BIRMINGHAM, England -- Carrying a card that had mainly flown under the radar, Mark Munoz came into UFC 138 knowing he had to make the main bout exciting. And make it exciting he did.
He did it in his own way, however, using his wrestling to dominate the action. Although Chris Leben is skilled at forcing his opponents to engage in bloody brawls, Munoz stuck to his promise, using his self-described “Donkey Kong” ground-and-pound to finish the fight after two rounds.
As highly regarded a wrestler for MMA as Munoz is, few can question his stand-up these days. After dropping to middleweight, the Filipino Wrecking Machine has confronted and defeated some excellent opposition. Against Leben, Munoz again showed his pedigree on the feet and on the mat. Shooting in early to establish control, Munoz surprised no one, least of all Leben, as he secured the double-leg takedown and got straight to work.
Leben, for his part, showed his usual grit and tenacity, searching for a guillotine and making his opponent work before making it back to his feet.
The up-and-down pace of the opening minutes would, however, be the tale of the tape in this bout.
Back on the feet in the clinch, Munoz drilled in heavy body shots, clearly looking to deplete Leben's gas tank. Taking a leaf out of Brian Stann's notebook proved a wise choice as The Crippler began to tire. Although Leben made it a tough contest, scoring his own takedowns and submission attempts, Munoz showed that he could stick to his game plan under pressure and regain control.
While in trouble at the end of the round, taking punishment on the floor, Munoz was by far the fresher man going into the second. Five rounds seemed like a fairy tale when it came to this fight, and with Leben seemingly struggling after the first, Munoz poured on the pressure. But, as ever, Leben seemed to get better the more he got hit, and he continued marching forward.
"I hit him so hard. He's got a granite chin, and I wanted to test it and I did," an incredulous Munoz said after the fight. "I hit him so hard, but I'm persistent. I was happy to keep hitting him until he fell over."
It proved unnecessary in the end, as Munoz's shots on the ground opened up a big cut, forcing referee Marc Goddard to halt the action to allow the doctor to check the injury. As promised, Munoz had unleashed his Donkey Kong style with the desired effect. When the action restarted, Leben stalked forward again, but Munoz stuck to the game plan, scrambling out of another guillotine to take his opponent's back and land thudding punches. Leben was done, unable to rise from his stool to go into the third.
The end was testament to Munoz's conditioning and power. He'd proved that he could handle the pressure Leben brought and that his wrestling was superior and damaging. Far from riding out a decision, Munoz was there to finish the fight.
"I'm confident in my hands, but the game plan was to work the angles, get in and out and use my speed and then get on top,” Munoz said. “I'm confident in my game, and I know I hit hard on top.
“I don't think I ever rocked Leben; he seemed to just walk through my punches, but it was a great fight."
The postfight news conference was littered with possible title shot contention questions for Munoz, and although the middleweight felt that he'd paid his dues in the division, UFC president Dana White wouldn't be drawn into making a comment. The Filipino Wrecking Machine did, however, put on a stellar performance. Stopping a fighter as tough as Leben and displaying a cerebral approach to a fight that had brawl written all over it showed that Munoz is a professional athlete who, in MMA terms, possesses some of the most brutal ground-and-pound the division has seen (Chael Sonnen aside).
Title shot or not, Munoz definitely earned the respect of Leben as well as the fans and put himself firmly in line for any number of big, main-card bouts.