Despite his phenomenal talent, Team Alpha Male standout Chad Mendes has come up short in all three of his Featherweight title bids, losing twice to reigning champ Jose Aldo and once to newly-minted interim kingpin, Conor McGregor.
Later this evening (Fri., Dec. 11, 2015), he'll get another chance to prove himself against the 145-pound division's elite when he takes on Frankie Edgar in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 22 Finale, which takes place inside "The Chelsea" in The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Before his recent struggles, Mendes had put together one of the most devastating streaks in recent memory with five straight wins, four of them via brutal knockout. And doing the same against Edgar would be a massive feather in his cap.
Can he? Well, let's find out.
We've broken down Mendes once before in the build up to his rematch with Aldo at UFC 179, so rather than retread old ground, let's see how his game has changed in his three fights since said breakdown.
When we last left Mendes, he had developed his once-rudimentary striking into a destructive force predicated on his cross counter, bolstered by brilliantly-timed reactive takedowns when counter opportunities didn't present themselves. He was held back, however, by a nonexistent left hand, questionable defense, a low workrate and awkwardness when fighting on the advance.
That was then.
Versus Jose Aldo
In my breakdown for the fight, I stated that Mendes' counter-heavy and oft-passive offense would cost him dearly against Aldo, who excels when opponents retreat and leave a leg out for him to punt into the third row. I said that for Mendes to have a chance, he'd have to get out of his comfort zone and pressure the champion.
To his immense credit, he made practically every adjustment for which you could ask.
From the opening bell, Mendes forced Aldo to work off of his back foot, weaving his way into the pocket and landing thudding counters whenever the champ looked to put together combinations. Where once he had relied almost entirely on his right hand, Mendes' left hand was the star of the show in the early going as he not only landed multiple jabs and counter hooks, but even managed to drop the champ for the first time in his career. He even found success shifting to Southpaw and landing left straights before angling off, much like Eddie Alvarez's trademark "dart" right hand.
Then he got hit.
Aldo cracked him with a left hook in the final minute of the round, then sent him down once more with a right hand after the bell. Mendes let him off the hook in the second, but in the third, showed off another nice wrinkle in his game when he faked a shot and came up with a tremendous right uppercut. His reactive takedowns were also on point, using three in a row to recover when Aldo managed to hurt him a third time.
In the end, though, he simply ran out of steam.
That Mendes didn't win this fight is a testament to Aldo's once-in-a-lifetime skills, not an indictment of Mendes' shortcomings. Despite the loss, this was absolutely his best performance, demonstrating a more complete striking game than ever before. With the addition of a quick, sneaky left hook, he not only had a quality weapon to work with on the advance, but also had another dimension to his already-lethal counter game.
On that night, Mendes evolved from dangerous to terrifying,
Versus Ricardo Lamas
Honestly, this fight didn't last long enough to show whether Mendes' breakthroughs against Aldo stuck.
After some apparent difficulties in dealing with Lamas' long-range kicking attack, Mendes pressured him into the fence, where Lamas switched to Orthodox and fired a right straight. Mendes threw his own simultaneously, destroying his foe's equilibrium and setting up a fight-ending beatdown.
The counter right has been Mendes' money punch for ages and it paid dividends.
Versus Conor McGregor
If the Aldo rematch was Mendes' greatest performance, this was easily his worst. Whether it was the trash talk, the short notice, McGregor's Southpaw stance, or his length, all of his bad habits returned to the forefront.
Gone were the stinging jab and head movement that shut down Aldo's offense. He gave the rangy Irishman plenty of room to work and, as a result, ate debilitating body kicks until he was too drained to properly retaliate.
That's not to say things were all bad, though. Despite rushing McGregor instead of working his way in, he landed some brutal shots, especially as McGregor stood from his takedowns. His ground-and-pound also seemed to have evolved from chipping, time-wasting shots to genuine fight-ending elbows.
Overall, however, this fight was a disappointing step back for someone who had seemingly made such massive strides. Hopefully, the short notice was to blame.
Best Chance For Success
Mendes honestly has quite a bit working in his favor against Edgar. He's every bit as fast as "The Answer" and his mouse trap-esque counters seem well-suited to dealing with Edgar's in-and-out rushes. He's also more than capable of stuffing his foe's takedowns and landing several of his own, not to mention the fact that he's likely the biggest puncher Edgar has ever faced, Lightweight talent included.
Of course, that's all assuming that Mendes' performance in the Aldo rematch wasn't an aberration.
If Mendes shows the same recidivism he did against McGregor, he's in for a long night. Edgar's feints and sheer volume wreak havoc on a purely counter-focused offense, especially one that's only truly effective for several rounds. He'll need to show that same calculated pressure and crushing left hand if he wants a shot at putting "The Answer" to sleep, forcing out the counter opportunities as he did against Aldo rather than waiting for them to develop without his influence.
He's demonstrated that he has the skills to win this fight. It all comes down to execution.