It was a fairly innocuous question, but when UFC middleweight contender Mark Munoz responded to a query about his readiness to be in the 185-pound title picture should he defeat Yushin Okami this weekend in San Diego, one word in his response told you everything you need to know about the competitor dubbed ‘The Filipino Wrecking Machine.’
“I think I would put myself in the mix when I do beat Okami,” said Munoz. “I’m definitely not looking past him though – he’s definitely a formidable opponent and he’s very tough. I’m taking it fight per fight and all my focus is on winning this fight against Okami. If title contention is in my future, then hey, I’ll go for it. But I’m excited. I’ve always wanted to be at the top of wherever I’m at, and this is definitely a big stride in that direction.”
Did you catch it? Not “if” he beats Okami, but “when.”
It’s not trash talk from the mouth of Munoz, one of the game’s true good guys, but just a belief that when he’s in a fight there’s only one possible outcome in his mind. And it could be that this belief is already imbedded in his subconscious, as he chuckles when you point his comment out to him.
“I don’t ever go into a fight thinking I’m gonna lose,” he said. “I’ve been training real hard and I don’t think he (Okami) can stay with my pace. I’m looking to enforce my will on him and if he can match the same pace, you’ll be seeing an awesome fight.”
Winning has become second nature to Munoz, a 2001 National wrestling champion and two-time All-American for Oklahoma State who has earned victories in eight of his nine pro MMA bouts. But as in anything, you can sometimes tell more about a person by the way they come back from adversity, and Munoz passed his first MMA test by winning three in a row after his 2009 knockout loss to Matt Hamill.
“I knew it was gonna be tough, so I trained really hard to be able to compete the way I do,” he said. “It was sort of a bumpy ride at first, my debut didn’t necessarily go the way I planned it to go (Laughs), but hey, champions aren’t measured by how many wins they have, but how many times they pick themselves up after a loss. I got back on my horse and started riding again.”
For a competitor like Munoz, continuing on after the Hamill fight was never a question. His wife, Kristine, and the rest of his family were tougher sells, and Munoz admits that the conversation following that bout wasn’t easy.
“They never want to see their loved one lying on the floor unconscious,” he said. “But it happens, and thank goodness there were no long-term effects, and as long as they know I’m okay, they’re gonna support me all the way.”
Kristine Munoz still keeps a healthy distance from Octagonside though, something the fighter has learned to deal with as long as she’s with him on fight week.
“My wife actually doesn’t watch any of my fights anymore live,” said Munoz. “She watches them after the fact now. She tried watching it one more time when I fought Nick Catone, and it just didn’t sit right with her stomach. She goes wherever I go, but now she gets a massage or a manicure and pedicure. She’s been working hard supporting me, raising the kids, and running a gym, so she deserves that treatment. But I definitely want her around when I’m fighting because she’s my number one fan and biggest supporter.”
And Munoz’ fan base is growing, especially since he seems to be reinvented at 185 pounds, where he has defeated Catone, Ryan Jensen, and Kendall Grove in successive bouts. Hence the co-main event slot this weekend, but as usual, Munoz is unbothered by the added media obligations attached to such a high-profile place on the card.
“I’ve been noticing that people have been wanting to talk to me a little bit more, but it comes along with the territory and it’s pretty cool to have all that attention,” said Munoz, who fits the extra interviews and appearances into a rigorous training schedule that has focused on dealing with an opponent who may be one of the few who can match the Californian in the strength department.
“I’ve been preparing by going with bigger and stronger guys, as well as southpaws,” said Munoz. “I’ve wrestled a lot of strong guys too, but I’ve heard that he (Okami) is incredibly strong and has a good base because of his judo background. But it’s no secret for me – I’m looking to take him down and demonstrate my ground and pound, and I know he’s going to be prepared for that.”
And Okami has been showing off more of his standup attack recently, perhaps in an attempt to convert more UFC fans, with the results in his March stoppage of Lucio Linhares certainly being impressive. Yet whatever the Japan native decides to do, Munoz is ready for it.
“If he wants to stand with me, that leaves the door open for me to take him down,” he said. “I think his strength is his judo, and using that to push people against the cage and take them down from there so he can utilize his ground and pound. But he has been working on his striking – I’ve seen his 1-2, and his straight left is actually pretty devastating. So I’m looking to capitalize on him getting out of position when it comes to being on his feet. I’ve been watching some of his film with wrestlers, so I’m pretty excited to fight, just to know where I’m at.”
Where Munoz is at right now is that he is a wrestler finally coming to grips with all aspects of mixed martial arts, not an easy transition for anyone. And while there are still rough edges to be smoothed out, the 32-year old appears to have a grip on this ever-complex sport.
“With mixed martial arts, there are so many different ways you can win or lose, so you’ve got to be prepared in all situations,” he said. “In wrestling, at least you could actually control a position or know a position quite well because you just have to wrestle. In mixed martial arts, there are so many disciplines and you find yourself in a new position every day. So there’s definitely a new anticipation just because of that, and I think it behooves you to train every day and learn those positions.”
Learning every aspect of the sport and being able to put it all together under pressure are two different things, but Munoz made big strides in a positive direction in April, when a horrific first round turned into a second round TKO victory over Kendall Grove and a Fight of the Night bonus.
“I definitely didn’t anticipate getting rocked by an uppercut (Laughs), but you have to be able to roll with the punches – literally,” he said of his shaky start against Grove and subsequent comeback. “And I think my instincts came into play there because right when I got rocked, all I remember is waking up on a single leg. ‘I’ve got a single leg – that’s awesome.’ (Laughs) It all came together there.”
Now all that remains is to stay consistent while adding new wrinkles to his game before every fight. If Munoz keeps to that gameplan, there will be even more “whens” and no “ifs”.
“I’ve been working on my ground and pound quite a lot and working on my striking too, and I’m just looking to improve every time I step into the Octagon,” he said. “I’ve been training really hard and I’m looking to win this fight and win it in convincing fashion.”