UFC

Munoz, Machida and friends fighting

Mark Munoz and Lyoto Machida
Mark Munoz and Lyoto Machida won't be friends until after they fight.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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Lyoto Machida and Mark Munoz approached each other, hands outstretched, smiles waiting. Like old friends, they shook hands and shared a half-hug, but then they did something they would have preferred never to do: they squared off. Machida raised his hands first, balled into fists already, his face immediately transforming into stoic silence. Munoz watched him for a beat, unable to completely erase his grin before putting up his dukes. They held the faceoff for five seconds, then patted each other on the shoulder and turned away.

The UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Munoz main event is intriguing for any number of reasons. It is Machida’s debut at 185 pounds; it is an opportunity for Munoz to show himself capable of beating a championship-caliber opponent, and so on. But for its participants, the whole thing is just awkward.

“It’s weird,” Munoz told FOX Sports on Wednesday.

“It’s weird,” Machida echoed a short time later.

While it’s not the first case of friends fighting each other in mixed martial arts, it’s one of the most high-profile instances, and happens to involve two of the sport’s better known gentlemen. If these two can put aside friendship for competition, it stands to reason, anyone can.

This fight proposal was especially difficult because it seemingly dropped out of the sky. As of less than two months ago, Machida was fighting in another division, and Munoz was set to fight Michael Bisping. But when an eye injury knocked Bisping out of the fight and the UFC came calling, Machida felt an obligation to step in, something he hadn’t been able to do in the past when they called upon him.

Just two days prior to that, Munoz and Machida had been in a gym training together. And that was hardly the first time.

“The year before that, I was teaching him wrestling, I was teaching him all my tricks and that stuff. That was sharing the secrets, being intimate there,” Munoz said. “After that it was just training. But he’s applying a lot of the stuff that I taught him. It goes both ways, he taught me striking, too. So we’re going to lay aside our friendship for 25 minutes, beat the heck out of each other, and then winner is going to buy dinner.”

The winner gets dinner bet was made during a recent banquet to celebrate the 100th birthday of the late Gracie jiu-jitsu co-founder Helio Gracie. There, just days after agreeing to face each other, Munoz and Machida spent time together and parted with the same respect they’ve always had.

“That’s just how we are,” Munoz said. “We’re professionals, so we’re going to be professional about it.”

The question then becomes which one of them learned more valuable information about the other one.

While Munoz’s style of attack is fairly straightforward, and either you can slow him down or you can’t, Machida’s is more subtle, based on timing, footwork and counters. In other words, it would seem that Munoz’s history of working with him would give him a leg up on other opponents in that he’s already experienced most of what makes Machida so unique. Asked about that possibility, even Machida could not dispute that.

“We train together, but my style is very different,” he said. “It’s more hard to Mark because I’m from karate. My background is karate. Mark is a smart guy. He knows. We train together back in the days, too. Maybe 4 years ago, 3 years ago. So maybe it’s not too hard for him. He knows me.”

Munoz believes in the advantage, too. For example, he said if they trained pure wrestling, he had the ability to dominate Machida, but once striking comes into play, it’s a very different game because of Machida’s ability to punish an overaggressive or sloppy transition. Having experienced it, Munoz has specific entry combinations to assist into his takedown tries.

“You can’t just unconsciously go in for the kill,” Munoz said. “If you do that, Ryan Bader got knocked out, Tito [Ortiz] got kneed. It’s like going into a wood chipper as Mike Goldberg says. So you cant just haphazardly go in. There’s stuff I have in my arsenal that I’m going to do.”

The rewards of the uncomfortable matchup could be great. Munoz believes that a win over a former champion could push him all the way into a title shot. Machida figures a win will vault him immediately into the division’s top five.

Both athletes have differing views on looking ahead, however. While Munoz is still intent on chasing after the belt and is vocal about his intention, Machida said repeatedly on Wednesday that while he also wants to be a champion again, he’d prefer to only talk about what’s directly in front of him.

Maybe that’s because he knows what would follow is another discussion about friends fighting friends. In that case, his longtime buddy Anderson Silva is gearing up for a chance to regain the middleweight title he held for so long. Ironically, both Machida and Munoz are both friends with him, too.

While Munoz would prefer not to fight a friend, he’s respectfully said in the past that he’d be willing to fight Silva if the championship was on the line. Machida, though? It’s not something he wants to talk about, except to say that he’d have to talk about it with Silva. Which isn’t exactly a flat-out no. But having crossed the bridge of fighting a friend with Munoz, it seems an easy leap to suggest he’d do it again under the right circumstances.

Told that, Machida smiles the same uneasy smile he flashed at Munoz earlier. There is a pause as he considers the question and its many implications. Fighting a friend. Competing for a championship. Achieving a new dream. He considers it all, and he can’t say yes, but he can’t say no, either.

“Hard to say,” he said. “It’s hard to say.”

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