The UFC’s 145-pound division is by far the best division in the UFC; with an exceedingly skilled champion in Max Holloway as well as a host of strong contenders and prospects, the depth of featherweight is unmatched. On December 29, one of the top prospects in Alexander Volkanovski faces Chad Mendes, arguably the most underrated fighter in mixed martial arts history.
Mendes returned in Boise with a quick knockout of Myles Jury, and he looks to defeat a more esteemed prospect to set up a fight against the champion. A win over Mendes would put Volkanovski in rarefied air as a unique talent; the only people to defeat Mendes are Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor and Frankie Edgar, and Volkanovski has the chance to add his name to the list at UFC 232.
It’s very difficult to see a consistent path to victory for Volkanovski in this fight, and most scenarios where Volkanovski gets a win hinge on Mendes’ somewhat suspect chin shown in the Edgar fight. Volkanovski can definitely hit; he hurt Darren Elkins badly multiple times in their fight, and while most of his finishes are via ground strikes, a clean shot could end Mendes’ night early. In an overall tactical sense, though, Volkanovski’s approach is a fairly limiting factor in finding that pivotal blow. Against the first opponent that he couldn’t just athletically overwhelm in Darren Elkins, Volkanovski showed a reasonably sound process in giving the gritty American an absolute beating. Volkanovski pressured from the beginning, looked to counter Elkins if he tried to fight to get off the cage, and struck from the clinch if he could pin Elkins against the fence for long enough to cleanly enter. Against Mendes, Volkanovski runs into a stern obstacle at every step of this process.
Mendes is a very good pressure fighter; he was able to corral Lamas into the fence within a round with excellent cage-cutting before cracking him with a right hand, and his counterstriking ability makes him difficult to back up. Mendes is markedly better than Volkanovski on the counter as a whole; he can move his head and parry strikes very well, enough to set up reactive takedowns and to come back with strikes (as he did to bang up Conor McGregor at points), and he can set up his strikes with takedown attempts as he memorably did to hurt Jose Aldo with an uppercut in their rematch. It’s unlikely that Volkanovski can counter Mendes on the way in, as Mendes is better in the pocket and can close distance very quickly and very intelligently with multiple threats in play. Even if Volkanovski can outstrike a better striker to pressure a better pressurer, he has to wrestle a better wrestler to pursue the dirty boxing that has generally gotten him success in close quarters. No one has been able to wrestle Chad Mendes without looking a level below (technically and athletically), so clinching with Mendes to strike on the break is a high-risk tactic for Volkanovski to pursue.
Volkanovski’s fight against Elkins was an overall encouraging one, but it doesn’t give much hope in the Mendes fight. Elkins’ defense is nonexistent and Volkanovski took advantage, but that doesn’t mean he’ll land on a defensively sharp Mendes, and Elkins came back in round two to win the striking with body kicks. If Mendes looks like he used to, Volkanovski has very little chance without showing skills he’s never shown.
Prediction: Mendes via first-round knockout. This writer caps it: -500 Mendes.