Team Alpha Male standout Chad Mendes is set to make a second bid at the UFC featherweight belt against present owner Jose Aldo in the main event of UFC 179, scheduled to take place this Saturday evening (Oct. 25, 2014) at the Maracaniazinho Gymnasium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Once derided as one of the division's more boring competitors, Mendes has come a long way since opening his ZUFFA career with five decision wins in six fights. Four of his last five victories have come by way of brutal knockout, including stoppages of the extremely durable Darren Elkins and Clay Guida.
Despite those impressive performances, Mendes has repeatedly stated that his interest lies solely in the belt. After an Aldo injury delayed their rematch, Mendes looks to finally join teammate T.J. Dillashaw as a UFC titleholder.
Let's see if he can.
Mendes' transition from stifling grappler to knockout artist has turned quite a few heads, occasionally in very quick and painful fashion. This change can be almost entirely attributed to the improved timing of his right hand; more specifically, the cross counter.
Chad has always had power; seeing him repeatedly buckle the iron-jawed Michihiro Omigawa way back at UFC 126 serves as testament. Like teammates Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez, Chad is almost exclusively a puncher, utilizing low kicks on the advance but rarely going high. Also like his teammates, he relies extensively on the right hand both as a lead and on the counter. It's the latter that's earned him those knockouts; of the four, three have been a direct result of the cross counter.
In his fight against Yaotzin Meza, Chad's offense consisted almost entirely of low kicks until Meza retracted his jab too low, at which point Chad took his head off with the overhand right (watch it).
Against Elkins, Mendes went on the attack, rocking the wrestler with a right hand lead. Mendes actually doubled up the right hand, covering a large amount of distance in the process. When Elkins stuck out his jab in desperation, the cross counter put him to sleep (replay).
In the Guida fight, Mendes spent much of the first two rounds stepping out of range of "The Carpenter's" wild swings, occasionally stepping in with a low kick or planting his feet to rapidly exchange power-punches. In the third round, Guida came out in full pursuit, moving Chad to the fence. During the attempted flurry, Guida brought his left hand back low and that was all Chad needed to fire the cross counter and kick off the finish (GIF).
This excellent timing, combined with sizable power and some of the fastest hands in the division, make Mendes a terrifying prospect for anyone to fight. That said, holes still remain and were most visible when illness robbed him of explosiveness against Lentz. His deficiencies can be boiled down into three main issues: his defense, lack of setups, and lack of variety.
Chad is not a terribly active striker. He spends most of his time outside the opponent's reach, occasionally entering with a leg kick. When the opponent does press forward, he backs straight up with his hands low; this has gotten him tagged more than once when he misjudged the distance. Against Aldo, this is a considerable red flag, as retreating will inevitably leave a leg out to be pulverized by a dedicated leg kicker. At other times, Mendes will plant his feet and throw or hit reactive takedowns, but it's rare to see him move laterally.
In addition, Chad does not lead well. If the opponent isn't willing to throw themselves into the line of fire, he is content to throw leg kicks with no setup. Against wrestlers heavy on their front foot, this is fine; against an experienced kicker, this is an easy way to get checked hard. Even Aldo himself suffered this, breaking his foot early against Chan Sung Jung. While he'll flurry, he is not one to throw combinations, doing most of his work with either heavy single shots or quick exchanges.
Perhaps the biggest issue is one he shares with Faber and Benavidez: he is a right-handed puncher to a fault. In watching his recent fights, you could count the number of left-hand leads on your hands and almost all of them were either a light jab (importantly, this is the only time he throws jabs) to set up the 1-2 or a left body shot he likes to chain into an overhand right. He will occasionally throw a left uppercut, but the right hand is far and away his main weapon. As mentioned before, his kicking game is also very limited.
That said, his physical abilities and impeccable timing make up for a lot and he is more than capable of putting anyone out with a clean shot.
Mendes worked his way to his first title shot almost exclusively through wrestling and it remains terrific. There are few, if any, featherweights in the UFC who would not hit the ground if Chad wanted them there.
Chad excels at (and almost exclusively uses) reactive takedowns; if an opponent gets too close while chasing him, he can change levels brilliantly. Even when ill against Nik Lentz, he consistently brought the Minnesotan down any time he overextended.
As with his striking, Mendes does not generally lead with takedowns, instead using them on the counter. Though he can sometimes fail to set them up well, any tie-up with him will most likely lead to a completed takedown, whether it be in center cage or against the fence.
As with all members of Alpha Male, Mendes excels in scrambles, landing short punches in transition and pursuing the front headlock. He is also more than capable of switching grips from his customary blast double into a single-leg or bodylock.
Just because he's laying people out now doesn't mean he's forgotten what got him to the top in the first place.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
It's difficult to get an idea of Chad's BJJ prowess; we never see him on the bottom and he has a very passive top game. He's got the standard Team Alpha Male guillotine, but that's the extent of his offensive submission game, so let's talk about how he works from top position.
Mendes is, as Jack Slack would say, a "static" ground-and-pounder in the vein of Mark Coleman. Where a ground-and-pounder like Cain Velasquez or Fedor Emelianenko will actively posture up and damage opponents as they struggle through different positions, Mendes will remain heavy on his opponent inside their full guard and chip away rather than look for one big fight-ending shot. He will often willingly give up overhook control, extract his arm and land an elbow in one motion, then go back to being heavy on their chest.
Thus far, his submission defense has proven airtight; he's successfully engaged quality Jiu-Jitsu artists like Javier Vazquez and Rani Yahya with no ill effects. That said, aside from a couple of front flips that didn't accomplish much, he was content to stay out of danger rather than attempt to advance position. More than once, he let Yahya up after dealing very little damage from the guard. While this can be debilitating, I'd like to see him commit a bit more to offense once he scores the takedown.
Best chance for success
Not gonna lie: I was more confident in Chad's chances before I started this breakdown. Aldo has stripped his game to the bare essentials: jab, left hook, low kick. Against an opponent as willing to give ground as Chad, he's got free reign to cruise and punish that lead leg all night. In addition, Chad seems much less crisp when leading than on the counter.
To beat Aldo, Chad is going to have to get out of his comfort zone. In addition to the reactive takedowns he employed in the first fight, he'll need to jam Aldo's kicks and be willing to work the body more than he has in his last few fights. Aldo's cardio has consistently failed him recently and that is, in my opinion, Chad's best avenue of victory. If he waits for the cross counter opportunity or tries to rush takedowns, Aldo's leg kicks and knees are going to end him.
Careful aggression and a willingness to stand ground are the key.