Vazquez - "I have a big advantage in experience and matching him with me will be a little too much for him at this point in his career. I’m telling you I am better than people say I am."
Admit it: You’re a sucker for pre-fight conflict and personality clashes. And the Javier Vazquez-Chad Mendes matchup on the WEC 52 fight card just might satisfy this irresistible interest in personal squabbles.
It was the ever-candid Vazquez, a Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt, who stirred the pot when he recently fired off this opening salvo to a Las Vegas Sun reporter: "I feel like I've earned my stripes in this sport … I've put in my time. I don't feel like this kid has. He's a good athlete, but he's been kind of spoon-fed in a lot of ways.”
Of course, the 12-year MMA veteran’s words quickly got back to Mendes, a fellow southern Californian with a perfect 8-0 record but only two years of professional experience. In response to the perceived slight, Mendes displayed his typical laid-back vibe, but indicated that despite appearances the verbal jab struck an emotional chord within him.
“It kind of pissed me off a little bit,” said Mendes, who finished runner-up at the 2008 NCAA Wrestling Championships. “I don’t know what he’s talking about being ‘spoon fed.’ I started wrestling when I was five years old and I’ve made so many sacrifices in my life growing up to be the best at my sport. I’ve gone through super tough times cutting weight and gone through the grind of practices and seasons – probably harder than anything he’s ever done in his entire life. I’ve gone through a lot of stuff and I deserve everything I have right now.
“I made the transition from wrestling to MMA and I’m doing well right now. So I don’t know what the hell that guy is talking about being ‘spoon fed.’ But it’s motivation. This is the first time that I’ve had a fight where I have felt this way against my opponent. Usually I’m pretty humble and it’s all business. But this is more on a personal level now and that’s all Javier’s fault. I’m not the kind of guy to talk s--- about my opponent and never will. Every day of training now I’m thinking of him saying that and it’s just motivation that is pushing me harder in each workout.”
Though Vazquez is just 33 years old -- believing he’s in his prime – debuting in the sport back in 1998 makes him the featherweight division’s elder statesman. With Jens Pulver no longer in the WEC, the former junior college wrestler represents the “Old School” versus a fast-rising phenom who teammate Urijah Faber has predicted will eventually claim the 145-pound world title. It’s worth noting that Vazquez was training back when there wasn’t a 145-pound weight class and he was forced to fight in smaller organizations for meager paychecks. Mendes, meanwhile, is one of many younger fighters who were fortunate to enter the sport at a time when its popularity and pay are skyrocketing across the world.
Despite the tensions his bluntness caused, Vazquez (15-4) made it clear that he has no personal qualms with his foe in Thursday night’s co-main event.
“Look, I personally like Chad Mendes, Urijah Faber and their guys,” Vazquez said. “Chad is an awesome athlete and a great wrestler and he’s going to be an incredible fighter some day. But he’s only had eight fights. I have a big advantage in experience and matching him with me will be a little too much for him at this point in his career. I’m telling you I am better than people say I am. I can finish the fight with jiu-jitsu, that’s what my record shows. He doesn’t finish fights, that’s what his record shows.”
Indeed, Vazquez, the self-professed best featherweight grappler in the world, has submitted 10 of his opponents. His hands have been less impressive, as demonstrated by his 1 TKO. Yet Vazquez has proven amazingly competitive and all four of his losses have been via split decision (plenty of bystanders believe he was on the wrong side of the decision in a loss to L.C. Davis). Mendes is a bit more of a wild card. He has submitted two opponents and TKO’d two others. But the short and stocky fighter says his boxing idol is Mike Tyson and he packs a lot of pop in his punches.
“Honestly, I think I’m a bad matchup for him,” Mendes said. “My wrestling is going to be too much for his jiu-jitsu. My strength, my speed and my standup are a lot better than his. I’d like to keep this fight standing as much as possible and use my wrestling to keep him from taking me down. But I feel confident to be able to take him down and not get submitted.
“I go against guys every day in grappling and I haven’t been submitted in the (training) room in a long time. My submission defense is great, so I feel confident that I’ll be able to handle my own on the ground, whether he’s a black belt or not. And it’s a lot different being a black belt and having somebody punch you in the face. A lot of times all that stuff goes out the window … I know he’s got some slick stuff but when I punch him in the face it’s going to be a lot different.”
Vazquez’s view: Go for it. He thinks the 25-year-old may simply try to execute a so-called “lay-and-pray” strategy, similar to the blueprint that carried Mendes to victory over Erik Koch.
“If he thinks he’s going to be able to take me down, hold me down and win a decision that way, well, that’s not going to happen,” Vazquez said. “No one who has ever trained with me and tried to hold me down has been able to. So if Chad takes me down and tries that strategy I’ll either submit him or get back to my feet.”