Mark Munoz – The King of Kong

UFC middleweight Mark Munoz was tricked into MMA by a “Kid”…was heel-hooked by a “Gangster” while wrestling in college…and found himself slamming “The Natural” in the most unnatural way.

In late July, just a couple of weeks after he came back from a year-long dark period to beat Tim Boetsch at UFC 162, Mark Munoz is in his element coaching wrestling. He has two camps occurring simultaneously at his base in Southern California—one a 10-day general camp, the other a five-day advanced technique course. It’s so busy that he has to keep a strict schedule on a dry-erase board to help marshal through his long days…days that begin at 6 a.m. and end 17 hours later at 11 p.m. It’s so busy he has to pencil in shower times.

The thing is, Munoz loves it like this because his ability to multitask is on par with his ability to annihilate people via ground-and-pound. The more punishing, the better.

In fact, in the midst of what sounds like utter chaos—in which he excuses himself twice, once to introduce his special guest wrestling coach, Joe Heskett, who now coaches at Army, and once to help somebody having an asthma attack—Munoz can tell a story about how he was dragged kicking and screaming into MMA by a pesky assistant coach he worked with at UC Davis back in the day.

Think it was some alpha-urge to conquer the fiercest combatants in the cage that lured Munoz into four-ounce gloves? Nope, it was none other than Urijah Faber. It was the Spicoli-like “California Kid” who created the barrel-crashing monstrosity that is known as “The Filipino Wrecking Machine.”

“Urijah came up to me and said, ‘You should learn how to fight, you’d be really good,’” Munoz says. “I said, ‘No man, I’m good—I’m not going to fight.’ But you know how he talks, he’s like, ‘Bro, come on, bro. Give it a try. Come on, bro.’”

At the time, Munoz was coaching wrestling and working on his master’s degree. He already had a wife and four children and was closing in on 30 years old. He was feeling a little long in the tooth to be contemplating a new career path. But as he was cornering Faber early years ago, he admitted there was a “void” left after coming up short of making the Olympic team. As a lifelong competitor and standout wrestler from his days at Oklahoma State, Munoz had a readily transferrable base to the mixed martial arts. The writing was on the wall. Faber, knowing this better than Munoz, started getting in his ear.

“Actually, you know what? Urijah tricked me into getting into it,” Munoz says. “He brought in Randy Couture, Brandon Vera, Rampage Jackson, Frank Trigg, and a bunch of other guys. And he asked if it would be cool if I came in and taught some wrestling? I said, ‘Yeah man, of course—I can do that with my eyes closed.’ So I came in, and noticed everybody was wrapping their hands. I was like, ‘Wait, why is everybody wrapping their hands?’”

That red flag wouldn’t be the last. After teaching some inside trips and throws to everyone per the agreement, he was paired off to spar with Couture, who was the UFC Heavyweight Champion at the time. When Munoz was asked to step in with “The Natural,” he did what any rational person would do in that situation—he protested.

“But then Urijah comes up to me and was like, ‘Dude, no worries—just double-jab, double-leg, and you’ll be fine, man, once you get him on the ground your instincts will take control.’ They peer pressured me, and here I always tell my kids never succumb to peer pressure. I double-jabbed and double-legged the first time, then the second time, then got in the third time—picked him up and slammed him on his back, and everyone was screaming, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I just took down Randy Couture!’ And then I’m just going Donkey Kong on him, just boom, boom, boom, 100 percent. And Randy was like, ‘Hey man, calm down. We’re not trying to kill each other—we’re sparring. I have to defend my belt, I can’t get injured.’ I was like, ‘Oh, sorry, I thought that was how we were supposed to do it.’ So after that, in classic Randy Couture style, he gets me against the cage and starts kneeing me and dirty boxing. I was like, ‘Hold on, I thought this is what we weren’t supposed to be doing?’”

In other words, Munoz was duped into a second career that he has all but flourished in, sporting a 13-3 professional MMA record. All it took to get here was Faber, a terrifying experience with Couture, and a Donkey Kong impression that he gets to try out on a whole crop of 185-pound guinea pigs. It looked like Munoz was right there in line for a title shot before he suffered a setback against the newly crowned UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman in 2012.

Since then, it’s been a lot of ups and downs—he had to endure a year-long layoff where he recovered from a broken foot, ended up depressed, and, in his words, “fat”…only to lose all that weight, get right in his head, and rediscover his mojo. Out of the public eye for the most part, it’s been a fairly private restoration project. It seems he’s back, though. The Munoz that showed up against Boetsch at UFC 162 looks like the one that pummeled CB Dolloway and Chris Leben. Now, Munoz will travel to England to face Michael Bisping in October, in what will potentially serve as a catalyst for that title shot.

Not that he’s thinking too deeply about that stuff, as he trains the kids in his summer wrestling camp. As you may know by now, Munoz is a man of a million stories. In fact, while wrestling for the Cowboys on the collegiate mat, he came up against some unexpected pieces of jiu-jitsu in a match against an Oregon Duck.

“Man was I livid,” he says. “I can joke about it now, but at the time, I was really mad at Chael Sonnen. In the match, it was kind of close in the first period, we got into a scramble. So Chael—and he’d been fighting for quite some time and was actually studying jiu-jitsu and MMA when he was wrestling at Oregon—scrambled into a knee bar. I didn’t know what was happening, but I defended the knee bar, and then he went for a heel hook. And this is in a wrestling match! I ended up tapping, and the ref gave me one point for an illegal hold. But my ankle popped. All my trainers came out, and they were taping my foot. I was so mad that happened, so mad that I just turned into the Incredible Hulk. After that, I was just on him. I ended up scoring a lot of points on him and winning the match.”

The two were scheduled to fight each other in the cage in early 2012 before an elbow injury tabled Munoz, so the “rematch” never materialized. But these days, Sonnen and Munoz have become good friends and teammates together at Reign Training Center in Lake Forrest, where Munoz coaches.

“We can joke about the college match today, and he always goes, ‘Hey man, can you blame me? Can you blame me?’ I guess if the ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying’ motto is true with him, then I can’t blame him—but I blame him anyway.”

Munoz, the coach, has been making headway of late. He not only has Sonnen in his stable, but Jake Ellenberger and an ever-growing list of brand names in the sport. He says he thinks he’s a better coach than he is an athlete, which is saying something when you consider his résumé. Munoz’s first love is wrestling, and that’s why he spends part of the summer running camps and broadening the talent levels of his teammates. It might also be the fundamental reason that the Weidman loss from the summer of 2012 sticks so sorely in his craw.

In that fight, in which he says he was out of sorts as the result of an “adversity stricken camp,” he just didn’t look right. He didn’t look right because, among other things, the wrestler was nowhere in sight. Munoz got knocked out via a wicked counter elbow in the second round in a bout he failed to land even one significant strike.

That fight launched Weidman toward history, while it sent Munoz off into a process of rediscovery. These days he can appreciate that silver lining, and after beating Boetsch the way he did, the first hurdle is cleared—Munoz is no longer the forgotten man in the 185-pound division.
“I made it apparent that me fighting Weidman that night last year and the guy who fought Boetsch this year are two totally different people,” he says. “I made that very apparent. I made sure the world saw that in my performance. I feel strongly about my wrestling, and I wasn’t able to showcase that during my fight because of some of the injuries I had.
I’ve always had a wrestling mentality, and it took me a whole year to sit out and change my perspective about training, and about injuries. I’m a wrestler—if I have an injury, I’m just going to tape it up, tough it out, and train. That’s who I was, and I needed this year to change my perspective.”

And with that, he turns back his attention to 150 young wrestlers following in his stubborn footsteps. It’s only early afternoon, and at 35-years-old and with a new head of steam, Munoz has miles to go before he sleeps.

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