In the cage, Mark Munoz is known as the Filipino Wrecking Machine who bested Tim Boetsch after Munoz recovered from a foot injury and depression-induced obesity. Outside, Mark Munoz is the nicest guy in the UFC and a Christian whose life changed when he turned to God.
“You look back on what happened and all the events that happen in your life, and I see God’s hand on it all,” Mark says in a This Is Me video. “And now I can give people hope.”
Mark’s introduction to professional fighting came by way of getting mugged in the 8th grade. Five kids shoe-lace-tackled him from behind, beat and kicked him and stripped him of his Jordans. He walked home barefoot and, ashamed, faked sickness for as long as he could to not go back to school.
“What happened to your J’s,” a friend taunted.
Mark didn’t want to recount his humiliation on the street. But eventually word got out. That’s when a friend, wanting him to learn how to stand up to bullies and young thugs, invited him to train in wrestling, but Mark wanted no part of it.
“Nah man,” he retorted. “You guys wear tight leotards and touch each other in funny places, man. I’m good.”
His buddy wasn’t going to be denied so quickly. “I bet you I can take you down in 10 seconds,” he challenged.
“Yeah right,” Mark responded. “I’m 150 pounds, and you’re barely 100 pounds. There’s no way you’re going to take me down.”
Mark broke into a fighting stance.
With two seconds, his friend darted in, picked him up and slammed him on his back.
“I’m like, if wrestling gives you superpowers, I want it,” Mark surmised.
What started in the eighth grade carried through to his senior year in high school. Mark became state champion twice, placed second at junior nationals and second at junior worlds, he says. He earned a full-ride scholarship to Oklahoma State University. He was on the national team twice and tried out for the Olympic team.
“But God had different plans,” he says.
He returned to California to study at UC Davis and met Urijah Favor, who introduced him to MMA. At first, Mark wanted no part of professional fighting; he was coaching and had a wife with four kids while getting his master’s degree.
“And probably my wife won’t allow me to do it either,” he told Urijah.
Just like the wrestling friend in eighth grade, Urijah wasn’t going to be denied so quickly.
Mark wound up going to a UFC practice. The “Who’s Who of UFC” at the time were all there. Spontaneously, he got in the ring to spar with Randy Couture, a legend in UFC and former Army sergeant with training in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Mark didn’t know what the MMA techniques were and was trying to learn and incorporate them in the ring.
“I end up snapping Randy Couture’s head back a little bit, and Urijah smacked into my chest and said, ‘See bro, I told you homie, you can do this,’” Mark remembers.
A year later he was in UFC. He launched Reign Wrestling Club in Laguna Hills and attracted some big names to his gym. He had won 4-fights straight. But he was overworking. He injured his foot but, thinking it was just sore, tried to be the tough man and keep preparing.
In his next fight against Chris Weidman, he got elbowed in the head and knocked out instantly.
“I woke up in a pool of blood,” he says.
“I don’t remember anything of that night.”
When he was seen by the doctor, Mark learned his foot was broken. He was out of fighting for a year.
He subsidized his gym and provided for his family through fighting. But when he was sidelined, building anxiety brought depression, and his coping mechanism was to overeat. From 185, he ballooned up to 265. “I ate and ate and ate.”
The year was up, and he had to go down — on his weight.
“I had to go from obese back to beast,” he says.
That’s where God and hard training helped him overcome “the victim mindset of wallowing in my sorrow and not doing anything,” he says. “It definitely was a hard time in my life.
“I had to snap out of my mental state and get into a routine and start countering my negative thoughts with positive thoughts,” Mark says. “For me it was going to a men’s Bible study, going to church, going to a small group, making sure I’m plugged in and getting fellowship. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I would be right now.”
One year and two months after he was benched by the foot injury, he agreed to fight Tim Boetsch.
“I came away with the victory that night,” he says. “That was my best performance ever.”
“The bullying incidents led me to choosing wrestling, and wrestling led me to becoming a champion on the mat,” he says. “I wouldn’t be known today as the nicest guy in the UFC or as the Filipino Wrecking Machine if what happened to me in the eighth grade didn’t happen. I wouldn’t have the ministry I have. Joy is a choice.
“I equate wrestling to life and wrestling to spiritual life. If you’re being held down by a certain circumstances, you’ve got to figure a way out. You’ve got to figure out a way to rise above it.”
He rose above it by finding strength, direction and renewed purpose with God.
Bryan Gutierrez studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Los Angeles.