On a four-fight tear, Mark Munoz has become a threat at 185 pounds. | Photo: Tobin Dorn
It may have been an entirely different approach than the one Chael Sonnen used following his win over Brian Stann at UFC 136, but Mark Munoz has the same intentions as his brash middleweight counterpart. He wants a shot at Anderson Silva’s gold.
Given the opportunity to make history at UFC 138 in the promotion’s first-ever five-round non-title fight, Munoz opted for a shorter night’s work against Chris Leben. Over two rounds, the Reign MMA leader pummeled “The Crippler” with forceful punches and elbows on the ground. The assault opened a serious gash above Leben’s left eye, forcing “The Ultimate Fighter 1” alum to tell referee Marc Goddard he could no longer see prior to the fight’s third round.
Stopping the ultra-durable Leben was no small feat: Munoz joined Silva and Stann as the only men to finish the Portland, Ore., native via technical knockout in his nine-year career. Had his vision not been impaired, it is likely that Leben would have continued to tread forward against Munoz with his trademark “Night of the Living Dead” determination. With his laceration leaking profusely, Leben had no choice but to concede defeat.
“It’s hard to fight when you’re choking on blood,” Leben admitted.
The win was Munoz’s fourth consecutive in the Octagon and his seventh in nine UFC appearances overall. Few can deny that “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” has come a long way since a Matt Hamill head kick welcomed him to the organization at UFC 96.
Now, he believes the time for paying dues has passed.
“I think I deserve a title shot,” Munoz told the crowd at the LG Arena in Birmingham, England, on Saturday. “Anderson Silva is by far the best pound-for-pound fighter. I give him all the respect and honor. I consider him a friend, but I think I deserve a title shot.”
The respectful request was a far cry from the professional wrestling heel role Sonnen assumed when calling out Silva nearly one month ago.
“Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck,” Sonnen said. “Super Bowl weekend, [I] want the biggest rematch in the history of the business. I’m calling you out, Silva, but we’re upping the stakes. I beat you, you leave the division. You beat me, I will leave the UFC forever.”
Such grandiose hyperbole is entertaining and undoubtedly sells fights, but Sonnen would likely have been next in line for a title shot without the extravagant lobbying. His performance against Silva at UFC 2010 -- for the bout’s first 23 minutes, at least -- has assured him of that.
What is not as clear is where Munoz fits in the middleweight title picture. His violent yet efficient effort against Leben is the signature victory of his career to date. Of Munoz’s other six victims in the UFC -- Nick Catone, Ryan Jensen, Kendall Grove, Aaron Simpson, C.B. Dollaway and Demian Maia -- only Maia has consistently hovered around Top 10; he is currently sixth in Sherdog.com’s middleweight rankings. Munoz himself is currently ranked No. 5.
Silva has already beaten the three men ahead of Munoz on that list, but the Californian needs to pad his resume before he can be considered the next logical opponent for “The Spider.”
At least one more trial-by-fire test against a worthy foe would do wonders in readying Munoz for what would be the biggest stage of his career against one of the world’s best. It would also allow the World Extreme Cagefighting veteran some time to perfect his game. Munoz was a two-time California state wrestling champion for Vallejo High School. At Oklahoma State University, he captured All-American honors twice and won a national championship in 2001. Despite his considerable credentials, Munoz has not been a takedown machine once the cage doors close.
According to FightMetric.com, his five takedowns against Leben were a career-high, and his career takedown accuracy remains an underwhelming 23 percent.
By comparison, Sonnen’s takedown success rate is 63 percent. It was that part of his game that forced Silva to consistently fight from his back in their 2010 meeting.
Munoz has evolved to the point where his takedown attempts are no longer the high-risk endeavors they were when his career began. In a high-stakes battle against Silva, improved standup will not be the ally it was against lesser opponents. Munoz needs to prove he can apply his wrestling as he did against Leben when faced with a high-level striker with solid sprawling ability.
What makes a hypothetical Silva-Munoz match compelling in a different way than a Sonnen-Silva bout is that the two men are cordial. While they do not share the same camp, Munoz and Silva have helped each other prepare for opponents on multiple occasions. When Munoz says he wants to be considered the best, he does so with an earnestness and humility that Sonnen’s detractors can appreciate.
“I’m here. I feel that I train extremely hard. I want to be the best in the division,” he told UFC.com following his win over Leben. “I’m working my way up, and that fight, along with the fight [against Maia] before that one, gives me confidence that I can be the best in the division.”
Munoz is well aware that he must ultimately go through Silva to receive that recognition, and while he is steadily working his way up the middleweight ranks, he is not ready for that challenge just yet.