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UFC 179 Gaps in the Armor: The Gameplan to Beat Jose Aldo

Two years ago Chad Mendes fell to Jose Aldo. Now he's back, with a new coach, a new style, and a new winning-streak at his back, ready to try it again. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the strategy he'll need to execute to become the new featherweight champ.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It's been five years since Jose Aldo first won his featherweight belt by beating featherweight great Mike Brown into submission. For five years, challengers have struggled to the top of the division only to fall to the devastating striking of Aldo, who just might be the greatest pound-for-pound mixed martial artist on earth. One has to go back even further, nine years and seventeen opponents, to find Aldo's last loss, a submission to Luciano Azevedo in an ill-advised move to lightweight. Needless to say, that defeat belongs to a different time, and a very different Jose Aldo.

Chad Mendes knows what it means to lose to the featherweight king, but like Aldo, he has also undergone a very dramatic transformation. Since his loss to Aldo in 2012, Mendes has utterly transformed. Once a one-dimensional wrestler, the NCAA Division 1 All-American has won five straight since his one and only loss, four of those by way of thunderous KO.

Now, Mendes has earned his rematch, and this time it seems very unlikely to end in the first round. Will Jose Aldo be his Luciano Azevedo, merely a speed bump along the path to greatness? Or will the Brazilian killer knock yet another challenger back down the long and winding road of contention? We'll have to wait till tomorrow to find out, but if Mendes is to overcome Aldo, this is most likely how he'll do it.

THE KEYS

(Disclaimer: Gaps in the Armor is a series focused on creating hypothetical gameplans for title challengers. This means that, yes, while the double 360 superman elbow is probably the best strike to use against Aldo, it won't be featured in this article because there's very little chance of Mendes throwing it. Instead, we'll focus on tactics and strategies which fit comfortably into Mendes' skillset.)

In the first fight Mendes was desperate--desperate to get Aldo to the ground. No doubt that will be part of his plan this time around too, but with his newfound striking skills there are a few things he'll want to take care of on the feet first.

1. Catch & Counter - It is crucial that Mendes pay Aldo back for every meaningful strike. There are a few strikes in particular to which the champion is susceptible. We'll delve further into that below.

2. Control the Octagon - Cagecraft is something Mendes does very well, and it will be necessary for him to keep Aldo where he wants him within the confines of the Octagon.

3. Constant Pressure - Aldo lives in the moment, constantly reacting to the actions of his opponent. If Mendes can carry him through the early rounds at a rapid pace, he may force the champion to tire himself out.

Easier said than done, certainly, but there it is. Let's get into the nitty-gritty!

CATCH & COUNTER

Opponents rarely succeed in hitting Aldo by leading with single strikes. There are ways around his incredible defense: Jung Chan-Sung and Frankie Edgar have both successfully utilized combinations of strikes to push the champion back and hit him. This is not, however, Chad Mendes' strong suit. A typical Mendes combination ends after the second punch, and that second punch is typically a left hook. As excellent as his timing and set-ups are, there is a definite limit to his abilities, so the notion that he will effectively string together three and four-punch combinations against Aldo is unlikely.

He can, however, fight effectively as a counter fighter, as is his natural inclination, if he approaches Aldo correctly.

One of the worst things a man can do against Jose Aldo is rapidly giving ground. Backpedaling away from the man who chopped down Urijah Faber is a recipe for a broken femur. You see, to check a kick requires that one foot be planted so that the checking leg can be raised. This means that defending leg kicks requires one to be more or less stationary. It's no surprise, then, that Jose Aldo invests a lot of time into feints, punches, and combinations designed to back his opponent up, thereby rendering them a ripe target for a chopping low kick (GIF).

It is imperative, then, that Mendes stand his ground and not allow Aldo to lead the dance. Fortunately, this is something that Mendes already does very well. In fact, for all his counter-punching prowess, it is usually Mendes walking his opponents down and forcing the fight. Feinting with his feet, torso, shoulders, and hands, Mendes will draw reactions out of his opponents, which he then counters, often with devastating results (GIF). Granted, Jose Aldo is certainly not Yaotzin Meza, but the idea remains the same. Once he has the distance between himself and Aldo measured, he can use some of the tactics that worked for him in his first, brief encounter with the champ.

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GIF

1. With Mendes backed up near the fence, Aldo takes a hard step forward.

2. Taking a shift-step to cover distance, Aldo lands a left uppercut. Mendes begins to retreat, stepping backward with his left foot.

3. As Aldo follows up with a kick, Mendes finds himself in a southpaw stance. Conveniently, this is the stance he used in his collegiate wrestling days, and he drives into Aldo's hips mid-kick.

4. Aldo attempts to stuff the takedown, but Mendes' double leg is not so easily shucked off, and he is driven, albeit briefly, to the ground.

If Mendes backs up, it will need to be in small, limited steps like the one above. The moment that Aldo senses backward movement, he will leap into one of his trusty combinations, like the one above, and start chopping his adversary down. By goading these assaults and then refusing to run as expected, Mendes stands a good chance of getting the fight to the ground, or landing hard counters on the surging champion.

CONTROL THE OCTAGON

Aldo is a supremely adaptable fighter. A tactician in the purest sense, he can adjust to just about any attack in a very short period of time. Once Mendes begins to find success with quick counter strikes and takedowns like the one above, he is likely to adapt, and adopt a more movement-based, counter-fighting style. Admirable as this ability to shift between styles is, it can be used against Aldo. Provided that Mendes manages to sway Aldo into fighting off the back foot early, he can use his aggressive feinting game to put Aldo where he needs him--with his back to the fence.

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edgar pressure

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1. Frankie Edgar has feinted Aldo all the way across the Octagon.

2. The champion flicks out his jab and attempts to pivot to his left . . .

3. . . . but a quick side-step from Edgar keeps him stuck between the fence and his opponent.

4. Now, looking to press the issue, Edgar pumps a double jab and pushes Aldo back even farther.

5. Aldo tries to slide out to the right this time, but Edgar paws at his face and stops his momentum (this open-handed grasping could have easily been a left hook)

6. Edgar seizes the opportunity, and drives into Aldo bodily, wrapping his left arm up with an overhook . . .

7. . . . and controlling his left biceps while keeping him pressed against the fence.

It is more than possible to trap Jose Aldo against the fence. Mendes, using his efficient footwork and feints, can corral the champion into the perimeters of the cage. As mentioned above, Mendes lacks the combination punching skills necessary to hunt Aldo down in open space, but his recent record has proven the effectiveness of his single shots when his opponent has no room left to back up. Yaotzin Meza, Darren Elkins, and Clay Guida were all knocked out with their backs to the fence, trapped and unable to escape Mendes' crushing power punches.

Of course, one Aldo begins to expect the stalking feints and the cross counter that is Mendes' bread and butter strike, he will adapt. Most likely, he will resort to one of his favorite tactics for extinguishing his opponent's right hand--the left pivot. Fortunately for Mendes, the blueprint for defusing that defensive tactic has already been laid.

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pivot then kick

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1. Frankie Edgar stalks toward Aldo, feinting all the way.

2. He steps forward behind a flicking jab.

3. Next comes an overhand right, which Aldo mostly avoids by pivoting to his left and throwing a simultaneous left hook to Edgar's cheek.

4. The two fighters reset.

5. Now Edgar steps forward again, slapping down Aldo's left hand with his own left hand to suggest another overhand right.

6. Aldo pivots, and would have avoided the right hand, but ends up turning and presenting his hamstring to Edgar's true attack, a thudding leg kick.

Though it's not something analysts usually mention, Chad Mendes possesses some fast, powerful low kicks (GIF). He has buckled the legs of every opponent since the loss to Aldo, often using the technique as a way of staying busy from the outside while his opponent considers whether to jump into his right hand or back away and wait for it to land anyway. As Aldo well knows, this strike is the perfect counter to lateral movement, and Mendes would be wise to switch constantly between right hands upstairs and right kicks downstairs.

For Mendes, this pivot-busting kick will do double duty, for Aldo not only uses lateral movement to avoid punches, but to stuff takedowns as well. In their first fight, Mendes repeatedly dove onto Aldo's leg for a single-leg takedown, but was denied every time when Aldo simply pivoted, drove down on the back of his head, and limp-legged out of the attempt. Often Aldo can kill a takedown before it every really starts by simply pivoting away the moment he senses his opponent changing levels.

Therefore punishing Aldo for this, perhaps his most versatile of movements, will throw a wrench into his strategy, and slowly render him less and less able to adapt, as well as increasingly unable to move quickly. It seems ironic to suggest that anyone might be able to out-kick Jose Aldo, but Frankie Edgar already accomplished as much in his tilt with the champ, and Mendes packs a much more powerful kick than Edgar, made even more potent by the double-threat of his right hand.

CONSTANT PRESSURE

The final, key ingredient to a Chad Mendes victory will be constant activity. Earlier this week Patrick Wyman and I discussed the difference between tacticians and strategists as it relates to Duane Ludwig and Andre Pederneiras. We agreed that the relationship between Pederneiras and Aldo, easily the trainer's most successful pupil, works so well because Pederneiras is a strategist--a big picture man--while Aldo himself is a tactician. So while Pederneiras keeps the end-game in mind, Aldo focuses his energies on beating his opponents in the moment--in a word, vying constantly to out-do them.

Time has proven, however, that Aldo's is the dominant personality in the corner, and his eternal drive to out-maneuver and out-perform his opponents has consistently put him in danger later on in the fight. There is no better example of this than Aldo's razor-close battle with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.

Early on in that fight, Edgar began his usual dance. Shifting angles, hopping around and feinting like mad, Edgar established early on that he wanted to box, and Aldo obliged him. Edgar was so busy trying to find angles for his hands, and moving his head out of the way of Aldo's punches, that Aldo became almost totally transfixed on out-boxing him, so much so that his greatest weapon--his trademark devastating leg kicks--all but disappeared. Aldo threw three leg kicks in the first round, and four in round two. In round three he connected with just one, and in round four as well. By round five the kicks had disappeared altogether. Aldo found himself asking the tactical question of "How can I outbox him?" rather than the more pressing strategic question: "Why should I?"

The Edgar fight was perhaps the most exhausted we've seen Aldo since he gassed out against Mark Hominick in his first UFC title defense. Hominick is another opponent who pressed the action early and often, constantly attacking Aldo with varied strikes. The result in both of these fights was that Aldo, the tactician, lost sight of the long-term goal, the strategy. Though he managed to win enough of the small exchanges in both to seal the victory, he completely exhausted himself trying to keep up with his naturally faster, lighter-footed opponents.

In short, whatever Mendes tries to do, Aldo will try to do it better, and the faster and more frequently he attempts to do it, the more quickly Aldo will tire himself out.

If Mendes can accomplish all of the tactical goals laid out above consistently over the course of the fight, he should be able to give Aldo enough to think about that, by rounds four and five, he will have a very tired champion in front of him. Of course, this strategy implies that Aldo will succeed in out-boxing, out-wrestling, and out-kicking Mendes in the various skirmishes throughout the fight, and he probably will. If, however, Mendes can keep the end-game in sight, and stay focused on why he is suffering these various small defeats, he will assure that Aldo's successes are purely Pyrrhic in nature. He may adapt very well, but the more work Aldo has to do early on, the easier Mendes will have it down the stretch.

Well, there you have it. Jose Aldo is undeniably a monumental challenge, and Mendes has some mental hurdles to overcome, given how dramatically Aldo dealt with him back in 2012. But with the inimitable Duane "Bang" Ludwig in his corner and the knowledge that he is now a better fighter than he has ever been before, Mendes stands a solid chance of dethroning the last champion of Nova Uniao, and becoming the second Alpha Male to win a UFC belt.

Want to hear another take on this matchup? Then join Sherdog's Patrick Wyman and I for the latest episode of Heavy Hands, in which we discuss the differences between tactics and strategy, and how that distinction will affect the performances of Aldo and Mendes tomorrow night.