Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight contender Pedro Munhoz after nearly a decade in the sport finds himself on the cusp of what he has long desired: an opportunity to become a UFC champion. A sensational victory over former 135-pound titleholder Cody Garbrandt at UFC 235 pushed him to this point.
As 2018 came to a close and the excitement surrounding his November technical knockout of Bryan Caraway started to fade, Munhoz received some interesting news. Gabrandt, the man who ended Dominick Cruz’s eight-year unbeaten run to become champion, wanted to fight him. When word reached MMA news outlets, fans and analysts saw it as a favorable matchup for Garbrandt, who wanted to get back in the win column following consecutive losses to current bantamweight titleholder T.J. Dillashaw. Some fighters might have taken offense to being called out by someone who was looking to end a losing streak. However, Munhoz was downright enthusiastic about the opportunity.
“For me, it was perfect,” he told Sherdog.com. “It was the kind of fight I like: the guy that comes forward aggressive. I was very excited.”
Munhoz did not feel Garbrandt’s reputation had been diminished by his recent setbacks since they had come against the man who now occupies the 135-pound throne. Instead, he felt confident that Garbrandt would enter the cage hunting a win and looking for action.
“I believe he was coming stronger than ever for this fight, because after losing the belt to T.J. and losing again [in the rematch], I think he was coming [into the fight] very hungry to try to win,” Munhoz said. “I knew from the beginning the fight was never going to [go the distance]. I knew that one of us was going to get knocked out.”
Visualizing how a fight plays out can be easy, but making it a reality is the difficult part. A key facet in bringing hypotheticals to life is the ability to cope with the pressures of fighting at the highest level.
“Everyone is tough in the UFC,” Munhoz said, “[from] the smallest girl to the biggest guy.”
The 32-year-old Brazilian enters every fight believing it will be the greatest challenge of his career. He also trusts that training at an elite gym like American Top Team prepares him for combat with the best fighters in the world.
“For me, every single fight is the most important fight of your career, and this one was no different,” Munhoz said. “The pressure is always there. It’s how you manage the pressure. I manage it by training [hard] and training with the best coaches and partners. That is the best way [for me to] feel comfortable and capable in fighting a big fight like that.”
In his mission to upend -- at the time -- the No. 2-ranked bantamweight in the UFC, Munhoz and his coaches knew they needed to formulate the right game plan. When scouting Garbrandt, they saw several techniques they could employ to net positive results in the bout.
“One of the things was the calf kick,” Munhoz said. “Another thing we were working on was attacking the body a lot with front kicks and [other] kicks, [then] following up with head kicks. Another thing was the counterpunches. He comes up with a right hook always. I knew that I could block and counter back at the right moment, [and] that’s exactly what happened. Basically, everything that happened in the fight was all part of the game plan.”
The onetime Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion’s preparation paid off with a life-changing first-round knockout. “It was definitely the most important victory of my career,” Munhoz said. Since his performance at UFC 235, there has been a notable uptick in interview requests and social media interest. With Munhoz in the midst of a three-fight winning streak and having put a career-defining victory on his resume, many want to know what comes next for the 21-fight veteran. He has his own ideas: “I believe that my next step is fighting for the title against Dillashaw.”
Munhoz is not oblivious to the reality of the situation atop the bantamweight division. He knows a rematch between Dillashaw and flyweight champion Henry Cejudo remains a distinct possibility. With that in mind, Munhoz sees an interim title fight as a potential solution and believes he should be included in any such bout, along with fellow Brazilian Marlon Moraes.
“The interim title … I think that is something Marlon and I deserve right now,” he said. “If the ranking makes sense, after I beat a guy [who was] No. 2, I should get his spot. That doesn’t make sense [if Garbrandt is] still No. 2 and I’m No. 3. It wasn’t a close fight. I went there and knocked him out, so Marlon’s No. 1 -- he was No. 2 -- [and] I should be somewhere in there.”
The most recent UFC rankings place Munhoz at No. 4 in the bantamweight division. If bouts with Dillashaw and Moraes fail to materialize, Aljamain Sterling could conceivably emerge as another option. Munhoz called to be paired with the Serra-Longo Fight Team star in August after he took a decision from Brett Johns at UFC 227. However, he claims there was radio silence from Sterling and his camp, a development that led to his losing interest in the matchup.
“I called him out before [and] never heard anything from him,” Munhoz said. “He likes to pick his opponents. I think the fight that makes sense right now is me against T.J. or Marlon.”
Another name bandied about as a possible dance partner belongs to rising prospect Petr Yan. In fact, the Russian took to Twitter to question Munhoz’s skills, claiming he beat Garbrandt with a “lucky punch.” Yan also pointed out that he defeated someone “The Young Punisher” could not in John Dodson. Munhoz lost a split decision to Dodson at UFC 222, while Yan laid claim to a lopsided unanimous verdict over “The Magician” at UFC Fight Night 145. Although Munhoz does not appear to have an interest in a fight with Yan, he had plenty to say about the 26-year-old’s comments.
“How many fights does he have in the UFC, one or two?” he said. “Who are the guys that he’s fought, because I haven’t followed him that much. He said I lost to Dodson. I lost to Dodson at the pay-per-view, but if you see [the fight], I [expletive] dominated [and expletive] destroyed Dodson. He was telling the referee I was kicking him in the nuts. In reality, I was kicking him right in the stomach. In the replay, you see very clear it was a kick on the stomach. [Plus], he was running the whole time.”
The controversial loss to Dodson continues to frustrate Munhoz more than a year after it occurred, especially since he feels Yan followed his blueprint to beating the Jackson-Wink MMA mainstay.
“They say, ‘Oh, he was outboxing you,’” Munhoz said. “No, he didn’t even touch my face. The way I [started] the fight is the way I left, not even one scratch. It just showed what kind of fighter I am, [with] pressuring [and] always going forward; and that Russian guy, he just beat Dodson, but if you watch the fight, it was exactly the same fight between Dodson and I.”
In Munhoz’s mind, there was only one difference: home cooking. He fought Dodson in Las Vegas, while Yan faced him in the Czech Republic, close to his native Russia. Despite the fact that Munhoz has recorded eight wins -- they include six finishes -- during his 12-fight UFC run, fighters still seem to see him as a favorable matchup. He does not take the notion as a slight, viewing it instead as part of the nature of the sport.
“That’s all the trash talk,” Munhoz said. “That’s the thing right now, so I understand that’s how they want to promote themselves, but I do my trash talk in the Octagon.”