Last year was the low end of the spectrum for Mark Munoz. After a dominant 2011 campaign which saw the "Filipino Wrecking Machine" pick up three solid wins and climb into the upper tier of the 185-pound weight class, the following 12 months were filled with the type of adversity that could topple lesser men.
Following his victory over Chris Leben at UFC 138, Munoz was slated to face Chael Sonnen at UFC on Fox 2 in Chicago. The bout was figured by most to determine the next contender to Anderson Silva's crown, a goal the former NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion has been chasing since dropping down into middleweight waters.
Unfortunately for Munoz, an elbow injury would scratch him from the fight, and the surgery to repair the damage would keep him out for the first half of 2012. The 34-year-old would make his return to the Octagon against surging contender Chris Weidman. Despite his lengthy absence, the bout still carried title implications, but it wasn't the performance Munoz was hoping for as he suffered a second-round knockout at the hands of the Ray Longo product.
Never one to be deterred by hardship, the Team Reign leader has set his sights on making 2013 the year where his goals will be accomplished. In Munoz's mind, he's had to adjust at every level of competition, and a year filled with setbacks has provided the inspiration for a huge comeback.
“I’ve always struggled at the beginning of my careers, whether it was wrestling or different levels of competition, it was hard in the beginning for me," Munoz told Bleacher Report. "I struggled at the start of my wrestling career but I ended up excelling once I became comfortable and developed my style. Right now, I’m still fairly new to mixed martial arts. I’ve only been doing this for four and a half years.
"I’m a perfectionist. I pride myself in learning as much as I can. I’ve learned throughout every fight, especially my losses. This last loss is a setback for sure but setbacks are just a set up for a comeback. I’ve learned from it and it is time to move on. I’m staying positive and I’m going to keep shooting for that title because that is what I want the most.”
Munoz's positive perspective is highly regarded throughout the sport. His reputation as one of MMA's "good guys" is a well-earned label, and when faced with the current trend of trash-talking and posturing to get higher-profile fights, Munoz is confident he'll find his way through without compromising his character.
This situation came briefly into play last year when a recently signed Hector Lombard lashed out at Munoz after comments the Filipino made in an interview. The Cuban powerhouse asked to fight Munoz, and while time has passed and the face of the division changed, the former Oklahoma State wrestling standout isn't opposed to a potential showdown between two of the UFC's top middleweights.
“The Lombard fight makes sense," Munoz said. "He came into the UFC and got upset with me saying he doesn’t deserve a title shot. He has to win a few times to be considered and he got mad at that. I was just being honest and up front.
"I’ve been in the division and the UFC for over three years and I felt that was the proper order of things. He got upset about the things I said and we’ll see how it turns out. We’ll see if our paths cross. If it does—cool, but if not, I won’t be hurt off it either.
“Fans are never going to see me take the villain role. I’m going to do things on my terms and according to the way I was raised. I carry myself with respect and any fighter I face; I’m going to respect them as well. But at the same time, I’m not going to fear anyone.
"I’m a competitor and I want to get to the top. I definitely set a goal and I want to accomplish that goal. I’m not going to put on that black hat and just start talking trash about everyone I step into the cage with. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give them respect and we will settle things in the cage.”
The road to the top is a difficult path to travel. While Munoz may still be fairly new in his career as a mixed martial artist, it is a climb he has made before. Plenty of variables come into play as a fighter attempts to make his way into contender status. With the recent formula detouring from the normal sum of wins and losses, additional obstacles have been added. While it isn't the way Munoz is used to things being handled, he also understands the business of the matter.
“When you look at competition you want things to go to who deserves it the most," Munoz said. "But at the same time, I see where the UFC is going with giving people fights that are going to draw a lot of attention. This is a business and you have to match business and what is fair in competition as well.
"You don’t want to continue to give other people fights when someone is doing their darndest to work their way to the No. 1 contender spot trying to earn their shot at the title. You can’t just keep skipping over people. That being said, there are certain fights the people want to see.
"I come from the sport of wrestling and you see returning national champions come in and get beat first round. If they get beat first round, they are not wrestling for a title. That is where I came from and that is what is fair. You get beat—you have to wait. I’ve experienced this twice in mixed martial arts.
"I reached the pinnacle twice. I lost to Yushin Okami and had to win four straight before even being considered for a contender position. I reached that peak again, lost to Chris Weidman, and here we go again. For me it is about deserving a title shot and doing what is necessary to accomplish that goal.
"I’ve done things within the realm of competition but I’m starting to become aware of this being a business as well. I have to be a business man too and under these circumstances I have to voice my opinion."
Many things combine to make a fighter successful, but work ethic and determination are high on the list of intangibles which can take an athlete to the next level. Fortunately for Munoz, those attributes are in heavy supply, and he has every intention of climbing his way back to contention in the coming year.
“You are going to see a different Mark Munoz in 2013," he said. "Especially when it comes to a more well-rounded striking game. That has always been my weak link and people know that. Striking is an area I’ve put a lot of focus on and people are going to see improvements in that aspect of my game.
"I pride myself on learning and continuing to improve as a competitor, but at the same time, I go in there with ferocity and intensity. Fans are always going to see that from me but I’m coming into the new year a different man.
"I’m excited for what the new year is going to bring. I’m going to work my butt off to reach where I want to be, but I’m not going to be a punk in the process. I’m going to treat people the way I want to be treated. I use the Golden Rule and I’ll continue to be considered one of the nicest guys in the sport."