UFC on Fox 9 Factgrinder: The Wrestling of Chad Mendes and Nik Lentz

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, UFC on Fox 9 features a featherweight bout between Chad Mendes and Nik Lentz. Mike Riordan is here to tell the real story of their amateur wrestling careers.

If you were to say wrestling is a game of inches, you would be wrong. Wrestling ain't a game bub. It's a sport of inches. Get it right.

But yes, in the somewhat strange process of awarding points to positions in a wrestling match, referees must rely upon very fine distinctions. Oftentimes, these distinctions arise from convention--refs call situations based on how other refs before them have called the same situation.

I see the question on your lips before you ask. "So Mike (or Coach as people sometimes desire to address me)," you ask. "Are you suggesting that in officiating wrestling matches, referees employ a weird form of wrestling common law?" Great question grasshopper, the answer is yes, and they must, for the rules are vague, and without some form of judge made laws (or ref made rules in this case), problems of the penumbra would forever dog wrestling officials.

Take for instance the definition of a takedown in the NCAA rule book.

A takedown shall be awarded when, from the neutral position, a contestant gains
control by taking the opponent down to the mat in bounds and beyond reaction
time. When a significant portion of the defensive wrestler's weight is borne on a hand(s), it is considered control.

Not much to go on as to the exact meaning of a takedown, right? Some additional clarification follows in the rule book , but not much, and not nearly enough. Gaps exist in the language of the statute, and the referees are left to fill those gaps.

The point of all this: based on the proper application of conventional take down rules in college wrestling, Chad Mendes may have been unfairly deprived of a national championship. See below.

4_medium

Above, Nebraska's Jordan Burroughs scores what would be the winning takedown on Illinois's Mike Poeta in the 2009 NCAA finals at 157 pounds in 2009. This presents an uncontroversial takedown situation where Burroughs has both legs secured while Poeta falls to his back.

3_medium

Here we have the final seconds of the 2012 133 pound NCAA finals match between Oklahoma State's Jordan Oliver and Ohio State's Logan Stieber (both immortalized in bear puns here). Oliver does not score the last-second, come from behind, winning takedown. Even though Oliver has both of Stieber's legs secured, Stieber maintains a tight chest lock and keeps Oliver's head trapped between his legs. The latter part is the key. According to how referees call takedowns, had Oliver's head popped out onto Stieber's hip while Stieber sat on his butt, Oliver would have gotten the takedown points and won the match. Observe the following sequence.

[ Note: Just as with all common law, newly enacted statutes may supersede judges' decisions. Apparently, as demonstrated by this video, the NCAA now would deem the above situation a takedown for Oliver, though I cannot see where the new rule book indicates this]

5_medium

In one of their two NCAA finals matches, I forget which one, Oklahoma State's Johnny Thompson wraps up a double leg on Minnesota's Ryan Lewis. Thompson's head rests outside Lewis's hip, and when Thompson hooks Lewis's leg, and sits him fully to his backside, the referee signals the two points for the takedown. This is the correct application of the takedown convention. Now onto Mendes's finals controversy.

2_medium

Here Mendes hits a double leg on Ohio State's Jay Jaggers at the very end of the second period in their 2008 finals match at 141 pounds. Mendes's head is outside of Jaggers's hip and just as above, the leg gets hooked and the defensive wrestler sat to his butt. The central issue here lies in whether or not both off Jaggers's butt cheeks settled on the mat before time expired. If they did, the ref should have awarded the takedown to Mendes, and had Mendes received those points, more than likely he would have become an NCAA champion. I can't definitively tell, and the graphical clock you see in the video does not necessarily sync perfectly to the real mat clock. Either way, Mendes came really really really close.

The final moments of Chad Mendes's wrestling career saw him come excruciatingly short of obtaining college wrestling's highest honor. Before his senior season at Cal Poly, where he lost once all year, to Jaggers, in the above match, Mendes had already achieved NCAA All-American status. In a feat of weight cutting which defies belief, Mendes wrestled at 125 pounds as a junior and placed sixth.

As a sophomore, it looked as if Mendes would not break the starting lineup for the second year in a row, and he actually considered quitting the sport, but Poly's starting 133 pounder Darrel Vasquez (the only four-time high school state champ in California history) fell ill and Mendes took over and ended up one match from placing top eight in the NCAA and earning All-American honors.

Before college, Mendes placed in the ultra-tough California high school state championships three times, including a third place finish as a senior. His greatest distinction as a high schooler came when he placed top eight at the USA Junior Freestyle National Championships, earning the coveted title of "Fargo All-American" (I know that term might sound weird to people outside wrestling, but it's a really big deal)

Mendes's opponent, Nik Lentz, had his college wrestling career start in much the same way. Lentz finished his high school career as a third place finisher in Minnesota's AAA classification (big school). He then matriculated to the University of Minnesota where he wrestled for legendary coach J. Robinson for two years. He wrestled primarily at 157 pounds, and in his first year he redshirted and earned a respectable 5-5 record at open tournaments. As a sophomore he became an occasional starter, but never seemed to turn the corner and establish himself as a competitive force at the elite end of the Division I level. As a starter for Minnesota, he ran into some ferocious competition in one of the nation's toughest weight classes, and that competition chewed him up pretty badly. It happens. Division I wrestling, particularly Big Ten wrestling, is brutal in ways few can understand.

While I have no way of knowing why Lentz left wrestling after his sophomore season, I would guess that he probably concluded that a full time starting spot on Minnesota's team was not in the future as UM geared up to win a third national championship. Lentz found himself behind NCAA All-Americans and high school legends C.P. Schlatter at 157 pounds and Matt Nagel at 165 pounds (Nagel claimed college wins over Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley). Lentz attempted to make his way wrestling for one of the country's top programs, unfortunately, the top does not offer much in terms of room.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

Mendes clearly has the superior wrestling pedigree, I did list him as one of the 25 best wrestlers in UFC history, but do not discount Lentz's Division I wrestling experience simply because he never had much success. While he failed to become a star like Mendes, he spend two years competing in one of college wrestling biggest and baddest rooms, and he undoubtedly took some lessons with him which will help in his fight against Mendes.





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