The reward for stopping Chris Leben after 10 minutes on Saturday should include top contender status in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s middleweight division, as far as Mark Munoz is concerned.
“I paid my dues in this weight class and I think I deserve a title shot,” Munoz said after beating Leben at UFC 138. “Anderson Silva is by far the best pound-for-pound fighter. I give him all the respect and honor, but I think I deserve a title shot right now.”
Munoz defeated Leben in the main event of UFC’s return to Birmingham, England. Leben’s cornermen halted the bout after two rounds because their fighter could not see, with blood into his left eye from a cut caused by Munoz’s strikes on the ground.
“Hard to fight when you’re choking on blood,” Leben said. “I’m definitely going to need to evaluate my ground game after that performance … He beat me tonight. My hat’s off to Munoz.”
There was no secret about Munoz’s game plan going into the bout. The former collegiate champion wrestler survived Leben’s powerful punches and took him down repeatedly to set up the ground-and-pound assault that has been the hallmark of most Munoz victories.
Leben at times appeared to connect solidly with hooks. He also grappled well early, stuffing some of Munoz’s shots, attempting chokes and even getting a takedown of his own in the first round.
“I knew I had to look out for his left hand, and he came with it,” Munoz said. “I had to get rid of my brawling instincts and I had to stick to my wrestling.”
His persistence paid off. Leben’s face was bloody by the middle of the second round from eating several punches thrown by Munoz from top position. Referee Marc Goddard paused the fight with less than 90 seconds remaining in the round, and although he allowed the fight to continue after a cursory check from the doctor, Leben told his corner before the third round that he could not see.
Leben is now 0-2 headlining UFC shows in Birmingham. He lost a decision to Michael Bisping in the main event of an October 2008 event in England’s second-most populated city.
Whether Munoz’s fight will be for the middleweight title remains to be seen. UFC officials are trying to put together a fight between champion Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, the No. 2 middleweight in the USA TODAY/MMA Nation consensus rankings after crushing No. 8 Brian Stann last month. The mutual disdain between Silva and Sonnen — not to mention the excitement of their fight last year, nearly won by Sonnen — gives that rematch a natural storyline.
Munoz’s relationship with Silva could not be more different than Sonnen’s. Silva and Munoz trained together for several months and remain friends.
But No. 4 Munoz has a four-fight winning streak, including victories over top-13 opponents in his last two bouts. He has won seven of eight UFC fights as a middleweight, with his only loss a close decision to No. 3 Yushin Okami. Munoz is the top-rated middleweight who hasn’t fought for a UFC belt yet.
In the co-main event, Renan Barao used a rear-naked choke to submit home country favorite Brad Pickett in the first round.
The beginning of the end came when Barao floored Pickett with a left knee strike and a straight right punch. Barao landed several punches on his downed opponent, then quickly climbed his back and secured the choke, which was tight enough to force a tapout although the arm was across Pickett’s chin, rather than underneath it.