UFC 232 featured a rematch involving a consensus pound-for-pound talent, as well as a super-fight of proportions never seen prior in female mixed martial arts, and yet there’s a good argument that neither bout featured the most skilled fighter of the event.
Opening the pay-per-view portion was a bout between streaking prospect Alexander Volkanovski and Chad Mendes; Mendes came up short, losing via second-round knockout, and announced his retirement after the fight. As his decade-long professional fighting career has seemingly come to a close, it appears prudent to look back on Mendes’ career and recognize just how rare of a talent he turned out to be.
Despite his career trajectory looking similar to that of Alexander Gustafsson, giving the best a good fight but not quite able to topple them, the legacy of Chad Mendes is more likely to be closer to that of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson: a brutal hitter whose technical depth was overshadowed by that power. Earlier in his career, Mendes was largely able to wreak havoc with raw athleticism alone; his ability to close distance was extraordinary, his speed in uncorking combinations was rare, and he had real, life-changing power. He had hands heavy enough to punch a hole through the ribs of Cody McKenzie, the confidence as a grappler to try to backflip over the guard of a grappling world champion in Rani Yahya, and one of the slickest and most polished double-leg takedowns in the game.
The technical development in Mendes’ striking game can largely be accredited to Duane Ludwig, who joined Team Alpha Male in late 2012; where Urijah Faber and his team had done a solid job, the first loss to Aldo (the first loss of Mendes’ career, to the greatest fighter of all time, via brutal knee to the face) showed just how raw of a striker Mendes was when he couldn’t overwhelm his opponent with sheer horsepower. Under Ludwig, Mendes was honed into a legitimately elite striker who used his athleticism as an asset rather than as a crutch. While Chad’s game would’ve worked defensively and offensively if he weren’t quite as transcendent of an athlete as he was, the fact that he was that sort of athlete strengthened his game considerably. Mendes’ maturation as a fighter was abundantly clear in his rematch with Aldo; while he came up short, he gave Aldo the best fight that anyone had up to that point. It remains one of the finest fights of all time, one arguably showing the highest level of combined skill that has ever been shown in an MMA contest, and a fight that made the greatest fighter of all time look human. The impressiveness of that performance cannot be overstated, even though it didn’t end in Mendes’ hand being raised.
The requisite technical development to reach that point was, clearly, of a massive scale; Mendes became one of the strongest counterpunchers in the UFC when he was with Ludwig. This largely came with relatively uncommon defensive soundness, as well as also uncommon offensive potency (not only aforementioned raw athleticism, but ancillary striking tools that Ludwig imparted and refined). Mendes’ strongest counterpunching displays took the form of the cross counter, the overhand thrown over his opponent’s jab; Mendes became an artist with this blow, clubbing Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins with the powerful right hand off the inside slip. Mendes wasn’t a one-dimensional counterpuncher, though; he was able to catch Jose Aldo’s uppercut and drop him with a left hook less than a minute into the rematch, and he slipped inside and outside the straight left of Conor McGregor to find counter right hands (where the southpaw stance nullified the favored cross counter). Mendes’ ability to move his head flowed very well into his reactive takedown game, where he was able to duck his opponent’s strike and drive into their hips as they were overextended (which was largely how he found his takedowns against McGregor). Mendes made offensive strides, but they were direct products of Mendes becoming a capable defensive boxer and finding applications for it in every area.
Along with this gigantic development, Mendes also gained a clear tactical thread in his fights, becoming a more defined pressure fighter. Mendes was already hazardous to pressure due to his work on the counter, as it became difficult to push him back with his comfort in the pocket and his power, but Mendes also became a dangerous fighter on the lead. Mendes was able to land cleanly and powerfully on Conor McGregor on the lead, which is fairly difficult with McGregor’s own counterpunching, and Mendes also cracked Jose Aldo with an uppercut that was set up with the level change; on the lead, Mendes was as thoughtful as he was on the counter. This allowed him to force his opponent to the fence, not only with a decent jab (not particularly versatile, but threatening enough to push his man backward), but also with the ability to double up on the right hand as he did against Darren Elkins to cover distance, and excellent pressure footwork. Ricardo Lamas was walked to the fence fairly quickly with feints, couldn’t get off the fence as Mendes stayed in front of him, and ate a right hand to the skull that stunned him before he got executed with chillingly patient ground-and-pound. At his best, save for unspectacular top control, Mendes was reasonably close to being the total package; a powerful and nuanced striker who could wrestle and grapple, take a good shot, and go five hard rounds without fading like most power-punchers often do.
It is the skill of Chad Mendes at his peak that makes his decline so saddening. Mendes was never a flawless fighter; Aldo out-kickboxed him fairly soundly, Conor McGregor destroyed his body and Mendes couldn’t really respond, and Frankie Edgar knocking him out showed that his durability was either inconsistent (like that of Andrei Arlovski) or simply declined since the war with Aldo. However, the performance against Alexander Volkanovski was one of his worst in years, where he tried to play a Woodley-style counterpunching game against the fence, got jabbed up, and gassed hard. The bulk of the credit has to go to Volkanovski, obviously, who attacked the body nicely, jabbed well, and simply didn’t let Mendes rest; however, Mendes looked unable to deal with a jab at all, his offensive arsenal looked declined, and his gas tank looked weak from the start. That version of Mendes was a far cry from his peak, technically and tactically, and it’s especially unfortunate considering how much the division has deepened. A prime Mendes was one of the few credible threats for Max Holloway in the division, considering his takedown ability and his ability to deliver a brutal punch to even the most defensively sound (such as Aldo), so his technical atrophy has removed one of the most compellingly competitive prospective contests in the UFC today.
However, it also makes his retirement timely in a way that most MMA retirements are not (assuming that he stays retired). Mendes has only lost to the absolute best, and he was competitive enough against Volkanovski that he probably still has a lot to offer against someone less durable and less skilled; that said, it’s probably a better idea to retire with a little bit left unseen than to retire with nothing left. Mendes’ last fight took place on an event that showed a few good reasons not to stick around too long; Carlos Condit got submitted in brutal fashion for his fifth loss in a row, and BJ Penn took a sixth consecutive loss that was only good for Penn fans in the sense that he didn’t get hurt too badly, so while a Mendes retirement is frustrating, it’s better that it happens now if Mendes feels that the time has come. All that can be done at this point is appreciate one of the most underappreciated contenders in history, one who took the best of the best to the limit in every sense. Chad Mendes was a kingmaker, and at a division populated at the top with pound-for-pound talents, there’s no shame in definitively being among them.