UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione can hurt people with his fists and slams. That's part of his sport. He also knows he can hurt with his words. For that, he is sorry and says he has learned a lesson.
Mitrione, 35, is fighting Saturday in Toronto against Brendan Schaub, his first fight since a win in April. While the April bout did not get much attention outside the UFC, his post-fight rant against transgender mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox got Mitrione fined, suspended and condemned.
After Fox came out publicly as transgender, Mitrione went on a tirade, saying of Fox: "That is a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak. And I mean that. Because you lied on your license to beat up women." He also repeatedly referred to Fox as "he" throughout the video interview where he rooted for Fox's opponent to "beat his ass."
Reaction was swift. He was suspended by the UFC and fined an undisclosed – but what was called a "substantial" – amount, and ordered into sensitivity training. The UFC released a statement saying it was "appalled by the transphobic comments," calling what the fighter said "offensive and hurtful" and adding that they "represented a significant breach of the UFC’s code of conduct." In the same statement, Mitrione also apologized and called his words "ugly, rude and inappropriate.," and said
In a wide-ranging interview with Outsports, Mitrione reiterated his remorse over what he said about Fox.
"I'm sorry for using the words when I spoke off the cuff. … I spoke freely and I made a mess," Mitrione said. "I made a fool of myself. I spoke really poorly and I had to answer for that."
Mitrione said that he felt strongly at the time that Fox should have disclosed to her opponents that she had been born a man, but that his choice of words had been "demeaning" and "brutal." "Everyone has a right to an opinion, but the way you state it and the place you state it needs to be appropriate and that's where I stepped over the line," he said.
At the time of his April remarks, it had just been disclosed that Fox was transgender, and there was a debate in MMA circles about whether she needed to have revealed that to opponents. She responded that she was under no obligation to disclose her transgender status and noted that her Illinois drivers' license labeled her female. Fox added that she had 10 years of hormone therapy and underwent gender-reassignment surgery six years ago, negating any advantage she had from being born in a male body. She was also cleared of allegations she had lied in applying for a license to fight in Florida and allowed to compete there in May.
Months later, Mitrione explained why he felt that Fox should have disclosed her status. "This isn't a situation where I have a problem with Fallon Fox being allowed to fight. The problem I had was it was not disclosed initially and people fought Fallon, fought her, not knowing she used to be a man. That was what my issue was. To me that was a completely uneven playing field."
What he feels sorry about is the personal and derogatory words he used in describing Fox. "She's a human being," he said, adding he could see why what he said was wrong. "I have an opinion on that and I think my opinion is valid, but the way I expressed my opinion was inappropriate," he said.
I shifted gears in my interview with Mitrione and learned that he has a gay cousin in Florida he is very close with, and that he would have no problem fighting or partnering with an openly gay UFC fighter. His cousin Guy is a host at Florida gay clubs who goes by "Lady Guy." It was under the "Lady Guy" persona that I was sent his comment:
"Lady Guy and Matt Mitrione are cousins. That’s right, girl! That big UFC macho man and the lovely and delicate Lady Guy are related. Matt has never, ever said anything to Lady Guy or even in front of Lady Guy in any way homophobic, derogatory or demeaning to the GLBT community. Although Lady Guy could never condone name-calling under any circumstances, she believes that Cousin Matt made a very poor choice of words [about Fox] that does not reflect his feelings or beliefs."
Mitrione and his cousin are volunteers at the Pride Center at Equality Park in Fort Lauderdale. He has also teamed up with bisexual MMA fighter Jessica Aguilar to give lessons at the center and speak about belonging. Two years ago, Mitrione visited Toronto with other UFC fighters as part of an anti-bullying campaign.
"Whether you like boys or girls and whether you're a boy or girl, it makes no difference. Everybody has their troubles," Mitrione said. "Whether they get bullied for being a nerd or get bullied for being gay or get bullied for being a dumb jock ... everybody has things they have to overcome."
Despite playing college football at Purdue (he and then-Boilermaker teammate and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees remain close) and briefly for two NFL teams, Mitrione said he knows what it's like to be picked on as a child.
"A large portion of my bit when I speak to people is that I was bullied for being a dumb jock," he said. "I had a learning disability, didn't pick up on things quickly and I was blessed enough to be athletic and help me to get through some situations where I could have found myself in a quagmire of nothing good."
Mitrione also expressed total support for any UFC fighter who came out publicly as gay.
"I would have absolutely no problem at all if there was an openly gay fighter in the UFC," he said. "It's so sad and depressing that this is a subject of conversation. Who cares? If you like boys or girls, who cares? I'm not gonna become gay because I'm working on you or from working with you, or boxing or kicking, it makes no difference. This small-minded perception of antiquated thoughts is incredible to me.
"I would fight somebody who's gay, I would be teammates and partners, I would [work their] corner, I couldn't care less. And the fact that it still affects people blows my mind. It would be rather naive to say that homophobia is gone in a hyper-masculine environment like a UFC gym, but to be totally legit with you, I don't think most anybody would care."
He added that mixed martial arts is the "ultimate proving ground" and talent and toughness matter more than sexual orientation. "If you go home a kiss a boy and I go home and kiss a girl, we're still gonna bust our ass in training."
"I probably shouldn't say this because it could probably come across wrong, but if you're gay and we're wrestling, you're not gonna grab my balls and molest me while we're wrestling. It's not gonna happen. So the people who think that's what's going to happen have lost their minds or they don't think rationally as it is. It's silly. It's antiquated and it's out of place."
Matt Mitrione (6-2) and Brendan Schaub (9-3) fight Saturday as part of the UFC 165 card in Toronto.