Chad Mendes vs. Nik Lentz -- Featherweight bout
Once-beaten perma-contender Chad "Money" Mendes (15-1) of Team Alpha Male draws steadfast grinder Nik "The Carny" Lentz (24-5-2) in the latter's first main-card appearance. Rather than prolong some sort of suspenseful conclusion, let's just get it out of the way that, by all rational accounts, Mendes is a nightmare opponent for Lentz.
From a big-picture standpoint, Mendes has proven to be an adverse match-up for anyone not named Jose Aldo, the featherweight division's long entrenched kingpin. While it's often received with conspicuous chagrin, it's germane to note that Mendes' record is unusually devoid of fellow featherweight contenders, especially for someone who's been so unarguably embedded in the number-two spot at 145 pounds. I'm just sayin' -- typically the unanimous top contender earns that label by burying his counterparts at the division's apex but Mendes' most prestigious wins are his last two: lightweight transfer Clay Guida (3rd-round TKO) and quasi-prospect Darren Elkins (1st-round KO).
He does hold wins over the concurrently but ephemerally ranked Michihiro Omigawa and contemporary gunslinger Cub Swanson, but Omigawa, from an admittedly retrospective lens, isn't a show-stopping victory and he met a pre-destroy-everything-with-a-pulse version of Swanson in the WEC circa 2010. Also, despite their low-to-mid-tier status, Mendes has mercilessly decimated almost all other comers in performances that embodied sheer dominance.
Maybe that will be an X-factor or make some sort of unexpected difference on Saturday night. Or maybe I just needed something vaguely critical to say about Mendes to balance out the praise that's about to follow.
Mendes, now age 28, boasts some scorching wrestling credentials as a two-time Division 1 All-American wrestler at Cal-Poly, a Pac-10 "Wrestler of the Year" and a second-place finisher in the NCAA national tournament. I have a tendency to make grandiose and absolute observations, but I'm tempted to opine that Mendes has excelled in developing his striking more effectively than most other wrestling-based crossovers. Wrestling's contrasting guidelines for footwork (usually power leg forward) and stance (chin up, hands down) traditionally present cumbersome and frustrating restrictions, but striking was an eerily natural adaptation for Mendes. And that is a very rare and respectable accomplishment.
Hell, even before Mendes was as refined and complete as he is today, he was pulling off front-flip guard passes and rolling somersault escapes from the rear waist-lock. And unreeling decent high kicks. And going airborne for flying knees. And altogether boxing people up at a furiously overwhelming pace.
Mendes' pace and pressure are among the most relentless and overbearing in the UFC and loosely comparable to flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson (when factoring in the size difference). Complementing his blinding speed and fight tempo are his astounding grappling stats: he has a 100% rating in Takedown Defense, i.e. he probably hasn't been taken down since the delivery doctor extracted him from the womb and placed him on Terra firma, he averages almost five takedowns per three-round fight and he lands about 60% of his Takedown Attempts (per FightMetric). Succeeding in six of every ten takedowns doesn't sound too lofty but Mendes can rattle off a litany of attempts in a short span of time and doesn't leave himself exposed when they're unsuccessful. In fact, Mendes is adept at chaining his attacks together and a failed takedown typically leads to some sort of other stifling and attention-grabbing transition.
Dropping weight has become more of a popular trend than a sensible adjustment, but Lentz descending to featherweight made all the sense in the world. The former Division 1 wrestler (University of Minnesota) has relied heavily on control and positioning in most of his wins and that style became noticeably more formidable at 145 pounds. After a decent run in the lightweight frying pan that started strong (5 wins, 1 draw), a beating at the hands of Charles Oliveira (despite ending in a No Contest due to an illegal strike) and back-to-back defeats (Evan Dunham, Mark Bocek) persuaded Lentz to make the change and he's undefeated since (Eiji Mitsuoka by 1st-round TKO, decisions over Diego Nunes and Hacran Dias).
I don't often make lists, but the monumentally lopsided list of advantages for Mendes is worthy of exception: athleticism, wrestling credentials, top-level experience, striking, punching power, quickness, momentum, submission defense and scrambling/transition prowess all favor Mendes in this match up. The only outright advantage Lentz will enjoy is two inches of height -- how his wrestling might compare to Mendes is somewhat up for vote and he has secured more wins via submission (10 vs. 2).
Unfortunately, I'm thinking Mendes' outrageous speed and agility will more than compensate for Lentz's minor size advantage and, even if Lentz was on par with Mendes in the takedown department, I can't help but envision him digesting a wide assortment of leather-coated missiles every time he tries to impose it. Though Lentz has more submission wins, the takedown and submission defense of Mendes should shut that down completely, and it's hard to imagine Lentz catching him when stellar BJJ black belts like Javier Vazquez could not.
These imbalanced match-up variables are reflected in the steep betting odds for Mendes, and it's hard to drum up a sensible case for Lentz here. I am placing a tiny bit of emphasis on the wrestling aspect as I'm not closing the door entirely on Lentz being able to surprise us with his gritty determination and make this more competitive than we're expecting.
My Prediction: Chad Mendes by TKO.