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UFC 179 Judo Chop: The Smart Bombs of Chad Mendes

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Since losing to Jose Aldo in 2012, skilled wrestler Chad Mendes has turned in 4 vicious knockouts in 5 consecutive wins. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch examines just how Mendes became such a fearsome counter-puncher.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When Chad Mendes first fought UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo in January of 2012, he was about as pure a wrestler as you could find in mixed martial arts. And who could blame him? As a two-time NCAA Division I All-American, Mendes is easily one of the most decorated and skilled wrestlers in the sport today. Unfortunately for him, the one-dimensional approach didn't work out so well. After several failed takedowns (and one fortuitous fence grab), Aldo broke free of a Mendes waist-cinch, spun, and knocked Mendes out with one perfectly timed, perfectly unexpected knee to the face.

Mendes returned to the drawing board and returned, six months later, a different man.

Unlike stablemate TJ Dillashaw, Mendes' transformation from wrestler to knockout artist doesn't seem to be intrinsically tied to the arrival of new head coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig. In fact, Mendes had already knocked out two opponents by the time that Ludwig arrived. Perhaps the fact that they were greatly overmatched opponents helped Mendes to get the finish, but there was something different about his approach.

Not since July of 2009 had Mendes finished an opponent, and yet here he was putting adversaries away with succinct brutality. A single right hand felled each of his first two opponents after the Aldo loss--a straight right to the body turned Cody McKenzie into a fetal punching bag, and an overhand cross counter melted Yaotzin Meza like butter in a blast furnace. The NCAA All-American didn't just happen to start knocking people out; it was clear that now he wanted to.

THE INVISIBLE MEASURING STICK

I'll admit that Mendes' sudden success with striking surprised me. In fact, I was positively baffled at how quickly he had adapted. The most curious aspect of Mendes' string of post-Aldo finishes was that they were all the result of right hands. Lead right hands, meaning no set-up--no jab whatsoever.

How could this be? There are, of course, airy and indefinite explanations for the phenomenon: Mendes has a natural sense of timing, he's incredibly athletically gifted, and so on and so forth--but there was a more technical explanation that eluded me until now.

Check this out.

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Mendes Meza KO

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1. Mendes moves laterally with his opponent, Yaotzin Meza, keeping his back to the center of the Octagon.

2. Meza tests the range, reaching out to touch Mendes' hands, but finds himself just out of reach.

3. Meza continues to circle, and Mendes moves with him. Suddenly Mendes takes a step toward Meza.

4. This step works as a feint, and Meza anxiously jumps forward with a lead left hook.

5. Mendes slips his head inside the arc of this hook, and crushes Meza with an overhand right counter.

How does Mendes so perfectly judge the distance for his right hand? How does he know exactly where Meza's head is going to be despite never feeling out that distance with his own left hand? Well, there are actually lots of jabs being thrown in this sequence. But it's Meza doing all the jabbing. Meanwhile, Mendes stalks, and feints, and lets his opponent do all the measuring for him.

Mendes often fights with his right hand open, slightly extended from his face. He offers this open palm to his opponent, using it to block his face while at the same time giving the other man a convenient surface against which to test his jab. He's essentially holding mitts for his adversary--encouraging them to jab at him. So when Meza sticks out his left hand three times in quick succession, as in frame two, Mendes knows that he's not close enough to be a threat, nor close enough to counter.

Over the course of the fight, Mendes uses this method to establish his sense of distance. After a few minutes, he develops a solid idea of how close he stands in relation to his opponent, and so when the other man steps in a little too close, Mendes immediately identifies the opportunity to counter.

This process plays out in more immediate fashion as well. Take this slick little counter Mendes used against Clay Guida, for example.

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1. Guida moves toward Mendes aggressively, and Mendes moves back, right hand open and ready to defend.

2. Guida throws the jab, and Mendes catches it in his palm.

3. Realizing he's close enough to counter, Mendes steps off to his left and cracks Guida with a left hook to the jaw.

4. Guida follows his jab with a right, but too late: Mendes is already outside the line of his cross.

This is what Paulie Malignaggi would call a "catch and shoot" counter. Often this phrase applies to boxers who cover up to defend a punch and counter before their opponent can recover his hand or pull out of range. Without the comparatively bulky 8 oz gloves of a boxer, however, Mendes is wise to execute this tactic by catching and parrying punches with his open hands.

CREATING THE OPENING

Despite the fact that he stalks his opponents, Mendes rarely leads outright. He almost always plays the part of the counter fighter, though he pursues counter opportunities aggressively. Feinting with footwork, hand gestures, and subtle changes of elevation, Mendes will increase the pressure on his opponents until they feel compelled to throw something at him. Inevitably, the attack they lead with is a jab, usually the safest way to find out where the opponent stands in relation to oneself. But this jab is exactly the opening Mendes is waiting for, and its no surprise that the cross counter--a right hand thrown over the top of the opponent's lead--is his most reliable knockout blow.

Of course, there are ways to throw the jab without being countered, but most fighters will lean their upper bodies forward in an attempt to extend their jab, ultimately overextending and giving a crafty counter-puncher like Mendes their chin. If you look back at both Guida and Meza in the diagrams above, you'll see that both men fall forward head-first as they attempt to find Mendes with their jabs, and both end up putting themselves in the perfect position to be countered.

With his stalking footwork and aggressive feints, Mendes causes his opponents to lead with panicky, desperate offense. By timing these flurries with his counters, Mendes creates a collision between his fist and his opponent's face. For all the credit that Lyoto Machida gets for doing exactly that, it could be argued--and I say this as the world's biggest Lyoto Machida fan--that Mendes actually creates devastating collisions more effectively than the Dragon himself.

The same concept applies to takedowns, Mendes' true bread and butter.

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1. Guida takes a hard step toward Mendes, and Mendes backs up.

2. Guida keeps coming, and unleashes a throwaway combination of punches intended to set up a takedown. But because Mendes uses his hands to feel that none of these punches come close enough to land, he senses the takedown coming.

3. Guida drops, and Mendes, having fallen back into his southpaw wrestling stance, drops with him.

4. Guida tries to bail out on the attempt, but Mendes drives into his right leg and sends him reeling to the ground.

5. Pivoting, Mendes controls Guida's head with one hand and drives him into the fence.

Mendes has an excellent blast double. In fact, it may very well be the best double leg in all of MMA. When he attempted to lead with his own takedowns against Guida, however, he was consistently stuffed. Yet so precise is his timing on counters, thanks to his uncannily simple method of measuring distance, that he barely had to try to knock Guida off his feet with reactive takedowns like the one above.

It is here that the real beauty of Mendes' style comes to light. Wrestling, kickboxing--both are one and the same in a Chad Mendes fight. Ultimately, the ideal distance for a takedown and a solid counter punch are one and the same, and Mendes excels at finding this distance, forcing his opponents to lead and then knocking them to the ground, whether with takedowns or knockout blows to the chin. In fact, Mendes' style of distance-management may have come as a direct outgrowth of his impressive wrestling career, in which Mendes used similar hand-fighting to set up his takedowns and deny those of his opponents.

Tomorrow we'll delve into the game of Jose Aldo and explore the weaknesses, few as they are, that Mendes will need to attack to dethrone the featherweight champion. Until then, let's just appreciate the incredible subtlety of technique that has turned this superb wrestler into one of the most dangerous counter punchers around.

Heavy Hands . . . is back! For a different perspective on Saturday's main event, join Pay Wyman and myself for an in-depth discussion of the matchup between Mendes and Jose Aldo. In addition, we explore the differences between strategy and tactics, and the interesting dynamic that will play out between Andre Pederneiras and Duane Ludwig, the trainers of these two incredible athletes.