When it came time to compete in MMA, Mark Munoz hit the ground running. And when it came time to stop, he crossed the finish line with few regrets.
By now, the story of Munoz’s retirement is well known, as are his reasons for doing so. He went out with a win, defeating Luke Barnatt by unanimous decision at a UFC Fight Night show on May 16, 2015, in his ancestral home of the Philippines. Though he wasn’t in the main or even co-main event spot that night, he was given the chance to say a proper farewell on national television.
Afterward, Munoz left his gloves in the octagon, which he recalls as the first time a UFC fighter used that symbolic gesture to signal their retirement. Along with someday winning a world title, it’s one of the moments that every fighter dreams of: standing triumphant in one final fight in front of an adoring crowd and getting to go out on your own terms.
And in Munoz’s case, sticking to it.
“To be able to do it in the Philippines, where I was fighting for my family,” he told MMA Fighting in a recent interview. “My parents were born and raised in the Philippines and I have four generations of my family still there, it was just crazy. Surreal, actually. When I was back there I couldn’t take five steps before somebody noticed me, it was crazy. It just made it that much more special. I got to see my family, and my immediate family got to go out there too and see everybody out there.
“It was just a great homecoming and to be able to do it there and go out on a win, I did not know Jon Anik was going to hand me the microphone like he did. I didn’t have a speech prepared or anything, I just spoke straight from the heart.”
Munoz, 42, was motivated to retire for reasons beyond just the recognition of his own fighting mortality, which helps to explain why he’s never gone back on his word. Perhaps the most significant factor was the athletic aspirations of his oldest son Trey, who told him that he was abandoning promising pursuits of baseball and soccer to focus on wrestling. Munoz was shocked at the time and warned Trey that the odds of getting a full-ride scholarship to wrestle for an NCAA Division 1 program were against him. But when Trey told him that he knew he could achieve his goal with dad in his corner, Munoz didn’t think twice about making Trey’s goal a priority.
Munoz was a stellar amateur wrestler himself at Oklahoma State, earning All-American status twice and winning a national championship in 2001. He returned to the school as an assistant coach and was there when the program won another national championship just two years later. So he’d been on both sides of the equation. If his son wanted to make it as a wrestler and have dad guide him, then he couldn’t have asked for a better guru.
“I broke down into tears,” Munoz said when Trey asked for his help in earning a Division 1 scholarship. “And I was like, you know what? I’m done. That’s the sign. I needed to be done. I already had tremendous guilt because I was away from the house and still providing for the family, but I wasn’t around. So no I wanted to be around. It’s been going great. I’m around the kids and been able to be a more attentive father and be there for my family.”
Long story short, it worked out. Last year, Trey went on to win titles at the state and national level. He earned that Division 1 scholarship offer too and soon he’ll join the Arizona State wrestling program, a team that has its own MMA connections with such names as Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader, and Dan Henderson having all represented the Sun Devils. With Trey choosing not to follow in his father’s collegiate footsteps, Munoz joked that he and Oklahoma State head coach John Smith might not be on speaking terms right now.
Regardless of what school Trey chose and the work it took to get there, Munoz is glad he was there every step of the way.
“There was a lot of times in there where we hit some bumps in the road,” Munoz said. “He was cutting weight and says, ‘Dad, did you ever cut so much weight that you feel like quitting?’ I said, ‘Yeah buddy, for sure. We’re gonna go up and we’re gonna put on muscle, because you’re going through puberty right now and you’ve got testosterone roaring through your body, so we’re going to lift.’ And he lifted and he went up four weight classes and made it to the finals of state and did amazing. Then the very next year he dominated at every event that he went to. Him hopping into my arms after he won state and nationals was just amazing.
“It’s crazy how we were able to connect and for me to be there by his side and for him to want to do it. Not a lot of people want to wrestle because wrestling is a very difficult sport and to start late like he did and to have some success is very unheard of. It’s really cool for me to sit back and see what he’s done and what he’s hopefully going to do, so yeah I’m just super proud of him and all my kids.”
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This was the best part of the night! To have your son run into your arms after accomplishing a goal after countless hours of spending time together, working on technique, problem solving, strategizing, discussing tactical strategies, meal preparation, & all the things it takes to become successful on the mat. Your mom @kristi_munoz & I will always be here for you son and hope that all that we have taught you goes into the next chapter into your life in college. We love you @treymunoz! #statechampionship #california #statechampion #wrestling #involvedparents #teamworkmakesthedreamwork #photocredit goes to @tony_rotundo_photography
As well as things have worked out for Trey, Munoz isn’t exactly living vicariously through his son. For one thing, his own combat sports career holds up well in retrospect. He finished with a 14-6 pro record after debuting at the age of 29 and making to the UFC less than two years later. He went 9-6 in the promotion, beating the likes of Tim Boetsch, Chris Leben, and Demian Maia, while falling just short against the middleweight division’s elite.
Now, he’s still coaching with Team Reign in California, he’s still working to help the military with unarmed combat techniques, and he’s still coaching wrestling. He recently was hired as head coach at Fairmont High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., where his youngest daughter expects to compete.
Getting in the gym, sharing his wisdom, hitting the mats—not to mention starring in movies—all of it has kept Munoz sharp and mostly free from thoughts of wanting to fight again. Besides, in the octagon and in the gym, he’s already stood toe-to-toe with the best.
“I coached everybody, I had the who’s who coming to me,” Munoz said. “Anderson Silva, the Nogueira brothers, Junior dos Santos, Rafael dos Anjos, Michael Bisping, Chael Sonnen, Alexander Shlemenko, Alexander Volkov, all the Russian guys. … I’m telling you, I know I’m missing a lot, but there were so many guys there that every round was a tough round.
“Before I opened up my gym, I trained in San Diego at Alliance. Brandon Vera and Alexander Gustafsson would come and visit, I trained at King’s too, so a lot of those guys would come like Fabricio Werdum and [Renato] “Babalu” [Sobral], and all those guys. It was a pretty crazy time in my life. I was coaching those guys, cornering them, and running a gym, and being an elite mixed martial artist, and trying to be a husband to a wife, and four kids that were all under the age of eight years old.”
Munoz explained that there was a time in his life when he was fighting just to keep his gym open after a business partner had to pull out during the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” thrived and went on to win seven of his first eight UFC fights competing at 185 pounds.
Yet a shot at then-champion Anderson Silva always eluded him. A January 2012 fight with Chael Sonnen never materialized due to Munoz having to bow out due to an injury. He also suffered losses to Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman, and Yushin Okami. Including Sonnen, all four of those men would eventually get a shot at UFC gold.
Asked if he ever thought about these missed opportunities, Munoz doesn’t shy away from wondering what could have been. Maybe if he’d focused on his own training instead of managing a gym, or traveled the country less to work with different fighters, or had better luck with the judges in the Okami fight, things would have gone differently.
Then again, all one has to do is look at that frozen moment of Munoz celebrating his son’s victory, and it becomes abundantly clear that when Munoz looks back at his career, it’s only with a knowing nod and a smile.
“Oh yeah, I think about that a lot,” Munoz said. “I was ranked in the top-5 for the last two and a half, three years I fought in the UFC. I was definitely in the top-10 in the last three years, three, four, five years. I was always scratching. I lost to Yushin Okami in a controversial split decision and he ended up going against Anderson Silva. I lost to Chris Weidman and he ended up fighting Anderson Silva. Then I lost to Machida and he ended up getting a title shot. It was like, ‘Gah! Dang! Gosh darn it! Oh my gosh.’
“I feel that had if I really focused on just being a fighter rather than doing everything that I was doing, like running a gym and training and cornering all these guys, running my wrestling club and traveling to different states around the country, I think it would have been quite different. And a lot of people in the gym were like, ‘Mark, you need to focus on fighting.’ But was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Hindsight is 20/20, it led me here, I’ve got a good job and it’s good. I know it sounds cliche when someone says everything happens for a reason, but it does. … I know I could have been a world champ, but then again my family comes before that and I made the right decision, for sure.”