The American Kickboxing Academy is one of the most successful and accomplished MMA gyms in the world. It's also one of the most storied and historic MMA gyms there is. Founder Javier Mendez was a kick-boxing champ in the 1980s who began training early UFC contender Brian Johnston in the mid-1990s. But it was Mendez' 1997 alliance with Frank Shamrock that truly brought him to the top of the game. After Shamrock left his brother Ken's famous Lion's Den to form "The Alliance" with Maurice Smith and RINGS star Tsuyoshi "TK" Kohsaka he needed a home base to train. That's when Frank moved into Mendez' AKA gym and began training other fighters in submission grappling.
Mendez cornered Frank through Shamrock's famous UFC championship run -- still unmatched to this day -- but he hasn't cornered a UFC champion since. He's had fighters like Josh Thomson and Cung Le hold the Strikeforce belt. He's worked with fighters who would later hold UFC gold like B.J. Penn, Lyoto Machida, and Sean Sherk. Despite the best efforts of studs like Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck Mendez hasn't been at the top of the sport in over a decade as a head coach.
Dave Meltzer was on the scene at AKA as Mendez gave a final talk to the team before the big fight:
After Friday's practice ended, Mendez gathered all his pro fighters and gave a speech, noting that in the gym's history they've never had a self-created UFC world champion. It wasn't Penn's and Machida's home gym when they were champions. It was the home gym of Frank Shamrock during his late-'90s run, but he arrived in San Jose as an established world-class fighter.
Josh Gross describes the impression Velasquez made at AKA when he first joined the team:
When Mendez watched Velasquez train for the first time, he was in awe. Sparring with a kickboxer, Velasquez, who knew nothing of striking, took a foot to his head, which, because of its mass and dimensions, is usually what people first notice about him. Velasquez responded by lifting his training partner in the air and placing him on the canvas. A couple of minutes later, bang, another foot to the face. The response slam was a bit harder this time. Not mean. Not vicious. Just a friendly warning.
"First day he was in the gym and I said, 'Oh, my God, I've never seen that,' " Mendez said. "Normally guys get pissed off. He doesn't."
Mendez waved off extra sparring. "He's got it," the trainer told one of his coaches. He didn't need to see anymore. This kid was worth his time.
Velasquez could have also lost it when Mike Kyle roughly snatched a limb and cranked an armbar during his first few months becoming familiar with submissions. Kyle was the heavyweight hotshot, or at least he thought he was. There were others with experience like Paul Buentello, but Kyle -- a UFC veteran who repeatedly was in trouble with regulators for illegal actions in the cage, including an 18-month suspension for attacking an opponent after the bell -- was the one everyone knew had an attitude.
So they rolled, Kyle tapped Velasquez, jumped up and raised a ruckus. "I'm the champion!" he yelled. "I'm the best." It was enough to get Mendez out of his office to see what the deal was. Two months later, they hit the mat again. Submissions didn't come for Kyle this time. Instead, he was the one caught in all manner of chokes and joint locks. Velasquez didn't respond how Kyle would have. Rather than celebrate, he stopped and offered to help correct Kyle's mistakes.
Since those early days, Mendez and his top coaches judo and BJJ ace Dave Camarillo and "Crazy" Bob Cook have consistently touted Cain as a future UFC champion.