Munoz (left) excelled in wrestling at Oklahoma State University. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Munoz’s ascent in the sport is of particular value to the UFC because of his potential appeal to a market that is of special interest for UFC President Dana White: the Philippines. There are plenty of potential hotbeds for MMA in Asia, but the UFC has consistently expressed interest in the Philippines, where a combat sports star -- boxing great Manny Pacquiao -- has emerged as arguably the country’s most beloved figure.
Brandon Vera was groomed as a charismatic Filipino-American star before his career started to spiral in 2007. Munoz could fill that void. His parents are Filipino, as his father gained American citizenship by joining the U.S. Navy. Munoz was born at an Army Naval Base in Japan and lived there a few years before permanently moving to the United States. Although Munoz has not yet been to the Philippines, he was raised with Filipino culture and tradition and says he looks forward to visiting.
Growing up, Munoz’s parents spoke to him in the Filipino language of Tagalog and had him answer back in English, so he would become comfortable with both languages. Munoz jokes that he is now fluent in “Tagalish,” as he can understand Tagalog fully but struggles at times to find the proper words to speak back in Tagalog. It is a skill he could someday improve upon by spending time in his ancestral home.
Another location that holds special significance to Munoz is Stillwater, Okla., where he excelled in wrestling at Oklahoma State University. There is no greater feeder system for MMA than the world of amateur wrestling and no greater feeder school for wrestlers getting into MMA than Oklahoma State. Munoz is just one of many former Cowboys to get into MMA; the list also includes UFC hall of famer Randy Couture, Tom Erikson, former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Shane Roller, two-time Olympian Daniel Cormier, Johny Hendricks, Jake Rosholt and Don Frye.
Munoz attributes the success of Oklahoma State wrestlers in MMA to the unique style of training and wrestling at the school. Some techniques and mental approaches better translate to MMA than others.
“We were very outside the box when it came to wrestling,” Munoz says. “We wanted to hit different techniques. It wasn’t the same every time. That transitions well to MMA because you’ve got to be versed in everything and spend time learning new things. A lot of those Oklahoma State guys coach very good division one programs, too. It’s a testament to the program and how they think.”
Following his time at Oklahoma State and an attempt to make the Olympic team, Munoz got into coaching himself. It was at that time that he met former WEC champion Urijah Faber, who suggested Munoz try out MMA. Munoz quickly developed a love of MMA after watching Pride Fighting Championships and UFC tapes. He decided he wanted to give the sport a whirl, but he faced a substantial initial obstacle.
“My family felt differently about MMA,” Munoz says with a chuckle. “My wife didn’t want me to get into it. ‘What kind of example are you setting for the kids?’ she would [ask]. ‘I didn’t marry a fighter.’ My sister was the same way.”
Munoz sat down his family and explained that MMA was a growing sport and something about which his children could be proud. He eventually received the stamp of approval to go forward with his dream and now counts his wife as the biggest supporter of his MMA career.
As Munoz’s MMA game has developed, he has become a highly active fighter. He fought four times in 2010 and is on pace for another four fights in 2011. There is a balance between the benefits that can come from frequent competition and the drawbacks of overexertion, but as long as Munoz’s body holds up, he welcomes a vigorous schedule.
“I fought a lot last year,” says the married 33-year-old father of four. “If I think my body is good, I’ll continue to fight. When you fight a lot, you can keep yourself sharp, but at the same time, there can be aspects of overtraining. The body can’t sustain high intensity for long periods of time, so you need some rest in between. I stay sharp, keep working and keep improving. You learn a lot more when you keep going. I’ve fought frequently throughout the years, and that’s contributed to my development.”
Development as a fighter is one leap, but breaking through as a star is another. The time for Munoz to advance to the next level is now, and Maia stands in the way. His appearance at UFC 131 could be the most significant step so far on Munoz’s long road, or it could be another missed opportunity.