Chad Mendes Expects A War
The memory haunts Chad Mendes to this day. A two-time All-American wrestler at California Polytechnic State University and the program’s first to earn a top national ranking since 1980, Mendes was flying through his senior season at his natural weight of 141 pounds. For most of his career Mendes competed at 125 but found it more difficult to cut eight percent body fat and began losing interest in the sport.
By his senior year he decided to move up and enjoy himself before the real world came knocking. Mendes had fun taking a 30-0 record into the finals of the NCAA tournament where he was favored to defeat Ohio State’s J Jaggers. The referee’s controversial decision to not award Mendes a point for a double-leg takedown late in the first period was met by ridicule and may have cost him the match. Jaggers took advantage of Mendes’ mistake to try and execute a high crotch (a variation of a single leg takedown) in the second that put him into his favorite position to score. A takedown and near fall in the third ended Mendes’ collegiate career with the stigma of a defeat. It was one thing to lose, but not when you were expected to win, and certainly not when the referee apologized to Mendes’ parents. It’s a sour feeling that sickens him more than salmonella.
“You have no idea,” Mendes said. “I still to this day sometimes lay in bed at night and think about it, and I can’t even sleep because I catch myself all tensed up and tight.”
Mendes, today unbeaten in seven MMA fights entering his WEC 50 showdown with Cub Swanson, could have disintegrated internally and fallen into a shell, but a life full of regret was one he refused to life. If awarded the points Mendes’ fate may have been different, but rather than a death knell to his athletic career, it ratcheted his motivation to another level. He’s never been one to crawl in a hole and curl up in a nutshell of depression. Maybe, Mendes reasons, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.
“For him to be down for a long time I couldn’t see that,” said John Azevedo, Mendes’ coach at Cal-Poly. ”It’s not really who he is.”
Signed by World Extreme Cagefighting in 2009, Mendes won his first two bouts and is up for his greatest challenge to date. Swanson rebounded from an eight-second knockout loss to Jose Aldo with a submission win over John Franchi, but broke both his hands and enters the fight on a nine-month layoff, similar circumstances Mendes faced six months after breaking his hand in an October 2009 win over Mike Joy, his final fight before his WEC debut.
“That’s a long time, nine months. Coming back after [the broken hand] I felt a little ring rust,” said Mendes, who also survived a cut over his right eye to earn a decision win over Erik Koch. “Nine months, I’m sure he’s going to feel a little bit of it. I’m not banking on it, I know Cub’s a tough guy, but there has to be some issue with not being able to train for that period of time and then coming back without fighting for long. He’s a tough guy and I’m expecting a war, but I just think my skills are going to be a little too much for him.”
Mendes proved his mettle when he took a WEC 48 fight against veteran Anthony Morrison on two weeks’ notice after Mackens Semerzier was forced out with an injury. With a short window to prepare, Mendes was worried the cut suffered against Koch would be a factor, which was why Alpha Male teammates Joseph Benavidez and Dustin Akbari drilled him endlessly on the importance of putting Morrison away early. Mendes slapped on a guillotine choke that finished Morrison 2:13 into the first round for just his second submission win. All three of Swanson’s defeats have come in the opening frame in an average time of 19.3 seconds, which further emphasizes the importance of attacking immediately and not allowing him to breathe.
“I don’t want to let him get comfortable,” Mendes said. “I’m going to get in his face and try to slow him down as much as possible. The plan was to take [Morrison] down as quick as possible because I knew his hands are quick and crisp, and I didn’t want to take the chance of getting cut open again.”
Since that fateful day when Jaggers ended his undefeated run, Mendes’ career has accelerated. That loss hasn’t altered his stature as one of Cal Poly’s all-time greats. He was the program’s 39th All-American, the seventh in school history to reach the NCAA Division I title match and graduated with an overall record of 64-14. A memorable senior season was triggered by the seminal decision to compete closer to his natural weight.
“We knew he was going to move up,” Azevedo said. “He tried to make 125 the year before. We had a wrestler at 133 and a senior at 141, so we were trying to keep everybody in the lineup. When you look back he should have just moved up that year and he would have beat our senior at 141, but Chad’s the type of kid who doesn’t want to rock the boat. We tried to work that out but it definitely wasn’t what was best for him, it just was too much. He knew in his heart was to wrestle closer to his natural weight.”
What’s come natural for Mendes is a budding MMA career, one that could reach No. 1 contender level or a showdown with Josh Grispi for a shot at the featherweight champion if he finds a way to defeat an explosive opponent at WEC 50. “I wouldn’t mind keeping it slow and going along with it,” Mendes said, “but if they’re ready to put me in there I’m ready right now. I’m down for whatever.” What Mendes wasn’t down with is living a life without retribution, one of many decisions allowing him to live his dream.
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