abilities required to be successful in football translate well to MMA.

“My whole life I’ve been training short-area quickness, speed and explosion,” Anders said. “It all translates into mixed martial arts whether you’re throwing punches on your feet, or kicks, or wrestling. At the same time I was never training kicks or punches so I had to learn how to throw punches properly, and how to kick with proper technique. Now that I’ve got those techniques down, the power and explosion come into play.”

Those skills aren’t useful solely in football and MMA, though. Professional wrestling has also provided a path for the powerful and explosive.

Pro wrestling used to be the avenue of choice for former football players

“I feel like a guy who fizzles out of the NFL or the CFL or college football would be more inclined these days to try MMA, as opposed to pro wrestling like they were 20 or 30 years ago.” — Ariel Helwani,

Near the top of the WWE’s list of current stars is Roman Reigns — a 6’3, 265-pound wrestler described in his official bio as an “agile, imposing juggernaut.”

But long before his time as a champion with the company, he was known as Leati Anoa’i — an All-ACC defensive lineman at Georgia Tech who was trying to cut his teeth in the NFL.

His 29.5 career tackles for loss in college and 12 sacks earned him chances with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, but he made neither squad and turned to the Canadian Football League. After a handful of games with the Edmonton Eskimos, Anoa’i turned to pro wrestling.

Unlike MMA, wrestling does not feature legitimate matches. Instead, the scripted and choreographed contests are driven by storylines with characters who rise through the ranks if they can capture the attention of the WWE and fans — whether that’s cheers or boos.

The high-flying acrobatics and physicality of the WWE require wrestlers to bring a blend of size, athleticism and charisma. Roman Reigns has unequivocally captured that.

But that mix of skills and personality isn’t easy to find. For decades, parsing through football players with careers that ended prematurely has been a good place to start the search.

WWE stars like Goldberg, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Mojo Rawley all had brief stints in the NFL before finding success in pro wrestling. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played defensive tackle for the Miami Hurricanes and spent time with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders before beginning his wrestling career.

Johnson, 45, made his way into the world of wrestling in 1996 — three years after the UFC’s first event. Fourteen years later, he said he would have begun a career in mixed martial arts instead of wrestling had the sport been further along.

“There’s no question about it,” Johnson told Helwani at UFC 119. “I love this sport and I’ve thought about competing in the octagon. It’s something I would’ve loved to have done, but I went another route.”

Even as late as 2007, long after Johnson became a mainstream star in professional wrestling, he says he was still considering MMA.

Has MMA now reached a point where the next Dwayne Johnson would aspire to be a UFC champion instead of a WWE champion?

“I do feel like a guy who fizzles out of the NFL or the CFL or college football would be more inclined these days to try MMA as opposed to pro wrestling like they were 20 or 30 years ago,” Helwani said. “The sport is more popular ... it’s a little more mainstream. I get the sense more athletes are watching it — when there’s a big fight you’ll see a lot of football players tweet about it or basketball players. It’s definitely on their radar more than 10 years ago.”

Still, there are plenty of reasons why the transition from football to MMA isn’t more common. The most significant is money, and that likely won’t change soon.

Unionization efforts could open more doors for elite athletes

“There’s no union, there’s nobody to stand up to them and say ‘Hey look, stop being selfish pricks.’” — Matt Mitrione, MMA heavyweight

There’s a labor fight on the way between the NFL and NFL Players Association. In 2011, the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement caused a 132-day lockout, but was resolved in time to avoid the cancellation of any regular season games.

Finding a resolution in 2021 may be even more difficult.

But even the idea of a union fighting for athletes is still a foreign concept in MMA, where fighters receive a disproportionately small percentage of the pie.

“There’s no union, there’s nobody to stand up to them and say ‘Hey look, stop being selfish pricks. Break off this money,’” Mitrione said. “You can’t give us 15 percent of the total revenue and think that’s enough money. Can’t do it. Break off 45 to 55 percent, you guys keep your 45 to 55 percent, and let’s have a real job here.

“There’s so much money that was made in the UFC and that money wasn’t divvied up properly. If it was, all the NFL washouts who are MMA hopefuls would have a viable career in something other than football. Where they could make legitimate money, comparable money, or even more and go forward from there.”

According to documents obtained by Bleacher Report, UFC fighters receive about 15.6 percent of the company’s revenue. Recent efforts to unionize have made very little headway.

“I certainly believe that the fighters need some kind of collective bargaining deal,” Helwani said. “The UFC’s TV deal is up in a year and a half, and there’s been talks of them looking for anywhere from $400 million to what they’re making now, which is a little over $100 million per year — and that’s just from Fox Sports alone. The fighters make zero percent of that.

“If they had more of a unified front they could fight for things like a base pay and revenue sharing. Those would certainly be things that would be on the table and are things that could definitely get done if they were to get together.”

But some major challenges stand in the way of an MMA union.

For one, fighters are reliant on just a few paydays per year and are hesitant to jump into a labor dispute that could keep them out of fights. Also, there are several different MMA organizations and a blanket association to represent all fighters may be unrealistic.

Among the differences between organizations is the ability to sell sponsorships. In 2015, the UFC sold uniform rights to Reebok, disallowing all other sponsors from advertising with the fighters during bouts — a policy no other promotion has.

“That was a hell of a kick in the nuts to lose all that money,” Mitrione said. “There was nothing you could do about it. You find yourself being their bitch and you’re calling them up being like ‘Hey man, I just had a fight and I haven’t had a check in the mail. Am I gonna get one?’ Then you’re begging your boss for money? Like ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ like you’re Oliver Twist asking for a second helping.”

How far is MMA from a real unionizing effort? And how far is the sport from being a more viable career path for top athletes?

“Twenty or 30 years from now, we’re going to look back on this era and just kind of the deals that fighters were involved in and what they were and weren’t getting, and look and say ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s the way things were,’” Helwani said. “We’re in like 1920s football. We’re playing with leather helmets right now when you think of how much has changed. The sport is still in its infancy and a lot will change over the next few decades.”

As that change occurs, perhaps MMA will one day draw more athletes away from the NFL. For now, it occasionally gets some of the scraps.

The NFL chews up and spits out athletes in droves. The average length of a career in the league is about three years, leaving many of the nation’s best athletes with no choice but to look for a new career path in their mid-20s.

For a few, MMA has provided that option.

For Mitrione, it offered a road that most recently stopped off at Madison Square Garden — the most famous venue in the history of combat sports, which hosted eight Muhammad Ali fights — and a win over the best heavyweight in MMA history.

It will be a long climb for Lane or Anders or any other former football player to match or surpass Mitrione’s accomplishment. And it may be an even taller task to reach a point where their pay is on par with their NFL counterparts.

But the competitive fire that fuels many on their way to the NFL has fueled the few who have attempted the transition to MMA. And as the still-young sport continues to grow, it stands to pull more former football players in the future.