Pedro Munhoz has learned to balance passion for fighting with inner peace

Munhoz, Sterling hoping to cement status atop bantamweight division (1:52)

Top bantamweight contenders Pedro Munhoz and Aljamain Sterling have had a war of words ahead of their UFC 238 bout. For more UFC on ESPN+, sign up here http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (1:52)

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- Pedro Munhoz still remembers the scene from his first fight.

Munhoz, a bantamweight contender who will face Aljamain Sterling at UFC 238 in Chicago on Saturday, would ride with his grandparents to the spot in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he was raised.

Folks from the neighborhood would gather around them. Some carried guns as they rooted for the combatants.

Munhoz was a child then. His opponents were his cousins. Their Octagon was a bar.

"Yeah, it's crazy but that's the reality," Munhoz said. "That was the first fight that I did -- probably when I was 4, 5, 6 years old. There were a lot of truck drivers -- crazy, carrying guns. They'd put the chairs to the side and then [say] 'you, you' and then boom, we start fighting."

Those early brawls provided a unique education and quickly developed Munhoz's passion for fighting.

While he's known for grappling (he has nine submission victories on his résumé), Munhoz excelled in judo, boxing and Muay Thai when he was young. As a teenager, however, he found Brazilian jiu-jitsu on a trip to Blockbuster, where he rented VHS tapes of the UFC's earliest cards, which featured MMA icon Royce Gracie.

But he lacked balance. Munhoz only knew fighting -- even to the point that when he and the neighborhood kids would play soccer, the matches would end in brawls.

"I love to fight, and actually, sometimes I gotta like, be chill, be able to not fight in other areas of my life, besides my sport," Munhoz said.

His wife Varinea, a yoga instructor, helped him to find that piece of him. She encouraged him to seek a more balanced approach to his life, inside and outside the cage, after a troubling moment during her first trip to Brazil with her husband.

They'd decided to grab something to eat late at night. Varinea parked the car and searched her purse for lip gloss, but before she could apply it, Munhoz nervously fidgeted. In Munhoz's mind, the extra seconds in a parked vehicle meant a carjacker who might have been watching them would have had more time to attack them.

"He just about panicked," Varinea said of that moment. "He said, 'Varinea, you can't be out here! People will swoop in.' That's what he always had in the back of his subconscious mind. Somebody is always trying to get you."

With the help of his wife, Munhoz found meditation and is now a different fighter in a different state of mind. For the first time in his life, he can pause. He has found peace outside the cage that eluded him earlier in his career.

"Before, I used to do all this stuff for myself," Munhoz said. "Today, I have a family I support. They're in there in the house, waiting for me to come back."

While teaching youth jiu-jitsu classes at American Top Team's gym last month, Munhoz urged his students to focus. One energetic kid continued to aimlessly flop around the mat.

"Do the drills the right way," Munhoz told him in a direct but friendly voice.

This is the subdued side of a fighter who punctuated a three-fight win streak with a vicious knockout victory over former UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt in March. Munhoz, a jiu-jitsu black belt, and Garbrandt won Fight of the Night honors after a wild exchange in the first round that concluded when Munhoz caught Garbrandt with a right hook and finished him off with hammer fists.

For Munhoz, the No. 4 bantamweight in the UFC's rankings, a convincing win over the third-ranked Sterling could catapult the Brazilian into a matchup against the winner of the Henry Cejudo-Marlon Moraes fight for the vacant bantamweight belt that headlines Saturday's card.

Yet, Munhoz still wrestles with his identity outside the cage. He trains others about his passion and is a father who enjoys his time with his two children -- a 5-year-old daughter with his wife and her 15-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

When he met his wife, he was sleeping in the Los Angeles-area gym where he trained and taught youth classes. The little girl who would become his stepdaughter was in one of Munhoz's classes.

Varinea immediately admired his grit and determination. Like so many fighters who sacrifice everything to pursue their dreams, Munhoz left Brazil with no promises and a few bucks in his pocket.

Beyond that, however, his wife also noticed how difficult it was for her husband to settle down when he wasn't training, so she encouraged him to find his Zen.

"[Fighting] made him a hard-ass, but he's now figuring out he doesn't have to be that hard-ass," Varinea said. "It's really nice to see him grow as an individual and embrace life and not always be looking out over his shoulder. That was always a thing in the beginning. It's like, 'Dude, drink a beer.' He definitely struggled."

She encouraged him to grow more comfortable in what she calls life's "stillness." He didn't make immediate changes. But he has gradually embraced some of the principles.

Munhoz soon began to relax more after leaving the gym. Living just five minutes from American Top Team's facility in Coconut Creek helped with that, Varinea said.

He was surrounded by violence in Brazil, but the kid who learned to scrap in bars is now at peace.

In the gym, however, he's still the relentless athlete who yearns for more. And he may be just one fight away from the title shot he has searched for.

"I have to go there on June 8, do what I've always been doing," Munhoz said. "Try to finish the fight. Knock him out, submit him. And I believe the title is gonna be the next step."