On Thursday morning at 10 am PT, the UFC middleweight will go from surging contender to surgery center when he undergoes a procedure to remove floating bone chips in his right elbow. The surgery will be performed by Dr. Ronald Kvitne of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, the same medical group that recently performed UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre's successful ACL repair.
Munoz aims to scale the same heights that St-Pierre has reached in his career, namely as king of his division. It is a goal that seemed in his sights as recently as one week ago, when he was preparing to face Chael Sonnen at UFC at January 28's UFC on FOX 2 for the right to face middleweight champ Anderson Silva.
Munoz told MMA Fighting that during a training session last Friday, he was engaged in a wrestling scramble when his elbow slipped out and he felt two pops. He sparred four more rounds that night, but by the end of his workout, he couldn't even pick up his gym bag.
By the next day, he'd flown to Las Vegas, had his arm examined, and received a cortisone shot in hopes of going through with the fight, but it was not to be. The injury had rendered his arm nearly useless, and Munoz's hopes of becoming No. 1 contender were forced to give way to the reality that he would instead need surgery.
"It's definitely a hard pill to swallow," he said on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours from his surgery. "Everything happens for a reason. In my mind I can't see it right now. But I truly believe in my heart, soul and mind, I'll be stronger because of it. I don't want to be consumed with negative thoughts. With the guys around me, my kids, my family, I can't think that way. I'm a man of faith, and I truly believe everything will work out for the good. So now it's just being confronted with what's in front of me, going about it the best I can and seeing what the future holds for me."
At least he can rationalize the setback with the knowledge that the operation was an inevitability.
In fact, Munoz (12-2) had already mentally prepared himself for surgery following his last fight, a TKO stoppage of Chris Leben at last November's UFC 138. The victory was his fourth straight, and seventh in his last eight fights. But just as Munoz began to make plans to go on the shelf, Silva was diagnosed with an injury of his own, leaving Sonnen with no opponent for early 2012. When Munoz got the call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva for a chance to fight Sonnen for top contender status, he instantly decided to go for it.
That's the same as it had been for Munoz for a while. He said the initial injury that began his elbow problems took place in his first WEC fight, way back in June 2008. But the fights and opportunities came so fast and furious, he could never find the appropriate time to address the issue.
"It's been a problem a long time but I never got it fixed," he said. "Over time, it kept hurting, but I'd fight through it, because I was sparring well and grappling well. But now the loose bodies there make it so I can't even move my arm. It locks up every time."
Munoz says the bone fragments are stuck in his elbow joint, making him unable to properly flex his right arm. He can't push or pull with the arm, making it essentially useless during the grind of a fight. The surgery will clean out the loose pieces, and Munoz said he's been told he'll be unable to train for 4-6 weeks as it mends.
He hopes to fight again as soon as late April or early May, saying he's hoping to get on the "fast track" to coming back. As such, he said he's already working on increasing his physical therapy frequency from three sessions a week to five.
But it won't be enough to get him the opportunity he wanted. Somehow, he said, he'll bring himself to watch the UFC on FOX show, a event that was supposed to announce him as the next contender. He expects Sonnen to take Bisping down and grind out a win, setting up a rematch with Silva. And when that happens, Munoz will be there, breathing down their necks, promising to eventually find the winner down the line.
"It's been the goal since I started fighting," he said. "I want to be at the top."