The middleweight division has undergone some dramatic changes over the past couple of years with Chris Weidman dethroning long reigning champion Anderson Silva as well as an influx of Strikeforce fighters now climbing towards the top of the divisional rankings
Through it all, No. 7 ranked fighter Mark Munoz has seen plenty of 185-pound contenders come and go but he’s been in the thick of things for the better part of the last five years. His ranking denotes where he stands in respect to the best of the best in the middleweight division, but the problem is Munoz doesn’t want to just be a top 10 fighter.
It’s been an ongoing mission for Munoz to one day reach the peak of the sport and become champion, but dotted throughout his overall impressive record have been a series of staggering losses that keep setting him back off course. He fell to former middleweight title contender Yushin Okami after opening his middleweight career at 3-0. Munoz then put together a four fight win streak only to run into Chris Weidman, who turned his lights out inside of two rounds with a vicious elbow strike knockout.
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Munoz had to take off a year after that loss, but came back strong with a dominant win over Tim Boetsch only to have his title hopes dashed once again when Lyoto Machida knocked him out in the first round of a fight where he didn’t land a single strike. The worst part about his last two losses? Weidman now stands as the champion of the division while Machida is the No. 1 contender primed to face him in July.
Now as Munoz, at 36-years of age, approaches another main event, his career really is at a crossroads. A win over Gegard Mousasi on Saturday will likely earn him another top five ranked opponent with a chance to regain the contender tag. A loss sends him spiraling in the opposite direction, likely on the cusp of no longer being ranked in the top 10, and a footnote attached to his name that says he is considered a bump on the road to being a serious title challenger.
I don’t want to be known as a gatekeeper, nobody does. You want to be known as the best in the weight class
— Mark Munoz
"I don’t want to be known as a gatekeeper, nobody does," Munoz told FOX Sports from Germany. "You want to be known as the best in the weight class, in the division, so I understand that. Gegard and I are both high up there on the list and with a win over Gegard it’s definitely going to stamp my place to put my name in the hat as a No. 1 contender.
"I’m not going to say this fight is not important, it’s very, very important. I want to win it in the biggest way possible."
While Munoz may best be known to UFC fans as a top ranked middleweight, outside of the cage he’s also a father, husband, gym owner, teacher, trainer and motivational speaker. The argument could easily be made that Munoz is sacrificing his fight career by having too many irons in the fire at one time.
Most top level fighters will say that when it’s time to fight, everything else has to fade into the background like white noise. Munoz doesn’t have that option, and some could see that as a hindrance and possibly the reason why he just can’t seem to get over the hump to top dog status.
"I truly have a lot of roles in my life and I’m not going to say it’s easy because it’s very hard," Munoz said. "I’ve given a lot of myself because not only do I train mixed martial arts and I’m one of the top fighters in the UFC, but I run Reign (Training Center) but I have an anti-bullying campaign, I have a 6-12 training program, which caters to at risk teens and underprivileged youth, I’m a father to four kids, I have a wife and all their activities, there’s a lot that I do. I have to balance all that.
"It’s very challenging, but I’m getting better with it. I feel that I’ve learned this in trying to do all this, people say you need to prioritize your schedule but I think you really need to schedule your priorities."
Better may not be good enough to get past a fighter with as much experience as Mousasi on Saturday night, so Munoz took advice from a good friend as he was preparing for this bout to ensure he was really putting the focus where it needed to be this time around.
It meant Munoz had to rely on other people to do his various jobs and he had to keep his sights on the ultimate prize, which is beating Mousasi and nothing else.
"I’m a giving guy. I love giving. A character that comes to mind is Snow White, she was so giving to the seven dwarves, she gave to everybody, she was the fairest in the land. I’m not saying that I’m that, I’ve got kids so that’s why I’m quoting the Disney movies, but anyways, I don’t want to be the evil stepmother in Cinderella either. I’m able to do this because I have a great group of guys around me. You are who you surround yourself around. I know it’s hard to manage your time and do all these things, but my training partner and friend Brendan Schaub said this to me, "you just need to concentrate on your fight sometimes, you can’t be so giving". It’s not happy go lucky, you’ve got to concentrate on your fight and your fight alone," Munoz said.
"I’ve got guys understanding that I have to concentrate on my fight and I love that those guys are there to do that for me. So when I have a fight coming up, and this is a very, very important fight for me, so they’re here helping me prepare for this fight coming up."
With names like Luke Rockhold, Tim Kennedy and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza all chomping at the bit to get a title shot with Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen set to do battle in July, the middleweight division is deeper than ever and it’s going to be very easy to get lost in the mix. Munoz doesnât want to look back on his career in a decade and say ‘I almost made it’ because ‘almost’ just isn’t good enough.
So while there’s no title on the line and no shot at the title up for grabs either, this fight against Mousasi might just be the most important bout of Munoz’s career, and he knows it’s not going to be easy to come away the winner.
"Gegard ain’t no walk in the park," Munoz said. "He’s good — he’s real good."