Swinging for the fences: Mark Munoz (left) has some of the most lethal ground-and-pound in MMA.
The path to contender status in the UFC is usually a long one, but it is rarely incremental in nature. Rather, one or two particularly impressive wins will usually spell the difference between veteran and star, and a single exclamation-point performance can permanently alter the trajectory of a career.
Mark Munoz has all the attributes to be one of the stars of the UFC’s middleweight division. An NCAA national champion in wrestling, he can dictate the terms of any fight, and his knockout power makes him an entertaining fighter to watch. Well-spoken and well-liked within the sport, he has become a popular training partner for many of the sport’s top fighters.
Yet for all his star potential, Munoz has not delivered that one performance that would force the MMA world to take notice of his skills. Matt Hamill was the highest-profile opponent of his early UFC career, but he succumbed to a head kick knockout in what was his final fight at 205 pounds. He took current top middleweight title contender Yushin Okami to the limit at UFC Live 2 in August but was unable to secure the judges’ decision.
Now, Munoz again finds himself in position to elevate his status if he can impressively defeat consensus Top 10 middleweight Demian Maia in one of the top attractions at UFC 131 on Saturday at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Maia’s greatest strength by far is his elite jiu-jitsu, and he has taken down and submitted high-level wrestlers in the past, most notably Chael Sonnen at UFC 95. Munoz for his part has not shown a lot of interest in jiu-jitsu over the course of his MMA career. None of his fights have ended via submission hold, and when on the mat, he relies almost exclusively on ground-and-pound. Munoz, however, insists that it is not a game with which he is uncomfortable.
“I love jiu jitsu,” he says. “When I’m in a fight, I don’t think about submissions that much. But if there are submissions available, I’ll definitely go for submissions, and if I need to defend, I will definitely defend. A lot of people haven’t seen my jiu-jitsu defense, but I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for a while and training with a lot of jiu-jitsu partners that are very, very good. A lot of questions are going to be answered in this fight.”
Unless, of course, he leaves them unanswered. Whether or not Munoz can defend Maia’s submissions may not matter, as he has shown increasing interest in the standup and may seek to avoid the ground altogether. Munoz’s standup technique has improved greatly in recent years, and he has a trump card that Maia does not: raw punching power.
The potency of Munoz’s ground-and-pound was evident from the beginning of his career; it was one of his most defining characteristics. In the gym, heads turned when Munoz went to work with grounded striking on the heavy bag. He generated significant power from his entire body and used positions at which he excelled in collegiate wrestling.
It was only recently that Munoz began to feel that knockout power was translating to the standup. The positions and techniques are not the same, and it took time for him to become comfortable in a different zone. He knocked out C.B. Dollaway in less than a minute at UFC Live 3 in March.
“My training partners have started saying, ‘Stop taking me down. You could exchange on your feet. You’ve got power. You rang my bell a few times,’” Munoz says. “They tell me I hit really hard. I didn’t understand that until I started to realize in sparring that I was learning things I didn’t necessarily use before. That’s an aspect of my game I unlocked. I’m turning my hips and shoulders into punches. You saw that with C.B.”
While Munoz has the power edge on the feet, Maia’s once woeful standup has looked serviceable in recent fights. Munoz does expecting a pushover on the feet.
“I think his standup has improved drastically,” Munoz says. “It’s kind of a weird situation. I know who he’s training with. He’s got very good coaches and a lot of guys I’ve trained with before, like Junior dos Santos. If we trade punch for punch, I have more power than he does. I’m prepared for the fight wherever it goes.”
Munoz and Maia often run in similar circles, and they have trained with many of the same fighters. The exchange is comparable, with Munoz offering up wrestling tips to learn more about the standup and Maia giving jiu jitsu pointers while working on his standup.
Ironically, Munoz and Maia have flipped some training partners for this fight. Maia trained with the likes of Dos Santos and Billy Schiebe, who have worked with Munoz in the past. Among the many fighters with which Munoz has trained for this fight are Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, former training partners of Maia. Munoz and Maia both know they need to continue to develop their standup skills and have gone to familiar sources for help in that cause.
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