Nick Larson and Harry Chang
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Chad Mendes, despite his 5-foot-6 frame, has become a giant in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). He is ranked No. 1 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight division, and boasts a 16-1 professional record.
Mendes is also a Mustang.
The class of 2008 graduate was a wrestler in his time at Cal Poly, earning NCAA All-American honors twice. In his senior season, he went 30-1, was named Pac-10 Wrestler of the Year and placed second in the NCAA Championships at 141 pounds.
This weekend, Mendes will travel to Rio de Janeiro for one of the biggest fights of his career — a rematch with Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo and a second shot at the title.
But long before UFC 179, Mendes donned a dark green Cal Poly singlet in Mott Gym.
“(Wrestling) was huge, man,” Mendes said. “It definitely slingshotted me up into the bigger show a little bit faster than normal. I actually jumped straight into pro, and that’s basically because of my wrestling at Poly.”
Mendes had options coming into college after a successful high school career. Urijah Faber, now the No. 3 UFC Bantamweight fighter, wrestled at UC Davis and tried to persuade Mendes to join the program.
Even after a banner career at Cal Poly, transitioning to MMA was not always the obvious choice for Mendes.
“I actually got into it because of Urijah Faber,” he continued. “He was training for a fight one time and I ended up doing Jiu Jitsu with him and fell in love with it.”
“He was like, ‘Dude, I think you’d be really good at this, so after (college) you should try it for a little bit.’ I took him up on it the day after I graduated. I put all my stuff in the U-Haul and drove up to Sacramento and started training to fight.”
The beauty of the UFC lies in its diversity. Fighters come from various backgrounds with their obvious strengths and weaknesses. The transition to being a well-rounded fighter is not easy, especially for someone who came from just a wrestling background.
“The striking, I think, (was the hardest part),” he said. “I’ve been a wrestler my whole life. Transitioning to standing upright, you know, throwing punches and kicks and knees and elbows and and trying not to get hit with any of those as well. That was the biggest change.”
Mendes burst onto the scene as a professional, winning his first five fights in the Palace Fighting Championship before transitioning to World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). In the WEC, he continued to excel, defeating the four opponents he faced. In October of 2010, the WEC was absorbed by the UFC, pitting Mendes against the best fighters in the world.
After just two fights in the UFC, Mendes was given the opportunity every fighter dreams of — a shot at the belt.
UFC 142 featured Mendes at the top of the main card, slotted to face Aldo in Rio de Janeiro. The bout that followed has been shrouded in controversy ever since that January day in 2012.
Mendes was knocked out in the final second of the first round, creating one of the most exciting knockouts in UFC history.
However, moments before he won the fight with his knee, Aldo successfully defended a Mendes takedown attempt by grabbing the fence of the cage, an illegal tactic. Critics say the fight should have stopped briefly to deduct a point from Aldo, or even restart with the fighters on the ground, but none of that happened.
Mendes was less motivated by the illegal move, and more by the post-match antics of Aldo, who immediately went out and partied with his friends in a less-than-classy fashion, verbally bashing Mendes the entire time.
“It pissed me off seeing him do that,” Mendes said. “I thought it was pretty disrespectful, but it is what it is and that just really motivates me.”
Mendes will get his opportunity for revenge on Oct. 25. UFC 179 features the same matchup and same venue as the previous Aldo fight. What’s being dubbed “Aldo vs. Mendes 2” gives Mendes the chance to put to rest the controversy surrounding the last meeting.
“Every single fight that I’ve trained for, every camp I’ve gone through, has been for Jose Aldo.” he said. “I just knew that if I kept beating everyone that they put in front of me, eventually they have to give me another title shot, and it’s finally here.”
Mendes said he intends to bring the belt back to California, and he plans to visit Cal Poly in December.
“(To) become the World Champion is the ultimate goal,” he said. “Just continuing to do what I love, you know, being able to have a job where I can workout with all my buddies, stay fit and healthy and make money. This is basically a dream come true for me. I’m loving every second of it.”