Wrestling still Munoz's smartest play

Mark Munoz is playing everything pretty smart prior to his UFC 138 bout against Chris Leben. Now let’s hope -- for his sake -- the former NCAA wrestling champion knows where to draw the line between gamesmanship and game planning.

Munoz has done a good job sending mixed messages about what his strategy will be this weekend. He’s vowed to take Leben down, but seems eager to slug it out a bit on the feet first. He’s noted that he’s a bad stylistic matchup for “The Crippler,” but has also promised fireworks for the fans. He’s talked up his ground and pound, but also says he’s so confident in his stand-up that he expects Leben to struggle with his movement and his angles.

He’s even gone as far as to say the outcome of this bout might boil down to his bricklayer right hand against Leben’s Mack Truck left.

Of course, that's crazy.

Everybody knows Munoz’s best chance to beat Leben -- maybe his only chance -- will be to use his wrestling, put “The Crippler” on his back and keep him there. All this lip service about testing out his evolving striking game is just that ... right?

Not if you ask Leben. It sure sounds like he wants to believe Munoz will brawl with him, promising fans an exciting war on Saturday night and proclaiming that he and Munoz are both fighters who “go for it.”

“The reason I know I’m going to beat Mark Munoz is that he’s starting to think he’s a striker,” Leben told UFC.com this week. “He’s going to go out there thinking he can stand and swing with me and I’m going to knock his head into the third row.”

Indeed, it'd be tempting to dismiss Munoz’s apparent willingness to bang as an obvious ruse if not for the troubling history of world-class grapplers getting seduced by striking in MMA. Some guys invest so much time and effort trying to get away from the old wrestler's mindset that once they start feeling more comfortable going toe-to-toe, they act like a kid with a new toy.

At times there can nothing more self-destructive than a wrestler who suddenly fancies himself a great striker. To date, Munoz has mostly been able to steer clear of that pitfall -- at least since he got knocked out by Matt Hamill in a light heavyweight fight back in March 2009 -- and it's unthinkable to imagine he'd make such a mistake now. It’s one thing to showcase your hands against CB Dollaway and Demian Maia, but Leben is a different animal entirely.

Munoz would be foolhardy to play around on the feet with Leben any longer than he absolutely has to. After all, this is a guy who seems to take unique pleasure in getting punched in the face and who has crafted an improbable UFC career for himself based almost solely on heart and his uncanny ability to sucker opponents into a brawl.

Nope, if Munoz is as smart as we think he is, he’ll test Leben’s stand-up just long enough to distract him from his legs, and then take them out from under him.