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Mark Munoz happy his MMA 'journey' to end in 'the place it all started'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In the best-case scenario, Mark Munoz would go to Manila and walk through Luke Barnatt in front of his entire ancestry. He would do away with the last couple of losses where he was a shell of himself, and return to the "Donkey Kong" version that obliterated C.B. Dollaway and Chris Leben. He would remind everybody that he was a contender at 185 pounds, and that -- despite evidence to the contrary -- "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" is still a threat to the throne, even as frames himself on the sunset.

And yet, even if that best-case scenario comes to pass at UFC Fight Night 66, Munoz is calling it a career after the fight. His kids are growing. His wife is waiting. His gym, the Reign Training Center in Lake Forest, is sold. Nothing will change his mind. 

"I still know there’s more in me -- I don’t think, I know," Munoz says. "And there’s a lot of speculation with people and critics and onlookers saying, ‘hey, I respect Mark Munoz, but he needs to retire.’ But they don’t know all the behind the scenes stuff. They don’t see me training in the gym with all the elite mixed martial artists that come through Reign Training Center. They don’t see that.

"But I need to be a man who does what he says and says what he does."

What people have seen of late is a 37-year old man who has been slowly coughing up the ghost over the course of his last three fights. Munoz lost to Lyoto Machida (head kick), Gegard Mousasi (rear-naked choke) and Roan Carneiro (rear-naked choke), a string of losses that made the writing on the wall that much more legible.

Still, he has waiting a long time for the UFC to visit the Philippines, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to compete there. He’s made many trips to Manila and Quezon City as an ambassador of MMA and he arranged fundraisers to help when Typhoon Haiyan hit the country’s coasts. Since Munoz began fighting in the UFC in 2009, he’s become something of an icon over there. If he was going to fight one last time, why not make it the Philippines? 

The poetry of his circumstances isn’t lost on him.

"It means the world. It really does," he says. "This is where it all started for my family. I’ve been able to make a name for myself in this sport, and inspire and motivate Filipinos to get into mixed martial arts. It just means the world to me to be able to go back and represent the Philippines. It’s like a dream come true to go back and end my career there. It’s a chapter of my life I’ll forever cherish. Mixed martial arts, I will cherish that for the rest of my life. And to be able to end it in a country where it all started with my family…I love it. I couldn’t haven’t have asked for a better ending."

Such an ending comes from a very late beginning. Munoz was a Division I wrestler at Oklahoma State, where he won a national championship as a senior. It wasn’t until he was 30 years old -- at the urging of Urijah Faber, whom he was coaching at UC Davis -- that he began competing professionally in MMA.  

During a stretch from 2009-2011, Munoz won seven of his eight fights in the UFC, the one loss a narrow split decision against Yushin Okami. The run put him in a position to make a play for the belt. The last hurdle was a bout with Chris Weidman in July 2012. Everybody knows what happened. Weidman scored the knockout (and followed that up with a victory over then champion Anderson Silva) and Munoz never could reposition himself back into contention.

Munoz says he thinks about how far he could have gone if he’d started in MMA earlier in life, but ultimately he doesn’t get caught up in what could have been.

"That did cross my mind a few times, but I would never take back the journey I’ve had," he says. "I could think about and speculate about how my life would be if I’d gotten into everything at 22 years old, but I wouldn’t have my wife or my precious kids or all of that. I’m very thankful for what I have now. I’d rather celebrate what I have.

"I’ve done a lot, but I wanted that 12-pound gold strap around my waist. I wanted that so bad. But I have precious treasure at home. There are goals you set for yourself, [and] there are other goals you didn’t set that you accomplish. I didn’t think I would have a speaking career, but I do now."

Munoz, who sold his Reign gym a couple of weeks ago, says he will segue into coaching wrestling. The UFC has been in contact with him about taking over the wrestling program and developing it. And as always, he’ll be doing myriad other projects at the same time. He has seminars and clinics that he runs. He gives inspirational speeches to businesses. His son’s high school has been in contact to step in and coach. He runs an anti-bullying campaign. He’s a father of four.

So, he says, win or lose, Saturday’s fight with Barnatt is the end of his professional career as a cagefighter.

"It’s tough because I didn’t have the year I wanted to last year," he says. "I had a lot of injuries heading into fights. A lot of it was induced by my schedule and all the things I was doing. I was owning and operating Reign, all my speaking engagements, a lot of stuff.

"I don’t regret anything I do in my life, although there are a lot of things that happen. It’s all learning experience. It’s not about the destination, it’s not where you want to go, it’s about the journey. It’s about the process. It’s about everything you learn throughout."

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