by Tom Hamlin – MMAWeekly.com
Mark Munoz didn’t think a trip to the UFC was a forgone conclusion. When his home base, World Extreme Cagefighting, announced it was shuttering his 205-pound division last September, he figured his December fight would need to impress parent company Zuffa’s executives.

“I thought it was up in the air,” Munoz told MMAWeekly Radio. “I didn’t know what they were thinking. I heard they were going to pick a select few. I knew I had to put out some good performances. I wanted to get another knockout or TKO to solidify my shot and it happened to be that way.”

He did what he was supposed to do, stopping Ricardo Barros in the first round of their WEC 37 fight. The victory kept him undefeated in five professional appearances.

But as it turned out, Munoz had already impressed the right people.

“After the fight, my manager said, ‘you were going to the UFC anyway,'” he said.

This Saturday, Munoz makes his UFC debut against fellow wrestler Matt Hamill, already fourth billed on the main card of the Arnold Classic weekend’s UFC 96. It’s quite a jump, but he believes wrestling experience and fights in the WEC will give him the confidence he needs.

“I’m extremely glad that I did have those experiences,” he said. “I think I’ve been groomed for this occasion, to be able to perform at this high level. Without that experience, I don’t think I’d be able to deal with the pressure.”

Munoz is a slight underdog in the fight, as bettors trade his Division I wrestling credentials for a lack of experience in the Octagon.

He sees more than just a technical battle for position when the two meet.

“I think the fight’s going to be won in transition, and the other disciplines,” Munoz said. “Obviously, we are going to use our wrestling to our advantage, but it’s going to be the little transitions here and there between boxing, Muay Thai, and jiu-jitsu that’s going to win the fight. We’re going to see who’s better in those disciplines and who’s prepared the most.”

Munoz worked with a variety of Southern California fighters to prepare, including UFC veteran Jason Lambert, Sengoku breakout Mohammed “Mo” Lawal, and Mike Guymon. For six weeks, he fought L.A. traffic to meet boxing guru Freddie Roach, the latest in a long line of current fighters to consult with the trainer.

“Boxing has been developing for me as of late, I’ve been picking everything up and weaving it into my wrestling,” said Munoz. “Working with Freddie opens my eyes to a bunch of different techniques and angles. His top thing is footwork, being able to get the angles.”

Hamill, a three-time Division III wrestling champ, has more than proven his willingness to stand in the pocket and trade. In his last appearance against decorated wrestler Reese Andy, Hamill often drifted into range with his hands down, willing to take a punch to give a punch. Not once did he prompt a dive to the canvas.

“I’m actually grateful that he took the fight,” said Munoz. “For me to have a big name, it’s great for me, because it’s a good barometer of where I’m at.”

Munoz says the key is pushing back before Hamill begins to build momentum.

“There’s not going to be a second that I’m going to want to take pressure off,” he said.

When Saturday comes, he’ll be ready to make the big leap.

“I love being the underdog,” he said. “I love the fact that nobody knows about me. For me, the level of preparedness is key. I could care less if people don’t know me… they’ll know me after the fight.”