When Johnny Munoz talks about his early days in the world of martial arts, and we do mean early, training was something that was “non-negotiable” with the five-year-old’s father, John Sr.
“I actually started judo a little bit in the beginning, and then he started doing jiu-jitsu and I hated doing it,” Munoz laughs. “I would always cry and stuff – ‘I don't want to do this.’ But my dad was like, ‘No, you're doing this.’ And it wasn't because he was pushing me, that he wanted me to fight or be this competitor, this athlete. It was none of that. He didn't care about that. He said you're doing this to learn self-defense, be confident.”
It was tough love that didn’t make sense to Munoz at the time, but it does today for the 28-year-old bantamweight, who makes his second walk to the Octagon this Saturday against Jamey Simmons. It was a walk he expected to make in April, but his return got pushed to this weekend, and the perk of that is that he gets to do it in front of a packed house at Toyota Center in Houston after debuting last August at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
“The only weird part was when I was walking out the last time, you don't hear people screaming,” Munoz said. “That's what was weird. You didn't know where you were going. Then you walk out, you get in the cage, and it slips your mind. You're in there to fight now, so all that little stuff goes away. Plus, the benefit is that you can hear your coaches, so that's pretty cool. I feel like I can fight no crowd or with a crowd, but obviously with the crowd, I think I feed off that, so I'm excited to hear that crowd and that's how I visualized my UFC debut - walking out, full arena, big crowd. Obviously, nobody expected the pandemic and all these lockdowns, so I never visualized that, so this is gonna be real cool.”
Munoz certainly didn’t visualize his UFC debut happening the way it did last summer, when he got a short-notice call – real short-notice – to replace Ray Borg and put his unbeaten record on the line against Nate Maness. Now some may think signing with the UFC means getting to the venue, weighing in and fighting. It doesn’t work like that. There are medicals, photo shoots, interviews, paperwork, lots of paperwork, to get through before weigh-in day. It’s a whirlwind in the best of circumstances. In a couple days, it can get overwhelming.
“I got to Vegas Thursday before midnight and it wasn't even guaranteed that I was gonna fight,” said the Corona, California native. “I had to do the COVID test, and all this crazy stuff that these guys do in a week, I had to do it in a day, and on top of that make weight. It was a lot. This one, I get to have that whole week to do that stuff, prepare, and get my mind right for this guy I'm fighting. I feel like this is almost like a debut, even though it's not, just because I get to live the whole experience now and actually have a fight week. That one, I was rushed in there.”
When Munoz-Maness was done, Munoz lost his perfect record via unanimous decision, but it was a competitive fight and made fans eager to see what “Kid Kvenbo” would do with a full training camp under his belt. He gets that opportunity this weekend.
“This is my time to showcase why I belong in the UFC, who I am and why I'm dangerous in this division,” he said. “The last fight was super close. A lot of people on social media felt I took that, but that's not gonna change anything, so that's why this next fight I gotta go in there and make a statement and just keep climbing the rankings.”
It’s a long way from those days training a couple times a week while his buddies played outside, but Munoz Sr. was taken in, like so many, by watching the Gracie family, and once he got hooked on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he had to have his son practice the gentle art as well.
“My dad was always into fighting,” said Munoz. “He's been boxing since he was 12-13, then he got into jiu-jitsu. He was watching all the ‘Gracie in Action’ tapes, and he couldn't believe what he saw. Then he joined a jiu-jitsu gym, thinking he was gonna beat all these guys up. (Laughs) He had that boxer mentality, and he got f**ked up and then he was like, 'Man, I need to learn this. How are these guys doing this to me?' So he learned all that and got his black belt.”
Junior tagged along to the gym and soon had his own gi on. It was a life-changing experience for the future fighter.
“What I think a lot of parents forget is that kids go to school and kids are mean, especially nowadays,” Munoz said. “With technology and social media and all this stuff, it's very easy to fall victim to bullying. Even back then, when I was a kid, I grew up in the 90s, and it was bad, but kids were outside more. So I had to learn jiu-jitsu to defend myself. I would always cry but my mom was on the same page too.”
His parents told him that once he was 18, he was an adult and could make his own decisions about whether to continue training, but by then, Munoz was all-in and chasing another dream.
“I started getting pretty good at it and I was always with my dad watching UFC fights, PRIDE fighting and I thought it looked cool,” he said. “I said, ‘I want to do that one day.’ I was eight, nine years old.”
The die was cast. And he’s grateful for the lessons learned, not just on the mats, but in his home.
“I gotta thank my parents, because no matter what I do, I learned there's no quit in me,” Munoz said. “I think that was instilled in me at a young age. I knew I couldn't quit jiu-jitsu, so everything I've done in life, I was never a quitter. I never gave up in school, I always tried to do the best I can, so I feel like in my fights, you're not gonna see quit in me.”
That applies across the board for Munoz, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Public Health from Cal State San Bernardino, even though he had his moments thinking he was going to walk away.
“I wanted to quit a couple times in college when I started out, but it went back to me saying, you know what, I can't quit, I can't let my parents down. And it wasn't like I was doing it for my parents, but I knew if I quit, I'm gonna let them down but I'm also gonna let myself down, and that's not what I'm about.”
Straight As in grad school followed, and he raced out to a 10-0 pro MMA record with eight finishes before losing to Maness. On Saturday, he gets a second chance to get it right, and with an old soul and a new breed approach to the fight game, that’s a dangerous combination for anyone to have to deal with.
“I was raised in the last generation before all the new technology came out and I knew what it was like to play outside,” Munoz said. “I always rode my bike, I was always outside, just doing kid stuff, and I think that's what makes somebody, too, because you're out there thinking for yourself. Nowadays, you got these kids with their technology and that device is thinking for them. And I think it's making them soft. Now I think everybody has a breaking point. We're all human. Everybody has a point where they're just done, it's over, you just accepted defeat by another human being. When you're in that cage and just getting beat up, you're giving it all you can, but there comes a point where you accept the fact that you know what, I can't beat this guy. For me, I feel like mine is pretty far off compared to most people. You really gotta take me there because I don't know what that word quit is. That's how you get a strong mental game, by not quitting on yourself, and people don't realize that. And once I set my mind on something, I have to be the best at it. I'm very competitive and I have to give it my best.”