When running through the list of current and potential future contenders in the loaded bantamweight division, Pedro Munhoz’s name isn’t one that comes up quite readily, but that could change on Saturday night.
A fixture in the Top 15 for the last several years and boasting a better track record than most, the 32-year-old Brazilian squares off with former champion Cody Garbrandt in the opening bout of this weekend’s UFC 235 pay-per-view main card in a fight that has the potential to transform Munhoz from being criminally underrated to a bona fide contender.
“I always like to challenge myself and the best way to do that is to fight with the best fighters they have out there,” said Munhoz, who enters Saturday’s bout on a tidy two-fight winning streak and brandishing a 7-3 record with one no contest through his first 11 UFC starts. “Cody is the former champ and I think he’s a great fighter. We’re both finishers. We both fight going forward. We both like to throw hands.
“It’s a huge card and I’m on the main card, so I’m very excited about it. I know what I’m capable of and it’s a great fight.”
Munhoz arrived in the UFC as a well-regarded prospect, matriculating to the Octagon for a short notice pairing against Raphael Assuncao in February 2014, just a month after defending his RFA bantamweight title and registering his tenth straight win. He dropped a decision to the Top 5 fixture, but showed he was capable of hanging with the best the division had to offer and it has been nothing different ever since.
While he doesn’t carry the same level of acclaim as some of his contemporaries, Munhoz has proven himself to be an elite talent, winning six of his last eight fights and landing on the wrong side of split decision verdicts in bouts against Jimmie Rivera and John Dodson in his two unsuccessful forays into the UFC cage.
Since losing to Dodson last March, “The Young Punisher” has picked up a decision win over Brett Johns and a first-round stoppage win over Bryan Caraway, a performance that reminded everyone that Munhoz is not one to be trifled with.
“I was expecting a second-round finish or maybe a third-round finish,” he said of the fight with Caraway, “but it was first round and it was quick.”
Though it didn’t even last three minutes, the bout at the TUF: Heavy Hitters Finale showcased a great deal of what makes Munhoz a dangerous threat in the 135-pound weight division.
Right out of the gate, he touched up Caraway with a stiff jab, prompting the veteran to push forward, looking to grapple. When Munhoz shucked off Caraway’s takedown attempt, he felt the former TUF contestant’s spirit break a little and that’s when Munhoz went on the offensive.
It was a statement win that unfortunately got overshadowed in the constant crush of action that took place in the final few weeks of the year, yet it further bolstered Munhoz’s confidence and carries him into this weekend’s matchup with the former champion riding higher than he has before.
“I believe I’m in my prime,” said Munhoz, who relocated to South Florida to train at American Top Team two years ago after splitting time between Kings MMA and Blackhouse in Los Angeles. “I have been training here at American Top Team for two years straight and been able to train with a lot of fighters from all over the world, with a lot of good coaches.
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“A lot of people know that I come from a jiu-jitsu background, but for seven or eight years that I lived in L.A. I trained with a lot of great boxers, great coaches, so I feel confident in my defense, my ability to absorb impact and punch back. I feel comfortable and that’s the reason you don’t see me shooting, even though I come from a jiu-jitsu background.
“I feel like I’m a complete fighter,” he added. “If you want to box, I can box very well. You want to do Muay Thai? I can do Muay Thai very well. Wrestling? Jiu-Jitsu? That’s my main thing. I feel comfortable in any area, any part of the fight.”
And he feels confident that he can turn the biggest opportunity of his career into a triumphant moment that brings him one step closer to challenging for the bantamweight title.
“This is definitely a big step in my professional career, but it doesn’t bring any pressure at all,” Munhoz offered when asked about kicking off Saturday’s star-studded main card in Las Vegas. “A fight is a fight; it’s still the Octagon, still the same environment. If anything, it’s going to get me more excited to go in there and go for another finish.
“It’s a great moment, it’s great recognition and I’m looking forward to it. I’m very excited to get another finish against a former champ — a really good, tough opponent like Cody Garbrandt.”
Garbrandt heads into this weekend’s contest on a two-fight skid, having suffered back-to-back stoppage losses to his heated rival — reigning bantamweight kingpin TJ Dillashaw. Prior to that, the talented Team Alpha Male representative had taken the division by storm, rattling off five wins in 20 months to secure a title shot against then-champion Dominick Cruz in the co-main event of UFC 207.
Less than two years after making his promotional debut, Garbrandt styled on the long-term bantamweight standout, beating Cruz to the punch in almost every exchange and showing him up from start to finish en route to claiming the title.
A little over two years and two losses later, “No Love” is looking to get back in the win column and start making another climb towards the top of the division, but Munhoz has no interest in allowing that to happen because he wants the next shot at Dillashaw all to himself.
“I visualize myself finishing him,” he said. “I play a lot of simulations in my mind and if it stays standing, I see myself knocking him out; I don’t see why not. If somehow I’m able to knock him down or he puts his knees on the mat, that’s going to be danger for him because if I’m able to get his back or his neck, that fight is over.
“I believe a victory over him, if I knock him out or submit him, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be the next contender against TJ Dillashaw,” he added. “I don’t know what’s going to happen between (Henry) Cejudo and him, but beating Cody Garbrandt, the former champ, I believe that makes me the next title contender.”
While a title shot may not be guaranteed, one thing is for certain: with a win over Garbrandt this weekend, Munhoz will no longer be the forgotten man amongst the bantamweight elite.