Munoz Vows to Test His Wrestling Against Hamill’s

By Jason Probst Mar 4, 2009
For every fighter, there’s that moment when you hit the crossroads in a real match and get formally initiated into the ranks. For Mark Munoz, the gut check came in the opening moments of his June 2008 WEC bout with Chuck Grigsby, when the 6-foot-6 slugger nailed him with a potent right uppercut.

Munoz’s head snapped back, he wobbled ever so slightly, then resumed circling.

“It was right on the chin. It was good. I thought he was far away from me, and I was circling away, and he had such a long reach. You know, when he hit me with it, I thought, ‘We’re in a fight now,’” said Munoz, 5-0, of the toughest moment of his career. “’OK. I’ve really got to move my head, close the gap and get to where I want to be.’ It put a sense of urgency in me.”

Munoz did just that, taking Grigsby down, where he delivered a series of right hands while standing, tossed Grigsby’s legs aside and smashed him into defeat for a jolting finish.

Munoz’s WEC career consisted of the Grigsby fight and a first-round stoppage of Ricardo Barros before the division was scrapped by the organization. But now he is set to debut on another big stage, against Matt Hamill this Saturday at UFC 96.

A state champion who grew up in Vallejo (a few miles east of San Francisco), Munoz now lives in Mission Viejo, conveniently located between San Diego and Los Angeles, where he shuttles around meeting the prescribed training regimen for each particular day.

“I go to wherever I need go,” said Munoz, who is a married father of four. “Jokers Wild Fighting Academy at Lake Forest, Babalu (Sobral’s) gym in Cerritos. I’ll go down to San Diego and train with Brandon Vera, and the Gracie gym in Torrance.”

He also has sessions with Jake Shields.

“Jake is awesome, a wizard on the ground,” Munoz said of the last and only EliteXC welterweight champ. “He teaches me a lot as far as interweaving wrestling with jiu-jitsu. He’s a vital asset to me and a great training partner.”

Munoz went from a virtual unknown to another promising blip on the sport’s radar with the nationally televised win over Grigsby, but his tales of gym prowess are quickly developing him a name among fighters and those close to the sport. Urijah Faber, who pestered him for months to turn pro, calls him “an animal.”

Fellow northern California high school wrestler Rick Randolph was three years ahead of Munoz in high school, took seventh in state and knows the name from way back. Randolph, who is gunning for the Gladiator Challenge heavyweight belt the same night Munoz battles Hamill, had high praise for the 2001 NCAA champ as well. He believes the much-hyped “wrestler versus wrestler” angle of the Hamill-Munoz matchup won’t turn out to be as competitive as many think.

“He’s just a dominant, dominant guy,” Randolph said. “Mark Munoz is an NCAA national champion. That’s not good (for Hamill). Mark Munoz is a ridiculous wrestler. It’s not even in the same category. That’s essentially where he’s at. Hamill’s good, but the wrestling is not gonna be an issue. The wrestling will be dominated by Munoz. When you go with a guy at that level, it’s like, ‘How did you dominate me?’”

Or there’s James Irvin’s summation of grappling with Munoz, offered up in a January 2007 conversation with this writer before Munoz turned pro and was still prepping for his debut.

“It’s bad,” Irvin said, shaking his head. “Really, really bad.”

Manager Mike Roberts said that Munoz’s standup has improved since the Grigsby fight.

“A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see him out-strike Hamill,” Roberts said. “He’s been working on everything to become the total package. And the grappling will be dominated by Mark.”

Munoz is excited to get the chance to tangle with Hamill, whose improvement since his appearance on “The Ultimate Fighter” has been considerable.

Once strictly relegated to a wrestling-based approach, Hamill has developed some striking and seems to have the kind of natural aggression and will to carry him through rough spots. He lost a disputed decision to Michael Bisping, bounced back with a quality win over Tim Boetsch, was stopped by Rich Franklin and rebounded again to pound out Reese Andy. He’s a pretty tough opponent to take on during your first appearance under the UFC banner. Welcome to the neighborhood, kid.

“It’s a great matchup for me. Wrestler versus wrestler. But it’s not gonna be a wrestling match,” Munoz said. “It’s gonna be, I feel like, whomever has adjusted to MMA better. That’s going to win the fight. All the in-between techniques. The transitions between wrestling and other disciplines. It’s going to be an interesting fight. I’d like it to be exciting. I know Matt Hamill’s gonna want to stand. In a lot of fights, he uses his wrestling sporadically. I like to use wrestling to set up other things.

“I think obviously his strength is his takedowns. But I haven’t seen much ground game from him. I’ve seen a lot of front headlock punches, and once he gets guys tired and worn down, he’s like a juggernaut. He keeps coming forward. He wears them out with those front headlock punches, dirty boxing punches. Uses wrestling to tire the guys out, but I haven’t really seen him doing ground-and-pound when he’s in guard or half-guard.”

Nonetheless, Munoz still has a big challenge in front of him. But he’s used to making his own breaks.

A high school state champion at 189 pounds, Munoz was asked to cut to 167 by the legendary John Smith after joining the Oklahoma State University wrestling squad. He complied for the first two years, torturing himself to make a weight that simply wasn’t right for him. He’d argue back and forth with Smith, citing declining performance as the season went on as evidence he wasn’t suited to wrestle that light. Finally, one summer, determined to force the issue, Munoz lifted like a maniac and came into the first practice of the season at 236 pounds. He proceeded to beat up on a blue-chip recruit Smith had pegged for the 197-pound slot. The point had been made -- and he made NCAA All-American his junior year and took the championship in his final season.

Munoz still says he wants to move like a boxer, kick like a muay Thai expert when necessary and embrace the realm when the moment is right. It’s not just about wrestling, but rather the mix of disciplines that excites him. But at the end of the day, he figures he can always take it to the ground, and he wants more finishes like the Grigsby one that fans will notice.

“I kind of want that to be my signature,” Munoz said. “Once it’s on the ground, I feel so comfortable. Because I love the ground. That’s my home. I feel that if they try to submit me, I have great knowledge as far as submission defense that I can scramble out of them.”

And after mixing in the new skills he’s been working on, Munoz figures he and Hamill will eventually settle the wrestling question en route to the finish.

“I haven’t seen much ground (work) from him. Obviously, his standup’s gotten a lot better,” he said. “His weaknesses are, I believe, in his ground game on his back. Nobody’s ever put him there. So yeah, I’m looking to put him on his back.”
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