"Since I fought Aldo (the first time), every fight I’ve trained for and every camp I’ve gone through was for him." - Chad Mendes
Saturday, January 14, 2012 was both the best and worst night of Chad Mendes’ career as a professional fighter.
That night, inside the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a then-unbeaten Mendes stepped into the Octagon to challenge Jose Aldo for the UFC featherweight title on his home turf. Having rattled off 11 consecutive victories to begin his career, the former All-American wrestler had quickly climbed the ladder to stand as the top contender in the 145-pound ranks and was tabbed by many as being the fighter with the best shot at dethroning the dominant Brazilian champion.
Until the late stages of the opening round, Mendes was looking good, controlling the tempo and location of the fight with his wrestling, refusing to give Aldo a chance to find his rhythm and start getting loose. All of that changed in a flash as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the first.
A takedown attempt. A fence grab. A crushing knee.
In the span of 60 seconds, Mendes went from a dominant position and potentially winning the round to suffering the first loss of his professional career and watching Aldo celebrate his victory in the stands with the electrified audience.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t my time at that time,” Mendes, who will have his shot at revenge Saturday night as he once again travels to Rio with designs on returning home as the UFC featherweight champion, said. “I don’t know whether I was too young, too inexperienced or what, but it just wasn’t my time. It was frustrating and it sucks, but everything happens for a reason.
“And honestly, that loss drove me to become the fighter that I am now.”
> Watch: The Journey - Chad Mendes
When he steps into the Octagon with Aldo for the second time Saturday night, it will have been 1014 days since their first encounter. In that time, Mendes has taken his game to the next level, harnessing his power and sharpening his striking to become a more well-rounded and complete mixed martial artist.
He’s rattled off five consecutive victories, showcasing the confidence he’s developed in his hands while never straying too far from the wrestling base that brought him to this level in the first place, and though he’s longed for the opportunity that awaits him, Mendes has refused to get ahead of himself on the journey back to Brazil.
At every turn, the now 16-1 featherweight contender voiced his desire to face Aldo for a second time, but he happily accepted every fight the UFC put in front of him, working his way back up the ladder, into the position in the blue corner, 30 feet of canvas stretched out between him and the reigning champion.
“Since I fought Aldo (the first time), every fight I’ve trained for and every camp I’ve gone through was for him. I knew that if I kept working hard, kept running through the people they put in front of me, I’d be right back there with him. This is what I’ve been looking forward to and training for since that night in Brazil.
“We’ve had Duane (Ludwig) at our camp and he pushed me to really improve on my stand-up,” he continues. “Duane helped get me a lot more comfortable – find my pinpoint accuracy and using that power that I have to knock guys out. We saw what happened the next few fights after that.”
As much as Mendes knows the growth and development he’s shown in the cage since his first encounter with Aldo changes up the dynamic of this weekend’s championship main event, he believes the most significant and important gains that he’s made have come outside of the cage.
“Looking back on it at that time, I felt I was the most prepared I could be. Looking back on it now, I definitely was not,” he says with a laugh. “There was still a lot that I needed to learn, but obviously going into a title fight, you’ve got to have the most confidence in the world. You’re not going to be like, `Ah s*** – I’m not ready for this!’
“I truly believe in myself, I know all the hard work that I put in and, at the time, that was the best me. I think it truly was at the time, but overall, I just feel like I’ve improved so much more since then. It’s not just because of the stand-up, but being able to mix up everything – mix up striking with my takedowns and being able to not get too overwhelmed, staying calm before the fight. I feel like I’m just more mature when it comes to the fight game.”
> Watch: Film Room with Jon Anik and Chad Mendes
If you’re looking for examples of how Mendes has grown, look no further than the way he’s handled this rematch with Aldo being pushed back two months and moved from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, shifting home-field advantage back in favor of the defending champion.
“Obviously there is some frustration,” he admits. “I was super-excited to fight him close to home and I had so many friends and family that had already bought tickets, had hotel rooms booked. It’s been a big pain in the ass and it sucks because I was really looking forward to getting that belt and beating Jose Aldo close to home, having everybody there.
“I was really looking forward to that and it just sucks that I do everything perfectly – I go through a camp, training, staying injury-free – but then he gets injured and gets rewarded by having the fight close to home.
“But I don’t care where this fight is at, honestly,” he adds sharply. “Naturally I was very excited to do it in front of my hometown crowd, but there is definitely going to be a little bit of sweetness to be able to go over there in front of his hometown crowd, the whole crowd chanting `You’re gonna die!’ in Portuguese, avenge my only loss and bring that belt back to the United States.
> Watch: UFC Breakthrough - Chad Mendes
“It would have been cool to do it at home, but once we step into that Octagon and that door closes, it doesn’t matter if it’s here in my backyard, in Brazil or on the moon – I’m still going to get in there and beat Jose Aldo.”