"I feel like I've arrived in the middleweight division and I feel like it's my time to go for the world title." - Mark Munoz
From its inception to its darkest of days clear through to the current near mainstream acceptance of the UFC, mixed martial arts has never been judged on who has the scariest look, the most fiendish tattoos, the greatest trash talk or, overall, the meanest disposition. The Octagon is in existence to determine who the elite athletes of this exciting hybrid combat sport are. In conclusion, the terrifyingly tough UFC roster is filled with genuinely good guys when they’re not busy cagefighting.
With that said, Mark Munoz is arguably the nicest person ever.
“The Filipino Wrecking Machine” is the proud owner of a heartwarming smile coupled with an infectious positive “can-do” attitude as well as a pair of heavy hands that have knockout potential written all over them. One would seriously have to dredge the deepest ocean or travel to a distant planet to find some life form who has anything bad to say about this 11-2 middleweight and they would still be wrong. Munoz is a wildly accomplished amateur wrestler with a humble confidence, an unabated drive to be at the top of his division, and who is quick to recognize the unquestionable importance of those who have helped him along his way.
“When I first got into the fight game I was 29,” says Munoz. “I've been competing all my life. I really had to learn quick in high school and through college. If I didn't learn quick then I would have fallen behind and not accomplished what I accomplished in high school and college. I feel like it was the same in the UFC. I lost my first fight. I got knocked out from not seeing that head kick coming from Matt Hamill. I really had to learn quick from there. What did I do wrong? What do I need to work on? What do I need to do to change my camp? I did the things necessary for me to be successful. I've taken my lumps. I've fallen backwards a little bit and then I've gained more momentum going forward. It's been kind of two steps forward, one step back, but I am always going forward. Now, I've learned extremely quick, but my success is a testament to my training partners and my trainers. I have confidence that I have the best training and the best training camp in the world right now. I owe it all to the guys who train beside me. For me, to be able to be at this point in my career - it is because of them.”
The 33-year old is certainly at an interesting point in his career. Munoz is coming off a UFC 131 unanimous decision win over the highly regarded Demian Maia, and he is about to headline an event for the first time at UFC 138 against the devastating power of “The Crippler,” Chris Leben. Munoz is comfortably awaiting this career defining opportunity being the featured bout in Birmingham, England because of what he gained in his hard fought victory with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Maia.
“I came away with a lot of confidence,” states Munoz. “I feel like I've arrived in the middleweight division and I feel like it's my time to go for the world title. I felt that in that fight. Demian Maia fought for the world title and was ranked in the top five in the world. Having won that fight and beating him in all aspects of the fight, I felt like I really have arrived in the weight class. With that win it catapulted my confidence and catapulted my stance in the division.”
The 2001 NCAA Division I national wrestling champion from Oklahoma State University was nearly in this same situation last year. After making the switch to 185, Munoz rattled off three wins in a row over Nick Catone, Ryan Jensen and in a “Fight of the Night” against Kendall Grove. This set-up Munoz’s clash with Yushin Okami on August 1st, 2010, which ended in a razor thin split decision that propelled Okami to a title eliminator later in the year. Munoz has rebounded with three more wins: a decision over Aaron Simpson, a knockout of CB Dollaway, and the decision win against Maia. As he is again looking to solidify his position among the weight class’ top tier, Munoz is sticking with the same austere training attitude that got him to the dance.
“I do work extremely hard,” admits Munoz. “When I have something in my sights I basically put blinders on like race horses. I don't let anything hold me back. A lot of my training partners say, 'You over train, Munoz.' But I feel like if you're not over training then you're not training (laughs). At the same time, my training partners say ‘take a day off’ or ‘you shouldn't spar for 10 rounds’ or ‘take it easy on conditioning, your body's not responding right.’ But I do train extremely hard and that's what I know and that's what I do. I wouldn't have the success that I have if I didn't have the work ethic I have.”
Two of Munoz’s successes outside of the cage are what best propel him into each of his fights, including the main event against the 22-7 Leben. The first was Munoz’s ability to adapt his amateur wrestling skills to fit his overall MMA approach. It was a transformation that did not come easy as he explains, but it came through the typical hard work and self-analysis for which Munoz is known.
“MMA wrestling is totally different than pure wrestling, amateur wrestling,” affirms Munoz. “I did have to change my wrestling style. If you watched my amateur wrestling days, I was the type of guy who was very technical with hand fighting and positioning and I had to touch you to sprawl on you. In MMA it's different. Your setups come from your punches and you're on the outside and you penetrate with an explosive shot into your opponent from the outside. I wasn't that wrestler. I was always that wrestler that had to grab a hold of your arm, snapping your head, pushing you and pulling you - I was that kind of wrestler. I had to change my style a bit. But when it hit the ground I was always scrambling. Scrambling has always been my 'bread and butter' or actually I'm Asian, so it's my 'rice and soy sauce'. That's what I did in college - I scrambled a lot. That actually transitioned really well into MMA and I took the aspects of scrambling into my style of MMA and it’s done really well for me.”
The second success has four walls, a roof and resides in Lake Forest, California: Reign Training Center. In December of 2009, Munoz opened up his own facility with the goal of being the best gym Orange County has to offer. Less than two years later, Reign has quickly risen as one of the go to destinations to train for pro MMA fighters. In many ways, Reign with Munoz as its face can be seen as an extension to what longtime friend Urijah Faber has done in Sacramento with his gym and Team Alpha Male. It’s about team spirit, community and pushing each other to the ultimate goal: a world title.
“Nowadays, people are thinking about coming down to Reign Training Center,” boasts Munoz. “Now that we have a great team, people are thinking about moving out to be with us. Brendan Schaub is thinking about coming down. Jake Ellenberger has already moved out. Krzysztof Soszynski is there. Jason "Mayhem" Miller is there. We’ve got other good fighters like Brett Cooper, Emanuel Newton, Satoshi Ishii, Raphael Davis. There are guys in there that are monsters. It's great. We have great team chemistry. We are taking aspects of wrestling and taking other people's abilities and combining them to our own. Ishii was an Olympic champion in Judo and he's teaching everyone Judo throws. ‘Mayhem’ is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and he's teaching us about MMA jiu-jitsu. Krzysztof is teaching us his knowledge of strength and conditioning and helping us out with functional strength for MMA. We have great trainers for striking and jiu-jitsu - it's just great. Now, Reign is a juggernaut. All of us are moving forward as a unit. All of us who are getting into the upper echelon of our divisions is because of our team and I give them all the credit.”
The next step for Munoz is to travel halfway across the world and tangle with Leben at UFC 138. A perennial fan favorite, Leben was riding a highly successful three fight win streak - Jay Silva, Aaron Simpson, and Yoshihiro Akiyama - before experiencing a TKO loss hiccup against Brian Stann at UFC 125 in January. The Oregon native recovered with a highlight reel knockout over his idol Wanderlei Silva in July. And besides Leben being a tough test for Munoz, this bout will mark the first five round non-title main event in UFC history. Although unlikely, Munoz couldn’t be any more excited at the proposition of battling Leben for a full 25 minutes.
“I'm a fan of Chris Leben,” exclaims Munoz. “I like how that dude fights. He is so exciting and our fight is going to be doubly exciting. I throw bombs and he throws bombs. I think that's why we are the main event (laughs). For me to be able to fight Chris Leben is a huge honor because he is definitely a guy that if I get past him then I definitely have stamped my position in the middleweight division. It's also a great honor to be a main event, to headline a card. I think it shows the UFC has confidence in our fighting ability that it can support a whole card. I am honored and humbled by the opportunity. And I love the fact that it's going to be five rounds. I have confidence in my shape. Guys at the gym have confidence in my shape too with what we've put in and how hard we have worked to last 10 rounds. I like being in the first five round non-title fight, I love it. But a fight's a fight. I don't think this is going to go five rounds, but I definitely will be prepared if it goes for five rounds.”
On November 5th at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England, Munoz meets Leben in the Octagon for a scheduled five rounds of cagefighting fun. “With a win over Chris Leben, I stamp myself in the division and let everyone be put on notice that Mark Munoz has arrived and he'll be a force in the middleweight division,” asserts Munoz, who will be prepped for a war with his explosive takedowns and his destructive punching power. “That's what I train for. I train to be the best and I'm not going to let anyone stop me. I want it bad and I train accordingly.”
Before and after the fight, Munoz will continue to be a nice guy, but for those minutes in the cage “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” will be plenty mean to “The Crippler” – and that’s when it counts.