It’s been a year and a half since Chad Mendes’ worst day as a pro, 18 months to digest what went wrong, correct it, then implement change. The results so far have been promising. Formerly a takedown-heavy grinder, Mendes — under the watchful eye of new coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig — has transformed himself into a powerful striker, with three straight sub two-minute knockouts.
The metamorphosis has been both brilliant and surprisingly swift, but if there is one criticism about it all, it was regarding his competition level. Due to opponent injury issues, Mendes was twice faced with short-notice bouts against far less experienced challengers. The third bout came against Darren Elkins, a promising fighter but one who took the fight on four weeks notice. After dominating all three bouts, Mendes has looked undeniably impressive, but there are still some lingering doubt about what it has all meant. And that question, taken to its extreme, is this: can he have such success against Jose Aldo?
When it comes to Mendes, everything is framed around Aldo. It has to be. He is still widely considered among the two or three best featherweights in the world not wearing a belt. Up until that final knee Aldo uncorked in the final seconds of round one, Mendes proved to be a worthy contender against him. And given his newfound striking confidence, it’s easy to project that a retooled version would have an even better chance to unseat the longtime champion.
A test at Saturday’s UFC 164 against Clay Guida isn’t going to definitively answer anything. Guida is about as different from Aldo as one can imagine; a spastic striker with little fluidity in his standup, he is far more at home on the ground and in scrambles. But Mendes (14-1) can still prove something against Guida. For one, Guida has never been knocked out. In 43 pro fights, with the vast majority one weight class up, and some coming against powerful strikers like Gilbert Melendez, Takanori Gomi and Anthony Pettis, Guida has yet to be put down for the count. For Mendes, it is at least a chance to put an exclamation point on his personal improvement plan.
"It’s not that I wasn’t confident as a fighter. The standup part of the game wasn’t there for me yet," Mendes said of his learning experience against Aldo. "A lot of people said I took the fight a little too early in my career, but it’s a title shot, I wasn’t going to turn it down. You never know what’s going to happen in the sport. Of course I took it. Honestly, I felt I was winning that round until the last few seconds. I know I can hang. I feel like I’m a completely different fighter now. I feel like I’ve grown and gotten so much better since then. I’m definitely not overlooking Clay. It’s going to be a tough fight. He’s a gamer. We’ve all seen what he can do, and I’m going to bring it to him. But I definitely want that title shot."
In the UFC, it’s not always about winning, but sometimes about how you win. A highlight reel moment can help push you to the front of the line, which is why a knockout against Guida would have far more meaning than a decision victory.
A standout moment is necessary due in part to the logjam at the front of the division. Cub Swanson and Ricardo Lamas are both angling for the next opportunity to challenge for the belt, too. Chan Sung Jung wants a rematch. Anthony Pettis has spoken of the possibility of winning the lightweight belt this weekend and then moving right to 145 to fight Aldo. Conversely, Aldo has openly discussed the idea of moving up to lightweight and challenging for a second belt.
All of that, at least for the time being, has to be white noise to Mendes, mostly because it’s out of his control. Of course, as he told FOX Sports this week, he wants to be the one to dethrone Aldo from his reign of power, but he can only focus on what’s in front of him.
That’s taken enough of his attention anyway. Over his last few fights, Guida has attempted to reinvent himself in much the same way Mendes has, but with mixed results. Focusing more on movement and footwork than his wrestling base, Guida has split his last two matches, but hasn’t impressed critics in either.
At least Mendes had the benefit of previous exposure to Guida’s style. He was previously linked to a proposed April bout with Guida before an injury scuttled the bout.
"Basically I’ve gone through almost two camps for Clay, and yeah, it’s tough," he said. "You just don’t know which Clay is going to show up. Is it going to be the one in your face banging and never letting you breathe, or is he going to be the point fighter that we’ve kind of seen lately? I just don’t know. We trained for both and that movement is something we have our eyes on, and we’re planning for it."
Given his newfound success as a striker to go with his deep wrestling roots, Mendes feels he’s equipped to handle either version. Oddsmakers and bettors agree, with him as an overwhelming favorite. But the longview on Mendes is ultimately of greater concern, and that is still a point of contention. Has he done enough to close the gap between him and Aldo? On Saturday, he’ll hope to prove that he has, in striking fashion.