Mark Munoz will be a little wistful when he watches the upcoming Olympics on television. A two-time state high school wrestling champion from Vallejo who later won an NCAA title at Oklahoma State, Munoz twice tried to make the U.S. Olympic team.
"My dream was to win a gold medal representing my country, but it didn't happen, "Munoz said. "I'll always consider myself a wrestler. But these are the cards I was dealt, and my storyline is different now."
Munoz isn't complaining. He has found a second, more lucrative career in the rising sport of mixed martial arts. Munoz will fight Chris Weidman in the featured middleweight bout on the UFC on Fuel TV card at HP Pavilion on Wednesday.
Like many of MMA's biggest stars, including South Bay heavyweight Cain Velasquez, Munoz and Weidman made the jump from amateur wrestling. They are part of a trend that has resulted in a curious juxtaposition. MMA is booming while wrestling, one of the ancient Olympic competitions, has become an endangered sport in the United States.
"It's very hard to make a living as a wrestler, "said Munoz, 34, a father of four. "I tried, and it's tough. You end up living paycheck to paycheck each month, and you really weren't even getting paychecks, just a stipend. But with MMA, you can make pretty good money."
And as wrestling gets its 15 minutes of fame at the London Games, it's an open question if MMA is siphoning away potential American medals.
"Does it hurt, our Olympic team? "asked U.S. freestyle coach Zeke Jones. "Maybe you could say that we're losing some of our best talent. But who knows if Cain Velasquez or any of those MMA fighters would have made the team if they had kept wrestling?"
In fact Jones prefers to view the MMA phenomenon as a potential recruiting tool that can help resuscitate U.S. wrestling, which has high hopes for London.
"The way I look at, we get a lot of exposure through MMA, "Jones said. "There's no question that wrestling gave them tools to become great fighters, and everybody notices that."
After dominating international freestyle wrestling for decades, the United States has been in a drought -- winning just one gold medal in each of the past two Olympics. Financially strapped collegiate athletic departments have cut programs, and there's little money to be made by Olympic hopefuls as they toil in obscurity.
Munoz knows firsthand. He tried to wrestle, raise a family and coach at UC Davis. He describes a system in which the limited financial support available was directed toward the top contender in each weight class.
"It was impossible, "he said. "If you actually are the No. 1 guy, you can make it work. But if you're not, it's a totally different story."
Five years ago, with his own Olympic goal behind him, Munoz figured it was time to become a full-time coach when former UC Davis wrestler Urijah "The California Kid "Faber told him he would be perfect for MMA.
"What's MMA? "Munoz asked.
Now fighting with the nickname of "The Filipino Wrecking Machine, "Munoz easily made the transition as he learned the striking element of the combat sport. He takes a 12-2 record into this fight against the 8-0 Weidman, a former Hofstra All-American who competed in the 2008 Olympic trials. Weidman, 28, decided to switch to MMA rather than keep training for this year's trials.
Leaving the mat for the steel cage has become common. According to the UFC, more than 68 percent of its fighters wrestled at least in high school. Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz are among the former collegiate wrestlers who became MMA trailblazers -- helping to make the sport palatable for the mainstream public.
Velasquez, who was an All-American at Arizona State, points out that there's only one high school and college sport that puts athletes on a path for MMA: wrestling.
"It really does give you a little taste of what it takes to be a mixed martial artist, "said Velasquez, 29, who will fight to reclaim the UFC heavyweight title in the fall. "You learn the value of hard work and just how hard to you can push your body. It's the same thing in MMA."
The bonus is being able to pay your bills. But Jones, a 1992 silver medalist, counters that Olympic glory can be priceless.
"You're representing something more than yourself, "Jones said. "I'm sure there's a lot more money and certainly a lot more media attention in MMA. It's just so much bigger. But we have a group of wrestlers who love the sport because of the same values they had as little kids."
Boosters also have created a Living the Dream Medal Fund to encourage wrestlers to stick around. The reward system includes a top payout of $250,000 for an Olympic gold medal. Performances have improved as the United States finished third at last year's world championships and now heads for the Games led by defending 74-kilogram world champion Jordan Burroughs.
Someday wrestling might even be joined in the five-ringed circus by its MMA cousin. UFC head Dana White is in favor of his sport becoming an Olympic event. But the process of adding sports to the Games is lengthy.
Meanwhile, Munoz will be paying close attention to the wrestling competition in London.
"I know all those guys on the team, "he said. "I do miss the camaraderie of the wrestling world. Those were the best times in my life."
But now he has business in the cage.
by Mark Emmons