At UFC 138 this weekend, the main event will see Mark Munoz face Chris Leben. On paper, this looks like a classic striker vs. grappler match-up, with Leben bringing his years of stand-up experience in the cage, and Munoz countering with his strong wrestling background. But in his 13 fight career, Munoz has moved past those wrestling credentials to become a well rounded fighter with a striking game of his own. The question is, can he beat The Crippler at his own game? Let's break down the striking of Mark Munoz and see what we can figure out.
Munoz's striking has come a long way since he made his WEC debut three years ago. At that time, his stand-up skills were rudimentary, only there to complement his wrestling game. In his UFC debut, fellow wrestler Matt Hamill made him pay for that, knocking Munoz cold with a head kick. Since then, we've seen great improvements in his stand-up game.
- Power shots. Munoz has a lot of power in his hands - a fact that he has shown with his multiple ground and pound stoppages. In the stand-up, he plays to that power well, relying primarily on power punches such as hooks and uppercuts. He does two things well with these shots. First, he is good with his technique. Munoz has developed into a studied striker, who will pivot the hips, and lift the elbow nicely on the hook, using the proper form to add to his natural power. Second, he is not wild with these shots. Many fighters who rely on power punches tend to throw them with abandon, but Munoz maintains his composure and keeps looking to find the openings instead of forcing them.
- Movement. He is very light on his feet, giving him the ability to quickly move in and out, either to strike or to defend. For Munoz, this is a particularly good attribute, as it not only improves his striking game, it also allows him to quickly get inside and shoot for a takedown.
- Ability to adjust. Munoz showed this ability very well in the Demian Maia fight, and I broke it down in a Judo Chop. After the first round against Maia, Munoz's corner helped him make an adjustment to capitalize on the holes in Maia's defense. Munoz came out for round 2 with a plan on how he would connect on Maia, and he used that plan to win the fight. That ability to reassess the situation and make adjustments is an overlooked skill.
Overall, much improvement from his WEC fights and his first two UFC outings, as Mark Munoz is now a respectable striker.
More analysis, with gifs, in the full entry.
Again, he's shown great improvements and worked to limit his weaknesses. Earlier in his career, Munoz had terrible hand positioning, keeping his hands wide and low and leaving a giant hole up the middle. He's largely taken care of that tendency, though some weaknesses remain.
- Defensive positioning. Those hands are better, but Munoz can still be hit. Kendall Grove found the holes, particularly when Munoz shot for the takedown. He still keeps the hands out at times, not bringing them back into position after throwing a punch (and sometimes does the same with his kicks). Maia used this to land in their first round.
- Too much movement. As I said above, he's light on his feet, but sometimes too light. He doesn't always plant himself when throwing a punch, which can take away his power. He also is quick to move in and out, but doesn't always maintain angles when he does so. At times, he'll move straight back, which leaves him open to being trapped against the cage and caught.
These are weaknesses that Munoz is addressing in his game, but he'll need to have them addressed to face Chris Leben. In particular, he can't let himself get tagged by Leben. If he keeps his defenses wide, those powerful Leben shots will come through and cause him serious trouble.
Below is a sequence from round 2 against Maia. Munoz uses that nice movement to close the distance and get inside, where he lands a powerful right-left combo. Notice though how he keeps the hands out of position after the punches. Maia is retreating, and so can not capitalize, but it's a hole.
Also from the Maia fight, here's Maia connecting with his own punches. He succeeds here because Munoz is keeping his left hand loose, and takes steps directly backwards instead of off at an angle.
Here are a pair of nice power punches against CB Dollaway. Both shots are executed very well, and display the power Munoz possesses.
Finally, one more example of Munoz leaving his hands wide and his head down, and Kendall Grove finding his chin.
I am impressed by Munoz's dedication to an improved striking game. That improvement is such that it's hard to say exactly where he will be when he steps in the cage at UFC 138. Will he have worked to continue that improvement as he prepares to face a powerful striker in Chris Leben? Hopefully he has, because while Munoz's hands pack power, Leben is the kind of veteran who can make you pay for any gaps in your defense. If Munoz has closed those gaps, and can connect, he has the skill to get a rare stoppage victory over The Crippler.