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MMA-fighting father taught Browns' offensive lineman Joel Bitonio toughness

By Jason Lloyd Published: May 10, 2014

BEREA: Mike Pettine has talked about creating a tough football team since taking the Browns job. To that end, he believes they took a giant step forward with the selection of Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio.

“You’re not going to stand in front of a room and say, ‘Hey, let’s get tougher,’” Pettine said. “What you do is you get tough people in that room.”

The Browns selected Bitonio in the second round (35th overall) on Friday. Bitonio has long been described as possessing a nasty streak, a reputation he embraces proudly as inherited from his late father.

Mike Bitonio was a bare-knuckled brawler who competed in the early days of Mixed Martial Arts. His day job was laying flooring, but he moonlighted as a fighter. His 1995 fight against the bigger, stronger and more accomplished Bart Vale remains legendary among early MMA fans. Vale bloodied Bitonio on a head butt during the first minute of the match, but Bitonio hung in for another six minutes while taking a severe beating that left him a crumpled, bloody mess.

Mike Bitonio later died of a heart attack in 2010.

“He was tough as nails, man,” Joel said of his father. “He was always telling me, ‘Be mentally tough, be physically tough. No one is going to be able to outwork you.’ I think I take those traits to the football field … he was a huge inspiration in the way I play and just my attitude on the field.”

Bitonio is listed at 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds and comes with a reputation of playing incredibly hard until every whistle. He started 38 consecutive games for the Wolf Pack, primarily at tackle, and acknowledged Friday he is more comfortable there. But he is projected to move inside now in part because he is too undersized to remain at tackle.

He surrendered just two sacks and was penalized five times on 2,054 snaps, according to

“He’s a guy we think can play all five spots,” Pettine said. “We’ll get him here and see what the best spot is for him, it’s likely at guard.”

Bitonio left Nevada as an economics major with a minor in civil engineering. He earned a 3.25 grade-point average and was a two-time Academic All-Mountain West Conference selection. In a poll of pro scouts, he was selected to the NFL Draft Report’s All-American second team and All-Conference first team.

Bitonio caught scouts’ attention this season when he shut down UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who was selected ninth overall in Thursday’s first round by the Minnesota Vikings.

“We wanted to upgrade our toughness, our nastiness,” Pettine said. “That’s one of the things that jumps off the tape when he plays.”

Despite his father’s love for fighting, Bitonio never invested much time in it.

“I stick to football,” he said. “We sparred a little bit, but I loved basketball and football when I was growing up so it wasn’t really for me.”


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