Mark Munoz wrestles with challenge of fighting his friend Lyoto Machida

Esther Lin

LAKE FOREST, Calif. -- Any mixed martial artist worth his salt knows to expect the unexpected. Even at the sport's highest level, things can change in the blink of an eye: People get hurt, fights fall out, dates and venues change.

Few such surprises, though, were quite as jarring as the one Mark Munoz experienced late last week. As late as Sept. 25, the fighter known as "The Filipino Wrecking Machine," who both runs and trains at his Reign MMA gym here in this Orange County city, was up the 405 in Redondo Beach, working out with former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.

Things were working out perfectly: Munoz was getting ready to headline the Ultimate Fight Night card on Oct. 26 against Michael Bisping. Machida would go 10 days later in his middleweight debut against Tim Kennedy at Fight for the Troops 3.

On Sept. 27, though, Munoz found out plans had changed, and the guy he was working with was going to be his opponent.

"We were just training together two days prior up at the Gracie camp training jiu-jitsu," Munoz said in an interview with MMAFighting. "And we've trained together in the past. And he's come to me, and we were planning on training together consistently for the remainder of his camp and the remainder of my camp."

Bisping's ongoing issue with a detached retina caused a change of plans, one that meant the two training partners would go at it for real.

"All of a sudden I heard it was official and I was like, ‘What?'" he said.

With an easygoing demeanor, Munoz doesn't have many enemies in the MMA world. He demurred when asked on the record who he thought won the Machida-Phil Davis fight at UFC 163, for example, because he considers both fighters friends.

So as you might expect, Munoz isn't going to pretend like he can work up a dislike for Machida heading into their fight. The way Munoz sees it, he'll have to channel the same part of his psyche that enabled him to compete against friends back when he was on his way to an NCAA wrestling title at Oklahoma State.

"I have to tap into that vein," said Munoz. "Because I care about him. We're friends. We're training partners. But you have to switch that mentality, switch your mind, it's kind of like how brothers compete against each other. Like Peyton Manning vs. Eli Manning. There's a bunch of brothers that compete against each other and we're friends, there's nothing different, it's the same. I guess you gotta picture someone else's face on his head and go for it."

Trying to wrap his brain around fighting Machida was just one half of the puzzle. The other adjustment involves a drastic change in training camp approach, as Machida is a different style matchup than, well, pretty much anyone.

"it's a huge style change, but it goes both ways," Munoz said. "Tim Kennedy is not like me. Bisping is nothing like Lyoto. So I don't know if it changes his operation drastically, but I have to find different training partners who can emulate Lyoto, because not too many people can emulate Lyoto. So I'm like ‘Hey, can you turn your head like this and do a karate kick?' There's not many people who can do that. It just sucks, it really does. But this is a business and this is what we're paid to do."

Munoz also knows that Machida's most memorable finishes have come when he's baited wrestlers, from Rashad Evans to Randy Couture to Ryan Bader, then made them pay.

"I don't want to make myself susceptible to his strikes and I know that he's a counterstriker," Munoz said. "He can kick and knee and punch at the drop of a hat, instantly. I don't want to put myself in a position where he can counterstrike. So I definitely want to wrestle and watch his strikes. He wants to keep the distance, I don't. You're just going to see two different styles clash."

For all the reservations Munoz has about fighting his friend, he also understands what a victory over Machida will mean for his career.

It's no secret Munoz underwent a difficult year in 2012. After rushing back from an injury and losing badly to Chris Weidman, Munoz stopped training and his weight ballooned to 261.

But Munoz re-dedicated himself and had an eye-opening performance in his UFC 162 victory over Tim Boetsch, dominating him with a relentless display of wrestling and gound and pound. Munoz knows that a victory over someone with Machida's credentials will elevate him right into the title picture.

"When I win it's going to catapult me into the title picture," Munoz said. "It's going to be a hard task. Lyoto's not an easy task for anybody. Just watching his technique and training with him, I know he trains hard and is going to be very prepared. Going down to middleweight is not going to be a big difference, he wasn't a huge 205 pounder. ... I think a win over him definitely puts him in the picture."

And then the self-described "fat boy" might emerge again for awhile. Munoz admitted it happened after the Boetsch fight.

"I was enjoying myself," Munoz said. "I ate my momma's home cooking, I ate some In ‘n' Out, some Five Guys, some pizza. I was enjoying myself. But I was training. It wasn't the state where I was trying to eat to fill a void. It was eating because I love that food. I was a fat boy, but just for a little while."

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