Singing in the Reign: MMAmania interview exclusive with UFC 138 headliner Mark Munoz

Top UFC middleweight Mark Munoz is ready to bring about a new era of changes.

The former NCAA wrestling champion's upcoming UFC 138 main event against Chris Leben this Saturday (November 5, 2011) will be the debut of five round headlining fights at every event, something that had previously been restricted to championship bouts.

A five round fight is terrific preparation for a potential title shot and if things keep going the way they have been for "The Filipino Wrecking Machine," who's gone 6-1 since dropping down to 185 pounds two years ago, he might just earn one in the next year.

Munoz is currently in the midst of a strong three fight winning streak against top opposition which was capped off with a unanimous decision victory over former title challenger Demian Maia earlier this summer.

In Leben, he'll be looking to knock off one of the promotion's most popular middleweights and position himself at the top of the current list of contenders. Munoz, the head of Reign Training Center in Lake Forest, California, spoke with MMAmania.com about his previous victory over Maia, preparing for a five round main event and why he feels this fight will end well before all five rounds are used up.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): First thing's first, I've got to know, Mark. What happened to your submission defense, man? You survive three rounds with Demian Maia and then some pipsqueak kid at the UFC on Versus 5 Q&A taps you out in like 10 seconds.

Mark Munoz: (laughs) I'm slipping man, I'm slipping man, it's crazy. It was all for the kid, man, you know? All for the kid.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Fair enough (laughs). Your last fight with Demian Maia, did you learn anything about yourself? You got wobbled in the first round and then came back to win. This is the second time that's happened to you now if you include the Kendall Grove fight, getting hurt early and bouncing back to get the victory.

Mark Munoz: Yeah, it was actually a funny punch that I didn't think would hurt me at all. He clipped me in the back of the head and I was like, "Aww I'm good," but all of a sudden my legs were kinda wobbly and I was just thinking, "What the heck just happened?" I just backed up and made sure I had my wits about me before I started engaging. It was a weird punch and he came out guns firing in that first round and kinda threw me for a loop. I didn't think he was gonna stand up like that but yeah, he just came out real hard and I had to switch my gameplan towards the middle and that's what I did. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I'm a well-rounded fighter now and I shouldn't be afraid of the ground against top level guys because I took Demian Maia down and I actually went for a submission at one point, I was stuck underneath him and I got back to my feet so be able to say that and do that against Demian Maia is a huge accomplishment.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You said you switched the gameplan mid-fight, what did you do that you had to change up?

Mark Munoz: I wasn't gonna throw bombs, I was just gonna, well actually I was going to but I didn't want to get overextended to where he can take me down and end up on top of me. I was just being kinda cautious in the beginning and then my corner was yelling at me, "Let go! Don't be afraid to let your hands go!" so towards the middle of the first round, I just opened up a bit more with my striking and that helped a ton.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Was there anything, going back and looking at the tape that you saw that you wanted to improve? That was an extremely close fight, one of the closest of 2011 in my opinion. Was there anything you saw that could help you improve and get a more decisive victory in the future?

Mark Munoz: I felt like I won the second and third rounds and the first round was real close but I gave it to him for coming out firing like he did. That fight was close, closer than it should have been but hey, sometimes that happens. When I look back, I need to just really be confident in all areas of mixed martial arts because I'm a complete fighter and I need to go out there and not be afraid to exchange on the feet because I do have great takedown defense and I am getting a lot better in the stand-up so I just need to believe in myself more in that first minute-and-a-half.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): While your stand-up has been improving, i know you've been putting in a lot of work with Babalu and Fabricio Werdum as well as your Brazilian jiu-jitsu coaches. Do you ever see yourself getting to the point where you take a fighter down and your first instinct is not to beat their face in but instead to go for a submission?

Mark Munoz: Yeah, I want to get to that point where I do have submission victories over my opponents other than submission from strikes (laughs). It's not easy though and at the same time, I have a great jiu-jitsu game and it's gonna happen in time. I feel that right now, I'm just kind of winning the way I have been with the skills I have but I am a well-rounded fighter and hey, if I win by submission in a fight, so be it. I'll take it.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about your upcoming fight with Chris Leben. First thing's first, it's the first UFC non-title main event that's a five round fight. I'm sure you've been asked about this a lot but did you have to do anything specific in your training to make up for that? There is potential, especially with how hard-headed Chris Leben is that this could go all five rounds.

Mark Munoz: Yeah, I've been sparring extra rounds, ramping up my conditioning and yeah, there's a lot of extra work that goes into fighting five rounds versus three so I did put in more work with fighting five rounds. Now in training, I might spar for 10 rounds with somebody and switching to somebody else but I just need to be prepared to go 10 rounds because that'll give me the confidence to give it my all for five. That's why I train so many.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you kind of see this as practice for a potential title shot down the line because if you can do five rounds in a main event here, you can do five rounds again. That's one of the advantages of being a champion is you've got more experience with five round fights than the challenger.

Mark Munoz: Oh for sure, for sure, just getting used to going five rounds, it does prepare you for a title fight. I'm actually honored to be the first UFC five round non-title main event. It's pretty cool to be able to not just do that, but to headline a show in general. It's great. I'm looking forward to it.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about Chris Leben for a little bit. He's a fighter that's been inconsistent against wrestlers. He got manhandled a bit by Josh Koscheck in the Ultimate Fighter house as well as Jake Rosholt in a UFC bout but then he went and handed Aaron Simpson, a good friend of yours, his first loss. How do you see his ability against wrestlers?

Mark Munoz: I think he's evolved to where he's got good takedown defense or he's able to get back to his feet to utilize his striking. I think he's been evolving in that area. At the same time, I feel that with his style, he's susceptible to being taken down and I'll be looking to capitalize on that. I don't see myself as a pure wrestler anymore though, I see myself as a mixed martial artist with great wrestling. I see myself evolving in all the facets of mixed martial arts and for me, I definitely want to use my wrestling but at the same time, he's gonna have a hard time no matter where those fight goes.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Yeah and the place that a fight always starts is standing and Leben is known as a guy with lethal hands. How confident are you to be able to stand with him for extended periods of time?

Mark Munoz: I'm confident. I'm confident that I can stand with him but at the same time, I'm not gonna stand in front of him. I not just gonna stand in front of him and trade blow for blow. That's not how it's gonna happen.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): So it's more about footwork when you're standing with him, kind of like the opposite of what your good friend Wanderlei did with charging forward and going for the kill.

Mark Munoz: Yep, that's right. It's being patient. It's all about being more patient.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've probably watched plenty of tape against Chris Leben. Do you think that at some point, if you're able to take him down, do you think that your top control is strong enough that you could keep him there?

Mark Munoz: Oh yeah, for sure. I do believe that but if he gets back up to his feet then well, he gets back to his feet. For me, it's not about just taking him down. It's about the transitions, trying to inflict as much damage as possible and that's what's gonna happen.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I saw you did some work with Duke Roufus a while back when you were doing your UFC on Versus 5 appearance. Can you tell me about that? Were you able to add any little tweaks to your game up there?

Mark Munoz: Oh yeah man. He taught me a lot just in one session. He is amazing. Duke Roufus, he definitely knows his stuff. He has the same philosophy I have, that if you want to change anything, it's more about adding to what you already know. I think I kind of took to his coaching style very well. I love how he taught and I'm looking forward to another meeting with him and learning more. He's an amazing coach.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know you're always going to have your home base at King's and Reign MMA, but how important do you feel it is to occasionally go to these other places and mix up your training?

Mark Munoz: I think it's very important to be able to go to other places and evolve and see other things and see how people teach and what techniques they're actually doing and see things that you can add to your style. I think it's very important whether it's business or fighting or what have you. You go other businesses and see how they run their business and take some ideas and potentially incorporate them into yours, just like fighting. If you can take a little detail from someone else and add it to your game, it can help you improve drastically. I think it's important. I think mixed martial arts is a new sport and you've got to keep evolving with the sport because if you don't, you're just gonna get passed by. 

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How would you like the fight to play out next Saturday night in Birmingham?

Mark Munoz: I'll take a submission victory or a knockout. I will take that for sure. I don't see this fight going five rounds at all. I think we'll see a guys that come in there swinging and there's just gonna be fireworks happening. We fight to finish and not just score points so I don't see this fight going to the end of the fifth round at all.

Mark would like to thank his family for their support, his sister for all the work she's been doing for him on his social media and international relations in the Philippines, his wife and kids, his parents back home. He'd also like to thank his trainers and training partners at Reign Training Center and at King's MMA. His success is much in part due to his team. He'd lastly like to thank his management MMA Inc for being with him since the beginning. You can follow Mark Munoz on twitter @mark_munoz.

So what do you think Maniacs?

Do you agree with Munoz's prediction that this fight won't last the full five rounds? Where would you place the "Philippine Wrecking Machine" in the current UFC middleweight landscape?

Sound off!

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