According to the oddsmakers and many MMA fans around the world, Nick Newell was supposed to kick off his new Bellator contract with a victory on Saturday night at Bellator 232. Although the respect levels for his opponent were at an all-time high, Manny Muro had other ideas.
Despite being as high as a +550 underdog heading into this past weekend’s event at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., Muro overcame a tough opening round to pick up a split decision win over Newell, much to the dismay of the pro-Newell crowd.
While it will go down as a big upset, the result was exactly what “The Dragon” was expecting.
“It’s just now starting to (sink in), honestly,” Muro told BJPENN.com. “I genuinely believed in myself. It wasn’t anything that was downplaying Nick or anything like that, I just felt in my heart that this was set up for me to be successful. After it happened, I was focusing on remaining humble; not being disrespectful, just being a quality opponent. That was my mindset the whole time and now that I stepped away, it’s like ‘Wow, it happened! It really happened!’
“I just have a grateful heart and I feel like this was a good step for me to establish myself in the promotion, a good step for me to establish myself in this new season and chapter in my life to be like, ‘Hey, I am here.’ For the rest of you lightweights, I am here. If you think I’m gonna be an easy fight, or if you think that was a fluke, try me. Just try me, because whoever Bellator puts up there next, I’m gonna prepare the same way. I’m gonna be a professional from top to bottom and I’m gonna keep chipping away, chipping away, and chipping away.”
When it comes to the doubters and the naysayers, fighters seem to have two trains of thought: Ignore the noise and block it out, or relish the underdog role. Muro has found solace finding the middle ground.
“I really wasn’t listening to the noise but I would be a liar if I said it didn’t motivate me,” Muro said. “When you look at the records, and you look at the streak I was going on, a year ago I lost three fights in a row. They were really bad losses. Some of that talk was justifiable, but the people that know me — my training partners, my coaches, my team in Oklahoma to my team in Albuquerque at JacksonWink — when I told them I had this fight they believed in me. The circle around me that sees me day in and day out, they see what I am capable of. No one said, ‘I don’t know, Manny. This is and for you.’ They were saying, ‘Heck, yeah! Go in there and get what’s yours. Show the world what we see.’ When you have that confidence, that just reiterates my self-belief.”
Fighting in Connecticut, and fighting Nick Newell, not only do you have his friends and family to hear from, but the New England region as a whole filled Mohegan Sun with support. Newell’s story is one of legend, one of true grit, heart and determination.
Muro was well aware of the qualities that Newell brought to the table. That’s why Muro will forever have a place in his heart for his opponent this past Saturday night.
“Nick is a great guy,” Muro explained. “I’ve followed him a little bit and he has some great things going on. He’s got a real heart for his community and that’s great. I’m not the type where I need to hate somebody to fight them. When we embraced after the fight, I looked him in the eye and told him there were no hard feelings. I got nothing but respect for him because he brought out the best in me. I am forever grateful for him. I send him and his family prayers and love, and I wish nothing but the best for him and his gym.
“Whenever I got announced the winner, man that whole arena booed me. I couldn’t even hear myself. I was like, wow, these are some savage fans. But it’s respect, they’re MMA fans. MMA fans are very passionate about what we do for our sport.”
In the first round, Newell locked in a guillotine choke early and it looked like Muro’s Bellator debut may not last very long. The 32-year-old was able to escape the hold, but spent the rest of the round in disadvantageous positions. The momentum would begin to swing to Muro’s direction as the fight continued, but it was the opening round that made Muro realize that he couldn’t prove the oddsmakers right.
“I’ve watched the fight once or twice since it happened,” Muro said. “When you get up against the cage, you’re told to keep your forehead against their chin and drive it up. What I noticed was my head started dropping and he started getting the sink in and the way his arms are set up, if he gets wrapped around that left arm, it is tight. I started feeling like, ‘Oh, crap!’
“I was thinking in my head at the moment, ‘No! It is not going like this, I’m not gonna get choked out in the first minute or two of this fight, be on national news that I was just a bum. Lord, please don’t let it go down like this!’ I stayed patient and we prepared to fight that hand very diligently and we ended up working our way out. I was OK with losing that first round. I was fine losing it and getting to that next round. His grappling is top notch. That is a strong athlete.”
The momentum of the fight completely shifted in Muro’s favor in the third round. Newell began to get tired and shoot for unsuccessful takedowns, while Muro was finding success over-and-over again with his takedown game.
With the first round clearly going Newell’s way and the third round clearly going Muro’s way, it all came down to the second round, which could’ve gone either way. Fighting in Newell’s home state of Connecticut, Muro, admittedly, began to accept that he would be a fighter who gave Newell all he could handle — despite knowing that he did enough to win the fight. When the scorecards were read, the feeling was chimeric.
“When I went up there and I knew it was going to a decision, I thought they were gonna hose me,” Muro said. “Even before my name — whether it was a split decision, or unanimous — I was like, I’m in Connecticut. When you’re in this guy’s backyard, you’re going to have to definitively beat this dude to win the fight. I embraced it, I accepted it. Then they started reading the cards, ’29-28 Muro, 29-27 Newell’ — and speaking of 29-27, I’m not gonna be disrespectful, but he did not beat me 29-27.
“When they said ‘Muro’ on that last one, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I shocked the world! I shocked the world!’ Literally, everyone in that arena was like ‘boo, you suck!’ The feeling when they called my name, it was surreal. From the minute they called my name, to the time I went to the airport to go back home to Oklahoma, it was like a dream. People were coming up to me for autographs, high profile fighters and coaches that I’m huge fans of coming up and congratulating me, the matchmaker telling me he was impressed, Goldberg came back and took a picture with me, it’s unreal!
Muro feels that his performance against a well-respected and well known fighter like Newell should earn him a long term deal with Bellator MMA. Muro told BJPENN.com that his manager told him shortly after the win to get his “passport ready.”
When asked, true or false, if his next fight would be for Bellator, Muro confidently answered “true.” Nothing has been finalized, but after a quick trip home, followed by an immediate family vacation to Disney World with his family, life is pretty good for Manny Muro.
In addition, as memorable as Bellator 232 was for him, Muro strongly believes that you only saw a glimpse of his overall capabilities.
“Like, (this all happened with) just one fight, bro,” Muro said. “I believed in myself years ago, but the people are now getting to see the stuff that I’m capable of. And to be honest, that was only about 40-percent of my capabilities. I am so much better of a fighter than I actually performed that night. That’s what gets me excited to make a run in Bellator if I’m blessed enough with a contract to fight for that promotion.”
Prior to the fight last weekend, Muro spoke to MyMMANews.com and opened up about falling into a deep depression after being finished in three consecutive fights in 2018. Muro turned to drinking as he began making a journey down a very dark road.
When times seemed to be at their worst, Muro turned to religion to get him back on track, leading to fresh perspective on life and career, as well as a second round submission win over Ken Coulter in June at Rage in the Cage OKC 66. If you think about it, without those three losses in 2018, Muro may not have even gotten the opportunity to fight Newell at Bellator 232.
Muro has no regrets and uses a rough time in his life as motivation and plans to use his story as a way to advocate for mental health awareness.
“I got to thank the good lord,” Muro said. “His timing in our lives is so much better than we can have for ourselves. There are so many lessons in humility, being a professional, and doing things of this nature that if I didn’t lose those fights, I wouldn’t have learned those lessons that I did. I’m so very thankful that he brought me out of that moment. It was a rough time for me, a rough time for my daughters, my family, but it was a blessing. Sometimes, we have to go through the storms before we look up and say I need you, God. I need your strength.
“Without that, I would’ve never been prepared for this moment. It worked out the way that it did and I’m very grateful. It’s very emotional just even talking about it. I’m very humbled over God’s grace in my life that he gave me a platform like this and I still have things I need to do. The sky is the limit. This is the next chapter in my life. That depression was a chapter in my life to help mold me to be a better man, a better father, a better role model for the next generation. I can share that story and there were people who saw that interview and said, ‘Manny, I never knew you went through that.’ I’m not perfect. I’m human. I went through some stuff like we all do. There’s people battling addiction, depression and mental illness is a very real thing. Mental illness and awareness is my calling and my cause. There’s people out there going through these things, battling day in and day out, and they need to know that there’s help out there.
“Hopefully, I can bring awareness to it and if it’s through my story, then so be it.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 10/31/2019.