Munoz happy to be headliner for UFC 138

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Mark Munoz (right) takes an 11-2 record into his UFC 138 bout against Chris Leben. (Kathleen Hinkel/Icon SMI)

Mark Munoz is forever grateful that Urijah Faber wouldn’t take no for an answer.

For three years, Faber pleaded with Munoz to try mixed martial arts and for three years, Munoz told his wrestling buddy the timing wasn’t right.

Finally, in the summer of 2005, Munoz agreed to meet up with Faber at a training session organized at Sierra Junior College, just outside Sacramento.

Faber, who was well down the road himself with an 8-0 record, hadn’t invited Munoz to just any camp, though. When Munoz arrived, he quickly noticed that the room was filled to the brim with UFC veterans like Tito Ortiz, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Frank Trigg, Brandon Vera, James Irvin and Scott Smith – not quite what he’d had in mind for his  first MMA experience.

Faber showed Munoz how to wrap his hands, then nonchalantly told him he was up in the cage next, where another fighter was waiting to spar with him. That fighter was Randy Couture.

Munoz, a 2001 NCAA wrestling champion from Oklahoma State (also Couture’s alma mater), had hit pads and bags before, but he’d never punched a person - UFC legend or not.

“I remember Urijah told me to just double-jab and shoot,” said Munoz. “I didn’t know how to cross, but I began to throw and couldn’t believe that some of the shots landed and Randy’s head snapped back a couple of times.”

It never crossed Faber’s mind that Munoz might be in over his head.

“This was the wild west and Mark was 250 pounds at the time, so he was kind of fat,” said Faber, “but I knew he had natural ability. He was such a high-caliber wrestler I didn’t even worry about him.”

Though Faber was right, Munoz’s good fortune was short-lived.

“I shot in and took Randy down, and in classic Randy Couture fashion, he got back up, turned me on the cage and started beating me up,” he said. “I loved every minute of it.”

Afterward, the soft-spoken Couture sat Munoz down and told him something that changed his life. “He told me that I really should consider doing this, that I was a natural at this,” said Munoz. “‘The Natural’ said I was a natural.”

The signs that Munoz could become a proficient fighter were plain to see, said Couture. “I saw in Mark what I see in many top-level collegiate wrestlers: a technical intensity and aptitude to adjust and learn,” said the UFC Hall of Famer. “On top of that, Mark is an exceptionally nice and humble person -- the type of person you want to see be successful and pursue their competitive aspirations and represent MMA.”

Faber and Couture were right on the money. Six years later, Munoz (11-2) has won five of his seven UFC appearances and headlines UFC 138 this Saturday against Chris Leben in Birmingham, England. The bout will also be the UFC’s first non-title, five-round affair since the promotion decided to distinguish non-championship headliners with two extra rounds.

“If they ever make the Trivial Pursuit MMA Edition, I’ll be in it,” said the Filipino-American fighter. “I’m forever a trivia question in MMA.”

The 33-year-old father of four might never have earned this distinction if not for a drastic childhood accident. Until the summer of his sophomore year in high school, Munoz, who grew up in Northern California, had no doubt that football would be his sport as far as he could take it.

Munoz’s father, a Naval officer, was a football enthusiast. Father and son never missed a Sunday game, and Munoz and his cousins used the family’s raggedy sectional couch as a blockade to drill the tackle runs they’d watched on TV.

“My dad put me in football as soon as I was old to enough,” said Munoz, “and he really loved watching me play.”

Wrestling was more of an afterthought. Joining his high school team at 13 made Munoz a late-bloomer, not that he minded.

“My mentality going into wrestling was only to get good enough to improve my football,” he said.

Everything changed the next summer. On a church retreat, Munoz fell into an eight-foot ditch during a nighttime activity on the camp’s grounds. Munoz’s foot lodged between the rocks and one of the kids behind him fell on top of him. Munoz’s weight-bearing bone split open like a book.

The damage was extensive. The fall broke Munoz’s tibia, fibula and heel bone, and also shattered some of the smaller bones in his foot. Some of the bones were sticking out of his leg.

During a six-hour operation at the Oakland Naval Base, two pins were inserted into his ankle. Munoz was heartbroken when his doctor told him that football would be out of the question. But she told him, with a lot of proper rehabilitation, there was a chance he could wrestle.

Munoz said something came alive in him again when she said that.

“It was a pivotal point in my mentality,” said Munoz. “I just started concentrating on where I wanted to be and that was back competing and being part of a team. I didn’t look any farther ahead than that.”

For the next six months, Munoz attended physical therapy every day, between and sometimes during his high school classes. What classes he missed he made up after school.

Munoz also started studying wrestling tapes, particularly those of two-time Olympic freestyle gold medalist John Smith. Munoz dissected Smith’s low-shot style, and when he was able to return to the wrestling room six months after his accident, he could somehow mimic what he’d memorized.

Four weeks after stepping onto the mat, Munoz did the unthinkable: he qualified for states and won his 189-pound division.

“Nobody knew who I was my junior year,” said Munoz. “I came out of nowhere.”

During his senior year, Munoz went 74-0 and won his second state title. Watching from the stands, Smith, now the coach for Oklahoma State, recognized a familiar style in Munoz and recruited him on a full scholarship.

After Munoz won his NCAA title during his senior year in 2001, he took a coaching job closer to home, at the University of California-Davis, where he taught alongside Faber. Munoz cornered Faber’s first few local fights, but already married with three kids, Munoz felt there was no way fighting would ever pay the bills.

It took Faber’s persistence and Couture’s words to convince Munoz that fighting could be his future. After much discussion with his wife, Kristi, Munoz quit his coaching job with benefits and began to train with Faber.

Munoz won his first three fights in consecutive months in 2007 until word spread that he wasn’t an easy opponent. He couldn’t get a fight for six months afterward, but refused to go on welfare. Instead, he took out a second loan on his house, kept training and prayed.

In June 2008, World Extreme Cagefighting gave Munoz his breakthrough fight. Munoz was paid $10,000 to fight, another $5,000 when he won and an extra $7,500 on top of that for fight of the night, when he knocked his opponent out in the first round. It was more than he’d made in a year coaching.

With a call up to the UFC and a few more fights under his belt, Munoz eventually moved his family down to Lake Forest in Southern California and opened the Reign Training Center 18 months ago. Munoz’s easygoing management style has made the gym a magnet for experienced and beginner fighters alike.

Munoz said he’s modeled the gym after Faber’s philosophy to treat everyone with kindness and a gentle hand. Faber, who went on to become one of the WEC’s most popular champions, doubts he’s as big an influence as Munoz gives him credit for.

“It’s kind of common knowledge that Mark’s the nicest guy on the planet. I have a little mean streak. I’ve had people ask me about his fighting ability, doubting it because Mark doesn’t have a mean streak,” said Faber,” but I knew he didn’t need that to find success. Mark’s a winner.”

This Saturday, Munoz anchors his first UFC event -- a reward, no doubt, for his hard-earned win over an always-improving Demian Maia at UFC 131 last June. It's one of the last UFC events that will air on Spike TV before their seven-year union ends, and is considered one the weakest shows of the year. Still, the Munoz-Leben main event will be watched with interest.

“I think they want to push me to gauge my popularity,” said Munoz, who never doubts he will deliver. “When I’m in the cage, you’ll never see me quit. I bend, but I don’t break.”

-- Loretta Hunt