Chad Mendes: Living the Dream, Embracing the Grind

Chad Mendes UFC 126

Chad Mendes - Photo by James Law

Mendes looks to earn title shot

Chad Mendes has been wrestling since he was five years old.

Having turned 26 back in May, the Team Alpha Male member’s time as a wrestler is old enough to vote; old enough to drink. When Mendes started wrestling, Will Smith was just The Fresh Prince, and his relationship with the sport has lasted 15 years long than Smith did in Bel-Air.

Staying committed to something for that long takes dedication, sacrifice, and drive. When we talk about wrestling being the base for mixed martial arts today, we often speak in terms of takedowns and how it relates to scoring in the eyes of the judges. Inside the cage that’s certainly part of it, but it also ignores a larger, perhaps even more important, element that makes wrestling such a strong fundamental for those entering this sport.

“Once you look passed the whole thing that wrestling is just about takedowns,” started Mendes when we spoke last week. “It’s about learning how to grind, how to get through. There are days when you go to the gym and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, and you don’t want to be there, but wrestling helps you develop the self-motivation; you just know how to push yourself through those days. That’s a huge thing I think coming into MMA because the training is a lot different from wrestling, but you’re still going through grinds. Doing two, three workouts a day is tough for anyone, so that definitely helps.”

Preparing to face Rani Yahya this weekend in Philadelphia, the avid outdoorsman has spent the best fishing days of the summer in the gym, sweating through practice, preparing for his fight. It’s the kind of sacrifice that comes naturally to Mendes, and something that fills him with confidence heading into each of his fights.

“For me it’s just remembering those days growing up. When all my other friends are going out during summer break — going to the lake, doing crazy stuff, fun stuff — I was in the gym busting my butt. There were definitely times where I wanted to quit and I didn’t want to do it any more, just because it was so hard. I saw my other friends having fun and I wanted to do that, but looking back on it now, I’m so glad that I was in there pushing myself and getting through that. That’s the stuff that motivates me going into these fights. I know these guys haven’t done that kind of stuff their entire lives.”

It’s hard to know whether or not Mendes is still considered a prospect.

On one hand, he has just ten fights on his resume and will celebrate his three-year anniversary in the sport this September, a lengthy career still very much in front of him. On the other hand, he’s unbeaten through those ten fights, earning four solid wins in the WEC before delivering an impressive performance in his UFC debut back in January.

“That was a huge confidence booster for me,” said Mendes of his UFC 125 victory over top 10 ranked Michihiro Omigawa. “I though Omigawa was a great match-up for me. I got to get in there and showcase some more of my stand-up; it’s something that I’ve really been working on. That was a great way for me to get out there and showcase myself and my brand for all the UFC fans.”

Mendes clearly made an impression and a lot of people with his win over the highly regarded judoka back in January. The victory moved the affable featherweight into the upper reaches of the 145 pound rankings, turning the “is he or isn’t he” prospect into a title contender.

After UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo defeated Mark Hominick at UFC 129, Dana White tabbed Mendes as the next to meet the Brazilian wrecking machine. But an injury to Aldo made an August fight with Mendes impossible. Given the choice to fight on or wait for Aldo, he chose to fight, remaining on the UFC 133 card and eventually being paired with Yahya. Where others may swell on the lost opportunity, Mendes is being pragmatic about the situation and finding positives to focus on instead.

“When it was first brought up, it was something that we were definitely wanting real bad. I felt ready and it’s what I wanted to do, so having it there — it was never official though, so it’s not like it was completely taken away from me. I was something that was talked about, but yeah, at first I was definitely frustrated and bothered by it.

“I look at it now as I’m only going to get better. I fight one more time, and I’ve said it before in interviews, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. My time is going to come. I’m still young in the sport and I’m just going to take it a fight at a time.”

Next up is this weekend’s meeting with Yahya, who successfully returned to the featherweight division in January with a convincing win over former champion Mike Brown. There are no secrets when it comes to what Yahya wants to do in the cage; the 26-year-old former Abu Dhabi champion is as talented a grappler as there is in the featherweight division, with 14 of his 16 wins coming by way of submission.

Having picked his path and decided to fight on, many see this fight as a chance for Mendes to cement his place as a challenger in the eyes of White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, as well as the fans. While that’s certainly part of it, the featherweight Alpha Male is aiming to prove he deserves a title shot to himself more than anything.

“This is a great fight for me to get out there and showcase my skills. More than proving to any of those people you just named, it’s proving to myself that I’m the one that’s next in line. I believe it; I know that I’ve done all the right things in and out of the gym. I’ve been doing it my entire life. I’ve basically been training my entire life for this one moment, and I’ve got to get out there and beat Rani Yahya, and that will be next.”

Asked to put it all in perspective — his rapid ascent, fighting in the UFC, his there-and-then-gone title shot — Mendes brings it back to his 21-year relationship with wrestling.

“I definitely never thought I would be here right now; I’m not even three years into the sport. But like I said about growing up, remembering all those times pushing myself and going through the crappy times — having to cut weight, wishing I was somewhere else, doing something else — it’s definitely rewarding to step back, look at that, and think about all those hard times and just appreciate where I’m at now. It’s an awesome feeling, and I’m definitely living the dream.”

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