Mark Muñoz was supposed to be in an octagon, fighting for a shot at the UFC middleweight title held by pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. Instead, he found himself in Manila, conducting a mixed martial arts clinic, after pulling out of his bout after undergoing elbow surgery.
Today, he is rehabbing his way back to full health, with a recent a trip to the Philippines to support stablemate Raja Shippen in the latter’s PXC debut.
“I think this is a blessing in disguise,” Muñoz said. “The reason why is I don’t rest. A lot of people keep telling me, ‘Mark, you need to rest.’ And that’s how my parents are. They don’t rest. They just keep working.”
“It’s that Filipino mentality. My dad is 70 years old. He keeps working.”
Muñoz said the surgery he underwent to remove bone spurs that were dislodged in his elbow is going to add to his reach. Even before the injury, the flexibility in his arm wasn’t all there because of the bone spurs that kept it from extending to its full capacity.
“Before I got hurt it was this much,” Mark said as he showed just how far he could extend his arm. “But now it’s this much.” He stretched it further. “I’ll probably get three more inches of reach.”
But while the injury forced Muñoz to take a break from training and fighting, it couldn’t keep him from his other role: coaching. Shippen, who serves as a kickboxing instructor at Muñoz’ Reign Training Center in Orange Country, California, was stopped in the first round when PXC lightweight champ Harris Sarmiento struck true with an overhand right that put an early end to Shippen’s debut in the promotion.
Immediately after the fight, Muñoz took advantage of the bad situation and turned it into a learning moment for Shippen, taking the younger guy aside and gesturing with the overhand right.
“He never saw it coming,” Mark said. “And Harris did it five times. Every time Raja threw the jab, he would come over the top with the overhand right. And I was telling him, one-slip-two. We drilled that a lot.”
Muñoz never had plans of becoming a fighter.
He started in wrestling as a means of self-defense in high school, after he was jumped twice as a kid while living in Vallejo, California. “They took my shoes, beat me up,” he said. And so he needed to get tougher.
Muñoz thought wrestling would help his football game as well. But it wasn’t long before his talent in wrestling became evident. He became a two-time state champion in high school, and later became a national champion and two-time All-American for Oklahoma State in college.
He never planned to be a wrestler, but pretty soon Muñoz was teaching wrestling to some of the best MMA fighters in the world.
Muñoz received an invitation from current UFC bantamweight Urijah Faber to help train Randy Couture for his fight against Vitor Belfort in 2004. The training camp included other talents like fellow Filipino fighter Brandon Vera (who Mark calls a kuya to him that he loves with all his heart) and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
“So I came out, and there was originally supposed to be wrestling and jiu-jitsu,” he recounted. “But then I came in and they were wrapping their hands. And I go ‘Urijah, why’re they wrapping their hands, bro?’”
Faber convinced Muñoz to give it a try, wrapping his hands and giving him advice. As a pure wrestler at the time, Muñoz had very little in terms of skillset, but Faber suggested to him to just establish his jab and shoot for a double-leg takedown.
Then they sent him on his first-ever sparring session – against the UFC light heavyweight champion Couture himself.
“So that’s what I did, jab-jab-double leg and I missed it, then jab-jab-double leg and took him down. And then I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I took Randy Couture down,” said Muñoz said.
“And then he grabs my head and BOOM! BOOM! He knees me, and BOOM! I fall down. He hits me again. Then I take him down again. He gets back up and does it to me against then he takes me to my back.”
“I loved it after that.”
Great MMA talent
He’s been around some great MMA talent through most of his career. Aside from the guys in Couture’s camp he’s also trained with guys like Silva, the Noguiera brothers, Junior Dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and Wanderlei Silva.
He trained with fellow Filipino UFC fighter Vera at the Alliance MMA in San Diego and with Phil Davis at the Compound, before Davis moved over to Vera’s gym. At Reign, he trains with guys like Jake Ellenberger, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, and Krzysztof Soszynski.
In wrestling, he was introduced into the sport by two of the best coaches at Vallejo when he was in high school, Mike Minihan and Robert Gonzales. In college, Muñoz was coached at Oklahoma State by four-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion John Smith.
Muñoz earned his jiu-jitsu purple belt under Big Nog after the former UFC heavyweight champion elevated Muñoz from white belt straight to purple belt. “He said ‘Man, you’re no white belt. You need to be purple belt, easy.’ There’s a purple belt ceremony on YouTube. You’ll see them throwing me. You see Jose Aldo throwing me, Minotauro throwing me, all the guys from Black House throwing me.”
In striking, he trained at Wild Card with Freddie Roach right after his loss in his debut, where he often saw Filipino boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao.
“He coached me for six months, almost seven. I was going there three days a week at 9 in the morning going against LA traffic,” Muñoz said before remembering where he was. “It’s not as bad as traffic here in Manila. I know. It’s worse here. But LA is bad. I had to wake up at 6:45 just to make it there by 9. I was doing it but it just got too hard with my family.”
“I haven’t got to see Freddie in a long time. He told me to come back, and I’m planning to. But I need to get my gym off the floor.”
Muñoz has nothing but kind words for Roach, the Hall of Fame trainer and four-time Boxing Writers Association of America Trainer of the Year who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
“He’s amazing. The thing about Freddie is that I talk about rising above adversity,” said Muñoz. “He’s got Parkinson’s. He shakes. He shakes a lot. But once he puts on those mitts, once he puts on that belly pad, the shaking is gone. It’s amazing.”
“And then you see him papararapapapapapapa paparapa,” Muñoz said as he imitated the sound of a boxer hitting the mitts. “Like, dude, for a guy to have Parkinson’s? Man, he’s an example for a lot of people.”
His striking has also been honed by other coaches like former Muay Thai fighter Ganyao Fairtex, Danny Perez and Abel Nuñez in boxing and former Chute Box trainer Master Rafael Cordeiro, who trained some of the best strikers in MMA, like Silva and Shogun Rua.
Friend and foe
And of course, there’s Anderson Silva.
Muñoz considers the current middleweight champ a friend, and with his quick ascend through the division, he’s going to be on a collision course with Silva soon.
“When we trained, I was training him wrestling and he was teaching me striking so we were exchanging,” he said. “But he told me that he would be retired by the time I was able to go for a title shot. And now it’s been such a fast rise to where I’m at now that I’m already here now. So what do we do?”
That’s always been a tricky issue within the sport of MMA. UFC president Dana White has been frustrated by fighters like Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck of American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) who refuse to fight each other because they were teammates. Some who expressed willingness to fight, like UFC light heavyweight champion Jon ‘Bones’ Jones, found themselves losing friends in the case with him and title contender ‘Sugar’ Rashad Evans.
“I don’t like to fight my friends,” Muñoz said. “But I will fight my friends. I’ve done that before. I did that in wrestling a lot.”
And even if Silva loses the title, Muñoz may yet end up fighting another friend anyway. Number one contender Sonnen, who almost took the belt away from Silva in their first fight when he spent four rounds on top of the champ before being caught in a triangle choke in the fifth, is another guy who Muñoz considers a friend.
“We’re friends,” he said of MMA’s king of smack talk. “I competed against him in college.”
“He didn’t trash talk me one time. There was just nothing he could really say. What can he say? I’m a good fighter.”
He concedes that though he beat Sonnen in wrestling back in college, Sonnen has the better MMA wrestling. But that doesn’t mean Mark doesn’t think he can beat him in the cage.
“Chael, he’s a great guy, a great fighter. But I truly believe I can beat him up. And if he didn’t feel that way (about being able to beat up Muñoz) either, there’s something wrong with him. You need to have that confidence when you step inside the Octagon.”
It’s no coincidence that Muñoz is friends with so many top guys in the sport, though. He believes you are whom you surround yourself with and thus works with elite fighters all the time.
“I surround myself around champions. I work hard. And they are like-minded like me. If you surround yourself around people like that, you’re going to become a champion.”
They say Mark Muñoz is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.
That’s a weird thing to say about a guy who bashes faces in for a living but that’s really what people say about him. The guy is just plain nice.
A few minutes with him and it’s easy to see why.
“You know people call me Huggy Bear,” Muñoz says. “’Hey what’s up, Huggy Bear?’ They see me hugging my opponents all the time inside the Octagon. I hugged Demian Maia before our third round (at UFC 131). That’s just who I am.”
“It’s my Filipino culture,” he insists. “It’s how my parents raised me. It’s about respecting people and treating them the way you want to be treated. I don’t talk very much, but when I do talk, I want to be constructive and positive. That’s just who I am.”
“I’ll give you the shirt off my back if you’ll do it for me.”
Though this was Muñoz’ first trip to the Philippines, he’s proud of his Filipino heritage. He recounted how his nickname was initially supposed to be “The Philippine Wrecking Machine”. It’s a pretty catchy name, what with it rhyming and all, but he objected to it because it had improper usage of words.
“It’s wrong, I’m a person, not a mango,” Muñoz said, smiling. “I’m a person so it should be Filipino Wrecking Machine.”
Ground and pound
But while he may be a nice guy, but there’s very little that’s nice about him if you ever find yourself across from him on the Octagon. His wrestling, his jiu-jitsu, and even his fast-developing striking are way more nasty than nice.
And his famed ground and pound?
“I call it my Donkey Kong punches,” Muñoz muses with a smile.
Muñoz is considered by many to have some of the best ground and pound in the sport, and several middleweights, Maia, Chris Leben and ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ alums Kendall Grove and CB Dollaway among them, have felt just how heavy his hands are.
“I feel like I’m the new king of ground and pound now. I think I’m Donkey Kong,” he said.
“My ground and pound is my specialty. I knock people out doing it. It’s not anything I was taught. It was just something I was born with, I guess. I have power everywhere and I like to show people how to have ground and pound cause not a lot of people know that, even in the UFC.”
Training Pinoy fighters
At the PXC event, Muñoz watched local bet Ale Cali knockout Guamanian Jesse Taitano to win the 125-pound belt and came away both impressed and itching to teach.
“I wish [Cali] was here,” Mark said at his clinic.
“Amazing striking. But he didn’t want to go to the ground. If he develops over the course of his fighting career and gets into the UFC, he’s gonna have a hard time.”
Cali has a boxing background and dominated his foe in the standup. Though he’s worked on his jiu-jitsu a lot training for this fight, and even almost won by submission when he caught Taitano in a guillotine choke near the end of the 2nd round, the youngster looked much more comfortable on his feet than on the ground.
“I’d like to step in and say ‘Work on your wrestling and your jiu-jitsu only. For a month and a half, two months, you do that only. I won’t allow you to strike. If I see you strike, I’ma slap you.”
“His striking is unbelievable. He just needs to do wrestling and jiu-jitsu. And ground and pound, which I’m going to show today. I would love to show him, cause he’s my people.”
And should Cali ask for help training for his next fight?
“For sure, I’m willing to work with him,” said Muñoz.
Aside from Cali, and quite possibly the other top Philippine-based fighters like Team Lakay standouts Eduard Folayang and Kevin Bellingon, Mark extended his help to the Philippine national wrestling team.
“I would love to get in touch with whomever I need to get in touch with to be able to teach more frequently and to improve the sport here,” he said.
“The striking here is amazing. But there’s still a lot of things I think a lot of Filipino fighters should know.”
One of the coaches involved with the wrestling team was in attendance in the clinic, and presented Muñoz with a national team jacket and a native wooden sculpture that portrayed traditional Philippine wrestling. He seemed to sincerely appreciate the gifts. Between the interviews and the clinic, Mark frantically searched for the sculpture and asking members of his family if they’d set it aside because he remembers placing it on a table and it was no longer there.
“I will wear that,” Muñoz said of the “Philippines” gear. “Man, I need Filipino stuff. I got my first barong here. I got some PBA jerseys, too.”
“You can be from here in the Philippines and you can do well, too,” he said. “I’m going to find a way to do that. I’m gonna come here frequently now. It’s going to be my goal to put the Philippines on the map.”
Muñoz plans to return to the country often, conducting wrestling workshops with his non-profit organization and coaching his Team Reign guys that fight in the PXC, which hold fights here in the country every few months.
“I sent in a list to them, and it was all my fighters that aren’t in the UFC.”
It seems that if Mark gets his way, the country’s going to see a lot more of Muñoz in the coming months.
“This was amazing, just to be back here in the motherland,” he said. “Yeah, I love the people. I love the culture. I love the food. It’s great. I love it.”
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