Former NFLer tackling toughest hurdle yet

Heavyweights Cheick Kongo and Matt Mitrione have not stepped in the Octagon since June 26, when each won in Pittsburgh.

Mitrione waltzed through a sloppy Christian Morecraft, an unremarkable tough guy, before punching out a finish in the second round. Kongo, you remember, orchestrated (with Pat Barry) one of the most memorable half-rounds ever. Seared in the collective consciousness of MMA fans are images of Kongo, surviving on instinct as Barry assaulted him, scoring a jarring end with a flush combination.

Although the arcs of their victories that night were as different as it gets, the results nonetheless led UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to put together this fight for Saturday's pay-per-view portion of UFC 137 in Las Vegas -- one Mitrione believes will be a "test” of where he stands.

Mitrione, 33, formerly of the NFL's New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, is correct. Entering his sixth professional mixed martial arts contest since turning pro in 2009, the fast-talker is up against his most difficult opponent yet.

"I've fought middle to bottom end of the talent -- not to rip on the people I've fought -- and I've done well against them. Now it's time to fight somebody that's worth his salt," Mitrione said of Kongo. "He's proven he's worth his salt time and time again. He always comes to scrap. He's always in great shape, and he brings it."

Kongo, 36, excelled against the kind of competition Mitrione has feasted on. When asked to step up, though, he's produced mixed results. In all, the chiseled Frenchman is 9-4-1 since joining the UFC in 2006. It's impossible to say where Mitrione slots on Kongo's list of opponents, which range from Cain Velasquez to Mostapha al-Turk, until they meet this weekend.

For his part, Mitrione said he's swimming upstream in this one. When the UFC offered him the bout, he asked for the latest open date to have more time to continue honing his skills as he makes the transition from pro football player to fighter.

"I need to really play catch-up on the fly," Mitrione said. "UFC has been good with me on that."

Kongo (16-6-2 overall) understands what that's like. Five years ago he wasn't much of a wrestler, and it didn't take long before he found himself exposed against a middle-of-the-road grappler like Carmelo Marrero. In time, the strong kickboxer improved his takedown defense and actually began formulating and implementing ground-based game plans.

This kind of progression will come for Mitrione, and he acknowledges that: "I try to take it into consideration and take it all in stride that things Cheick was good at four years ago, I haven't learned yet or I'm just starting to learn.”

For now, Mitrione's athleticism has allowed for a quick development in the striking department, which through five contests has rendered four finishes. Working with the likes of Ray Sefo, Randy Couture and Neil Melanson at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and for this camp Rashad Evans and Tyrone Spong in Florida, Mitrione says he's prepared for the step up. Or at least he thinks he is.

A victory over Kongo would make three wins for Mitrione in 2011, sending a clear signal that his transition from defensive tackle to MMA fighter is further along than some might have thought.

It won’t be easy, of course. Nothing against Kongo ever is. The Frenchman has business to conduct, and Thursday he said he wishes to have his “path in the right way.” Presumably that leads to the top of the division, where perhaps now he’s equipped to compete. That also could deliver Kongo a spot on the UFC’s debut card in his home country, a scenario nearly realized because UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta is close to locking down a date and venue in France.

"If Cheick beats me, he beat the best possible product I can give him," Mitrione said. "Good for him. He was a better man that night."

Such was the case when Brendan Schaub, a similar football convert, stepped it up and went after a veteran heavyweight in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Is Mitrione ready for the next step? He’ll find out like the rest of us.