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Wrestling for MMA: Chad Mendes

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Celebrating the career of the skilled and hyper-athletic former UFC featherweight contender Chad Mendes.

UFC 179: Jose Aldo v Chad Mendes 2 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In the 2008 NCAA tournament at 141 pounds, Cal Poly’s Chad Mendes was the #1 seed.

In his senior season, he was undefeated, with 17 victories coming with bonus points, including five pins in under one minute. In a dual meet against Minnesota, Mendes pinned then #2 Manuel Rivera in 1:34.

Of course, he had his close matches. Sacramento Community College’s Juan Archuleta must have given Mendes’ coaches a scare by taking their star wrestler to the wire, Mendes prevailed only 7-5 outside in the match outside of Division 1 competition.

In the first round of the NCAA championships, Mendes pinned Rutgers’ Steve Adamcsik in 34 seconds.

From there, things tightened up. Chad Mendes was very much a “big move” wrestler, he could explode with cement mixers and shoot off short offense from front headlock, but he did a lot of posturing and wrestled from his knees when he wasn’t looking for significant attacks. He wasn’t the type to break decent opposition with his pace, he was extremely difficult to score on and picked his spots.

Chad Mendes goes feet to back and hits a nasty cement mixer

Chad Mendes hits his trusty mixer against Stanford from front headlock

Against Old Dominion’s Ryan Williams, Mendes controlled the match 7-4. Williams had clearly improved tremendously throughout the season, having been pinned in 23 seconds by Mendes in the first week of the season. Williams made the NCAA finals the very next year.

In the quarterfinals, Mendes shut out then #9 ranked Nick Gallick of Iowa State, 5-0. Gallick finished 5th in 2008 and went on to place 3rd in 2009.

Mendes’ semifinal opponent was power program Oklahoma State’s Nathan Morgan. In high school, Mendes failed to defeat Morgan in five matches. Coming into his senior year, Morgan had placed 6th and then 4th at the NCAA tournament,

Mendes finally defeated Morgan just one month prior to nationals, prevailing 4-3 thanks to a clutch third period takedown. In the NCAA semifinals it was tight once again, but Mendes punched his ticket to the finals with a 4-2 decision.

On the opposite side of the bracket, #6 seed J Jaggers of Ohio State was having the tournament of his life. At the Big 10 Championships, Jaggers lost in the first round to Manuel Rivera but fought back to take third. Still riding that momentum into NCAAs, Jaggers knocked off a returning All-American and University freestyle champion in Pittsburgh’s Drew Headlee, 7-2.

In the quarterfinals, Jaggers held off tough Michigan freshman Kellen Russell 5-3. Russell would go on to be a two-time national champion for the Wolverines.

#2 seed Charles Griffin of Hofstra awaited in the semifinals. The returning 3rd place finisher, Griffin had taken a couple of lumps during the regular season, but he was in fine form for his senior title run. On his way to the semis, Griffin outscored his opponents 22-3.

When the two collided, fans were treated to one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament.

Jaggers utilized an aggressive pace combined with his lanky style to score big early, holding on and avoiding a last second takedown to win 11-9, setting him up to face Chad Mendes in the finals.

As it often happens in matches between the best wrestlers in the country, offense was hard to come by. Neither took many committed attacks, and the first period ended scoreless.

Jaggers earned a quick escape to start the second period, and the two continued to play it safe until the closing seconds, as the referee issued a stern warning for both to open up.

Suddenly, from the collar and wrist, Mendes changed levels and exploded forward, blasting Jaggers off his feet. Jaggers locked through the waist, attempting to roll Mendes through to the side, but the stockier grappler stayed tight, placing Jaggers on his hip while controlling both legs.

In the closing seconds, Mendes squared his hips to the mat and placed Jaggers on his butt. One second remained on the clock by the time they reached this position, many would agree that it should have been called a takedown. It would have put Mendes up 2-1 with his choice going into the third, leaving Jaggers no time to escape that period and tie the match. Given that Mendes chose bottom and escaped, a 3-1 lead in the third period of a title match would have been enormous.

But even after a challenge by the Cal Poly coaches, Mendes was not awarded his two points. After escaping to open up the third period, Mendes took it upon himself to decide the match and fired off a low double, but this time he could only collect one leg and ended up stretched out underneath Jaggers. The dangerous mat wrestler trapped the free arm of Mendes and lifted through the crotch, exposing Mendes’ back to the mat and earning four points, two takedown, two nearfall.

Mendes scrapped hard to escape and get back those points, but Jaggers was tough to shake. With 30 seconds remaining, Mendes dove under for a funk roll and looked to get height with control of Jaggers’ ankle. As he turned away, still holding the leg, Jaggers screamed in pain.

His ankle was badly broken. After injury time, Jaggers took the mat and hung on to win a national title, 5-3. Jaggers would repeat as a national champion the next year.

Chad Mendes ended his career with a loss in the NCAA finals to a #6 seed with a broken ankle. Needless to say, his competitive goals went unfulfilled, motivating a move to mixed martial arts.

Now that Mendes has officially retired, it’s hard not to see parallels. In two NCAA tournament runs, Mendes ran into some of the best wrestlers of his generation like Coleman Scott and J Jaggers, who kept him off the top of the podium. At his height in MMA, he came up short in title bids against the great Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor.

But Chad Mendes should be remembered as one of the most skilled fighters of all time, an athlete who was certainly championship caliber, and then some, at his peak. Besides Frankie Edgar, who we looked at last week, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fighter who adapted their wrestling style to MMA as well as Chad Mendes did.

Chad Mendes: Wrestling for MMA

Early Career

It’s hard to find a ton of film on Chad Mendes from his wrestling career, but from what I can see, at his core he was a double leg wrestler. He had the speed and driving power to finish on anyone he found an entry against.

Once that strength is known by your opponents, they typically start to keep a lower stance and downblock much more often, closing off your access from the outside. When opponents are constantly putting themselves underneath you, the next logical step is to attack the front headlock.

It’s no surprise then that as a national terror, Chad Mendes was doing his best work with his handfighting and snaps, rather than explosive shots. Mendes excelled at “short offense”, chained motions from close range. Short offense can look like quick snaps and fake shots, running your feet left and then right, constantly feinting and touching and causing reactions from your opponent. The best wrestlers in the world can confound opponents with short offense from front headlock and score easy go-behinds.

For Mendes, it was a win-win. Either his heavy attack on the head would cause his opponents to stand up straight reactively, giving him a clean path to the legs, or they would stay down and react instead to potential go-behinds, allowing him to get a strong bite on the chin and arm, opening up the cement mixer, or cow catcher, or gator roll. Mendes seemed to favor the gator roll variation, here’s a decent instructional if you’re interested:

Once he transitioned to MMA, the dynamics changed significantly in his early career.

In wrestling it may require a ton of work to get your opponent standing straight up in front of you. In MMA, Mendes must have been licking his chops seeing the tall stances of so many strikers.

Even when Erik Koch assumed a long, low stance against Mendes, he couldn’t help but straighten up as he marched forward with combinations.

With so many opponents content to run at him with strikes, Mendes went on a reactive double rampage.

As Mendes improved as a striker, fighters were less and less willing to run straight at him.

He wasn’t quite Frankie Edgar. While Mendes didn’t perfectly blend the motion of his striking into the motion of his takedown attempts, he did instill enough fear, or frustration, in his opponents that they were typically willing to move their hands away from their hips or swing back after he moved in with a combination.

Mendes then had the option to either punch straight through into a shot, or to lead, then shoot reactively under their hands when they returned fire.

Once he became a more prolific body puncher, these opportunities opened up even more.

You don’t get to a national champion’s level in folkstyle wrestling without being a savvy scrambler and mat wrestler.

Many will remember Mendes seemingly scrambling for fun against dangerous grappler Javier Vasquez, flipping into his guard and funk rolling without any respect for the potential consequences.

But it wasn’t all double legs for Mendes, his offense was quite varied and situation-specific. In tight quarters, Mendes always looked to lower his opponent’s level, getting back on the head and looking to pass by the arms for a go-behind or cause them to straighten up for the double, just like in college.

While Mendes was pressed against the cage, Erik Koch repeatedly threw knees to the head from the side.

As wrestlers do, Mendes caught underneath the leg, turned him around and dropped Koch to his back with a Metzger.

Did Mendes’ style of wrestling for MMA have limitations?

As his career progressed, those limitations became more and more attached to his striking process, rather than anything he was doing in a pure wrestling sense. At the highest levels, in both pure wrestling and MMA, setups and process because essential. Because Mendes had a style where almost every single thing he did was an explosive forward motion, his entries were disguised well enough that a ton of intentional work was not required.

Where he truly struggled was against comparable athletes with incredible hips and the defensive savvy to put him off.

The first fighter to truly give him wrestling problems was the stocky judo ace Michihiro Omigawa. Even after a clean entry, Omigawa had the balance to work his underhook and eventually jack up Mendes’ attacking arm with two-on-one from a side-on stance.

Against Aldo, Mendes lacked the striking to bait the champion into any favorable positions, for the most part, he had to shoot straight on. Jose Aldo has the best hips in the history of MMA, that should not be a controversial statement. Mendes likely felt like he was shooting into a brick wall, and Aldo instantly was able to change levels with Mendes, push off on the head and simultaneously pivot away, giving him the angle to turn his knee in and kick the defending leg out.

The pivots of Aldo were key, as he always prefers a quick limp-leg escape rather than messing around with balancing on one leg and chain wrestling. What really amplified his defense was a hyper-attention to pushing away on the head and attacking wrists, constantly breaking grips and keeping his own hands free to create separation.

When Mendes did eventually get to rear standing, Aldo’s complete disdain for any potential grappling offense freed him up to post with both hands and focus solely on breaking Mendes’ grip across his own hip bone.

The first Aldo fight marked the end of an era for Mendes, as Duane “Bang” Ludwig soon entered his life and changed the dynamic of his game for the rest of his career.

“Bang” Mendes

UFC 164: Mendes v Guida Photo by Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The most simplistic and reductive benefit to Mendes’ newfound striking prowess was comfort.

His new understanding of his positioning in the cage, and more importantly, head movement, gave him confidence to choose his reactive shot opportunities more wisely, opting for entries that would best serve to throw off his opponent’s timing. Now that Mendes was slipping and parrying straight punches and countering to both the head and body, his level changes off head movement presented fighters with so many more possibilities to consider, increasing his chances for success.

Against physical wrestlers like Guida or solid Division 1 alumnus like Nik Lentz, Mendes had a field day, in part to his layered striking approach.

For better or for worse, the Bang-trained Team Alpha Male fighters became obsessed with shifting entries. While shifting is not enough on its own (see: Alexander Hernandez), it could theoretically serve as a great way to gain a dominant angle for a leg attack. This is not something we saw much from Mendes.

Typically successful as wrestlers in their own fights, Guida and Lentz tested the waters, shooting on the far more credentialed Mendes. Urijah Faber once said that he has only completed one takedown against Mendes in practice, ever.

You can see why.

Mendes’ muscle memory for quickly whizzering and framing off or creating hip separation at first sight of a shot was second to only Aldo in the featherweight division.

Mendes was often quick to capitalize, getting back to his trusty front headlock series, in much of the same way he did in college. He still threatened go-behinds, but now when the neck became available, it was the guillotine, not the gator roll.

Short offense in MMA is completely underutilized. The same options are available as in collegiate wrestling, but add in punches and chokes from front headlock and it becomes an incredibly valuable game to master.

Here you can see Mendes stuffing the head, attacking the neck, passing arms for the go-behind, coming back to the neck, moving his feet and putting pressure on to keep his opponents broken down all the while.

We’ll see Mendes truly master this system later on.

Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes 2

UFC 179: Aldo v Mendes 2 Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

And so, with his Bang Muay Thai tight as can be, Chad Mendes rode off to slay the dragon once more.

With Mendes now presenting an actual threat left to his own devices on the feet, Aldo attacked in earnest.

Early on, Aldo lead with a knee. Mendes ate it, then caught the leg, changing levels, circling to the base leg and doubling off, angling Aldo’s hips to the mat.

Even as Aldo’s butt hit the floor, he was posted on his elbow, using his free hand to push off on the head of Mendes and swivel his hips up, creating an angle to snatch up a whizzer and kick his legs back.

For nearly three rounds, no matter how deep Mendes entered, Aldo was putting pressure on his head and matching his foot speed, finding the angle to kick out each time. The strength of Aldo from a whizzer and post on the head even stopped a clean Mendes reactive double as Aldo charged in with strikes.

But late in the third, Mendes, whether intentionally or not, shot from an angle as Aldo swarmed, turning the corner quickly and bypassing his hands. With his head outside the hip and hands in position for the double, Mendes ran his feet and lifted as Aldo turned away, returning the champion down to one knee. It only earned him short time in rear standing against the cage, but it was a huge moral victory.

In round five, Aldo had finally tired enough that the explosive shot of Mendes could do its work. The challenger caught the Brazilian standing flat and ran through his hips, sitting him to his butt with both legs collected.

There isn’t a strong argument for Mendes winning the fight, but he’ll forever have a place in history as an important participant in what I consider to be the second greatest fight in MMA history.

Post-Bang Mendes

UFC Fight Night: Mendes v Lamas Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Chad Mendes’ fights against Ricardo Lamas and Myles Jury may have been shot lived, but both finishes were the best examples we’ve ever seen of combining short offense and striking in MMA.

Mendes had long shown a preference for breaking the guillotine grip in favor of a collar tie, immediately firing off powerful uppercuts.

While that was on display against Lamas (and more notably Guida), his motion off of the one and two-handed post on the head was a sight to behold.

As Mendes circled, he never took his hands off the back of Lamas’ head. Once he completed the go-behind to what wrestler’s call referee’s position, Mendes mixed in quick chops on the arm with brutal uppercuts under the arm as Lamas attempted to build his base.

As Lamas tried to scramble away, Mendes got back to posting on the head, now with one hand, while mixing in punches to the side of the head, causing Lamas to circle and give up his back to Mendes.

While Mendes has had some spectacular knockouts, the process by which he finished off Ricardo Lamas will always be what impressed me most.

Those same tactics led to a vicious ground and pound finish against a hurt Myles Jury.

Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor

UFC 189: Mendes v McGregor Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It’s been alleged that Conor McGregor had a badly injured knee coming into this bout, but I honestly don’t think it would have gone much differently. Even with poor setups, Chad Mendes can run through and double just about any MMA fighter in the world.

Against McGregor, Mendes had trouble with the length and size of his opponent. If a taller opponent can whizzer off your shots, it’s much more difficult to resist having your arms pulled up and away from their legs. McGregor’s first line of defense seemed to be to grab the whizzer off the double of Mendes.

This is not always the ideal approach against a double leg, and at times Mendes was still able to run his feet and move McGregor around, setting up explosive finishes.

Earlier we had mentioned the newfound ability of Mendes to parry.

Known for his one-two, Mendes was able to time the straight left of McGregor, parry, then change levels for clean entries.

McGregor eliminated much of that risk by shooting his straight to the body as well, further compounding the issues he was causing for Mendes all night.

Perhaps it was largely due to the height and weight of his opponent, but Mendes was never able to get a strong bite on the head of McGregor, effectively shutting down most of his potential short offense.

The End: Mendes vs. Volkanovski

UFC 232: Mendes v Volkanovski Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Alexander Volkanovski applied many of the same pressure principles as Conor McGregor to shut down Chad Mendes in what turned out to be his retirement fight.

After having plenty of success countering to the head and body off the jab of Volkanovski, Mendes found himself flustered and panicked by the variation of the jab to the body, and consistent lead left round kick.

The pressure of Volkanovski often left Mendes backed against the cage, giving him much less space to threaten offense and disguise his entries.

Nonetheless, the horsepower of Mendes often found a way.

Mendes was able to lead with shots largely because of the way Volkanovski reacted to his bursting offense. Hunkering down behind the double forearm guard and preparing to counter, Volkanovski briefly took his eyes off Mendes, allowing enough time to work a clean entry.

Reactively, Mendes still found his spots, but generally Volkanovski was much more cognizant of Mendes returning fire and shooting takedowns off his own offense. It was a fight where it would have suited Mendes much more to take charge, but the tricky leads of Volkanovski, and perhaps the fear of fading physicality, prompted Mendes to back himself to the cage and play counter fighter.

At one point, Mendes had his hands clasped around Volkanovski’s lower back, holding him seated against the cage. Instead of pressuring forward from this position, Mendes sat back on his feet, just holding. Volkanovski had no problem throwing his hips forward and escaping.

While the aptitude still appeared to be there for Mendes in many phases, it wasn’t hard to tell his head wasn’t entirely in the game.

I personally would like to wish Chad Mendes a happy retirement, his contribution to the wrestle-boxer metagame was enormous and he will be sorely missed.