Chad Mendes’ combat sports career is nearly perfect, both on the wrestling mats and in the Octagon. Most athletes could only dream of accomplishing what he’s done, but it’s not enough. Twice, greatness has slipped through his fingers. He swears it will never happen again.
It’s as if I had to take a blood oath of secrecy just to be here. The camera crew only shoots certain angles to avoid showing landmarks, which would give away our covert location. You’d think we were standing on an ancient burial ground. This plot of land is even more sacred to Chad Mendes. It’s his secret hunting spot, and I’ll be damned if my loose tongue gets me in hot water with a decorated UFC veteran.
Chad “Money” Mendes lives on five acres of property, however, that’s just not enough land to quench his outdoor thirst. We just left the Alpha Male home base, Ultimate Fitness, and made it, quite literally, over the river and through the woods to the consecrated location in Mendes’ Toyota Tacoma.
He leases these 75 acres of hallowed ground we are currently occupying—a country boy’s own personal playground. He’s shot turkeys, dove, deer, and anything else he thinks looks delicious or has a head that would display nicely over his fireplace.
Mendes’ hometown of Hanford, nestled in California’s Central Valley, mirrors the agrarian life of the Midwest from which America’s best wrestlers traditionally hale. Outdoor life and farm work helps nurture the rugged body and attitude needed to handle the rigors of life on the mat. An environment with no distractions helps as well.
“In Hanford, there isn’t a whole lot to do for fun,” Mendes says. “Wrestling consumed most of my time, and any spare time I had I’d either be hunting or fishing.”
Mendes found the wrestling mats at five years old. A fan of professional wrestling at the time, the image he saw when he walked into his first wrestling room sticks with him to this day. “I remember driving there in our Suburban and just thinking it was going to be the fake wrestling on TV,” he says. “I walked into the gym, and it was just wrestling mats on the ground. I’m looking around—I’m five years old and I still remember this—I told my dad, ‘Where’s the wrestling ring at? Where’s the guys doing flips and all the crazy stuff?’”
Despite his unfulfilled expectations, the sport stuck, and he wrestled every season of his life from then to his senior year of college.
A dad pushing you in the proper athletic direction sure helps, too. His parents divorced when he was a baby. His mom moved to New Mexico, and he stayed with his dad and an array of half- and step-brothers. His dad was determined to raise tough boys. “When I was growing up, I was probably seven or eight years old, my brother and I were just tired of wrestling. We were doing it for so many years already, and we were just tired of it. We wanted to play baseball. I remember exactly what my dad told me. He said, ‘You’re not going to play baseball. Baseball is for sissies!’ And I never played baseball. I remember him waking me up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning sometimes. He’d put me in the back of the Suburban with pillows and I’d be sleeping, and he’s driving me four hours to a tournament or whatever.”
The long drives and early mornings paid off. Mendes was a natural. In only his second year of wrestling, he won a Greco-Roman state title. He’s won so many titles, he strains trying to remember how many. “Close to 15 state titles,” he guesses. You can almost hear the wheels turn as he struggles to remember all of his conquests.
In 2003, Mendes’ successful high school career caught the eye of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo assistant coach Matt Azevedo, who recognized his athletic gifts. “He’s so strong, so explosive. He had such great natural ability,” the current Drexel wrestling coach says.
Azevedo still keeps tabs with Mendes and attends many of his fights. He also remembers Mendes’ tough streak. “Chad had a little fighter in him then. He was definitely known to be tough on the street. He was known to pack a wallop, is what I’ve heard.”
Mendes struggled throughout his wrestling career, whether it was because of injury or competing at the wrong weight class. But, like the hardnosed competitor he is, he overcame the obstacles and was rewarded with two Pac-10 Titles and became a two-time All-American.
It’s not how you start, but how you finish. He entered his final match the undisputed number one ranked wrestler in his weight class. It was the finals of the NCAA Wrestling tournament. Winner would become a National Champion. The loser would be left to ponder “What if?” Expectations were high. The pressure was on.
Mendes lost to J. Jaggers of Ohio State 5-2 at 141 pounds.
“Ultimately…” Mendes starts with a nervous laugh, “I started wrestling when I was five years old. The ultimate goal my entire life was to be a National Champ, and I finally get there in my last year of wrestling, and I’m seconds away from being a National Champion, and it’s ripped out from underneath me by a stupid call. All that hard work, all that dedication, all that time, all the pain that I went through to get there, it got taken away like that. It’s awful man.”
The bout wasn’t without controversy. A takedown by Mendes was never scored, along with a series of other questionable calls by the referee. In the locker room after the match, Mendes and his coaches wept. A lifelong goal stopped just short of the finish line.
The referee approached the Mendes crew later that night. He tried to apologize, solidifying what Mendes already knew. The match was ripped away from him by the referee. It pissed off Mendes, but not as much as his dad. For his troubles, the referee was met with Mendes’ enraged father in a scuffle that Chad himself had to break up.
Losing left a terrible aftertaste in his mouth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Cal Poly wrestler went into his final match 30-0 as a senior, dropping only the last one. He’s a two-time All-American and capped a tremendous career in a sport many call the toughest in the world. He had the second best season of any 141-pounder that year.
Back on the hunting grounds, Mendes is a much happier fellow. He’s sitting on the Tacoma’s tailgate, his brown cowboy boots dangling from the end of his Wranglers, just above his NRA bumper sticker. He’s a lifelong member.
The first thing you notice about him is his happy demeanor. At Ultimate Fitness, he jokes and chats with every soul who walks through the door, shadow punching every shoulder he sees in good humor.
His wife Danielle joins us, and it takes Mendes about five seconds to brag about the boar she recently shot. She hadn’t even fished until they met in college. Now, she won’t even let Mendes track down a coveted buck without her helping. She loved watching him wrestle and has learned to enjoy watching him fight. She has always wanted to go to Italy, and Mendes promised to take her after his next fight…as long as he gets as many hunting trips as he wants. She took the deal.
Mendes has the life he always wanted, but it took initiative to get there. He decided his senior year he would join Urijah Faber and company at Alpha Male. He threw everything into a U-Haul and committed fulltime to MMA.
Alpha Male is the toughest frat you’ve ever seen. They train hard, but just like Mendes in college, they play hard. After punching, kicking, and tossing each other around in training several hours a day, they still aren’t sick of one another. “It really is like a big family,” Mendes says. “I’ve been to a few other camps and you get that with two or three guys who are really close to each other, but the whole team usually isn’t like that.” Camping trips, house boating, and road trips provide balance from their rough and tumble occupation of choice.
The environment is yielding huge dividends. In less than three years starting in 2008, Mendes racked up an undefeated record of 11-0, including four wins in the WEC and two in the UFC. A title shot against pound-for-pound ranked Jose Aldo was the next step.
That step happened at UFC 142 in 2012 in Aldo’s home country of Brazil. Mendes had been waiting for this ever since he first decided face-punching was the occupation for him. All of the work, travel, and sacrifice led up to this moment. The winner would be the best featherweight in the world. The loser would go home wondering what happened. He’d fallen short at the pinnacle of wrestling. He didn’t want it to happen again.
Mendes lost by a knee knockout one second shy of the end of the opening round.
“It was kind of surreal,” Mendes explains, eyes staring blankly. “It was kind of weird, honestly. I feel like…almost like it wasn’t even real. I feel like the whole fight wasn’t even real at all. Flying to Brazil, it was the first time I’d ever fought in Brazil. Things were so different. The diet was different. The time change was different. It was the first time I’d ever fought outside of the country. I was the main event of the card. I’m fighting in front of thousands of people who can’t even speak English and they’re chanting stuff. It was so weird.”
Like his final wrestling match, controversy reared its ugly head in this fight. Mendes was working his wrestling gameplan against Aldo and was finding moderate success. A final takedown attempt near the end of the first round was met with an illegal fence grab that prevented the takedown. Aldo used that standing position to land the finishing knee on Mendes.
He’d flown to a foreign land and faced off against one of the sport’s best in any weight class. Mendes wasn’t even a toddler in MMA years, and yet he still made it to the top of his sport. He was the second best 145-pounder in the entire world.
It takes a lot to keep “Money” Mendes down. Instead of moping, he got back to work. In his first seven UFC and WEC fights, he’d only managed to finish one of his opponents, unheralded Anthony Morrison in 2010. Since losing to Aldo, Mendes has had three straight first-round knockouts for a combined time of 3:34. His dad cornered him for all three KOs. You can bet he’ll be at every fight from here on out.
Not all the credit can go to his pops. New Alpha Male head coach Duane Ludwig made a huge mark on the team who thinks so highly of him. The respect goes both ways. “When God or our Creator or whatever made Chad, he sprinkled a little extra athleticism in him,” Ludwig says. “Chad will be our first UFC World Champion. No question.” High praise for a team made up of the likes of Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez, and TJ Dillashaw.
Next up for Mendes is fan-favorite Clay Guida at UFC 164 on August 31. The veteran of 43 fights successfully dropped to 145 pounds for the first time in his last fight, beating the highly ranked Hatsu Hioki by split decision. “The Carpenter” was one of the most consistently exciting fighters in the UFC with endless cardio and unmatched aggression. However, his last two fights showed a more reserved Guida.
Mendes is curious which Guida he should expect. “I don’t know which Clay is going to show up. Will it be the old-school Clay who used to sit there and bang? He’d sit there in the pocket and throw punches, not afraid to fight. Or the Clay that’s gonna try to tap dance and run around the whole time? I hope that Clay doesn’t show up because that’s boring to watch, and it’s hard to fight a guy like that who doesn’t come there to fight. If the old Clay shows up, it’s going to be a war. It’ll be fun for the fans, and it’ll be fun for me. It might be a little bit tough if he’s going to just run the whole time.”
If Mendes vs. Guida sounds familiar, it is. Mendes was supposed to meet the former Strikeforce Champion at UFC on Fox 7 in April, until the Greg Jackson-trained fighter pulled out due to injury.
It’s an infuriating theme for Mendes, who’s had four fighters back out on him in the UFC. Sometimes the UFC is able to arrange a short-notice opponent, but sometimes they don’t. He doesn’t even like people mentioning opponents backing out for fear of jinxing himself. It’s a tough financial burden for someone who depends almost solely on fighting for income. A camp is tough physically and mentally, but it can hit the wallet the hardest. Paying coaches, travel, training partners—it all comes out of the fighter’s pocket.
Injuries are bound to happen in MMA. How many hours can you spend in a gym built for professional ass-kicking without breaking a bone or tearing a ligament? But it’s the really short-notice injuries that raise Mendes’ eyebrows. You wonder if an injury is just a Get Out of a Fight Free Card—the equivalent of a phony doctor’s note getting you out of a PE class you just don’t feel like taking. “A lot of the times, I’m sure it is,” Mendes says. “There’s no way you should be going hard enough to blow something out five days before a fight.”
If there’s one thing he needs, it’s opponents. The more opponents he dispatches, the closer he gets to Aldo. The featherweight division is shining right now, and quality wins are necessary to stand out from the pack. Ricardo Lamas is on a four-fight winning streak since entering the division and was originally promised a title shot until he was eventually passed over. Cub Swanson has won his last five, punctuated by his destruction of Dennis Siver at UFC 162. It isn’t a weight class where mediocrity puts you in the spotlight.
A win over Guida is certainly a step in the right direction, but will it blossom into a title shot? “Yeah. That’s what they’re kind of telling me, and that’s what I’m hoping for.” Mendes likes his chances since his manager is pretty reserved and rarely brings up anything to Mendes that doesn’t have a good chance of coming to fruition.
The Aldo loss is what still haunts him though. It’s his only loss, sure. But it’s more than that. Mendes is competitive, to the core. His near-miss senior year hangs over his head, and he’ll be damned if it happens again in MMA. It’s the best motivation. His whiff at the NCAA Wrestling Final can’t be fixed. But another shot at the UFC belt can be.
“I honestly think I can be the Champ,” says Mendes. “I honestly think I can beat Jose Aldo. I feel like I was winning that fight the whole first round until I got caught. A couple seconds left and I made a mistake, and he capitalized. I felt him out. I’ve seen his speed. I’ve seen his power. He’s a tough, tough, TOUGH guy. But so am I. Any time I’m training, I’m thinking about that.”
Outdoor time is over, so Chad, Danielle, and I hop back in his truck on our way to the gym again. The conversation today flowed seamlessly between hunting, fishing, and fighting. His favorite kill is a buck he scouted for over a year and finally shot with an arrow…not unlike Aldo, who he’s been scouting since that fateful night in Brazil.
He’s working on getting a reality show where he can hunt and fish on TV. He’s even pondered working a side gig as a hunting guide. There have to be MMA fans who would pay good money to hunt with a UFC fighter, right?
Until his Weatherby .30-06 Springfield rifle and a camera crew pay his bills, he’s more than happy doing the other thing he loves, and that’s beating up featherweights. In the short time he’s been fighting, he’s already put together a career that most fighters would relish. He’s 14-1 and has been hovering around the top of his division for years.
But that’s not enough for Mendes. He wants it all, and he uses his loss for positive gain. “It’s just motivation, because I’m not finished. I’m still pretty young in this sport. I’ve only been doing it for about four-and-a-half years, and I feel like I still have a good run left in me.”
A NCAA Wrestling Title and a UFC Title have evaded him. These are prestigious titles, reserved only for the very best who have managed to combine hard work, skill, diligence, and, the only element he’s missing…timing. The chance at wrestling gold is gone forever, but UFC gold is well within his reach. It’s so close he can already visualize where the belt will go.
“Oh yeah. I’ve got some spots. I want to put it right above the fireplace. We have a picture there right now, but I think a big UFC belt would look a lot better.”
CHAD MENDES’ RECORD TO DATE
Res. Record Opponent
Win 14–1 Darren Elkins
Win 13–1 Yaotzin Meza
Win 12–1 Cody McKenzie
Loss 11–1 José Aldo
Win 11–0 Rani Yahya
Win 10–0 Michihiro Omigawa
Win 9–0 Javier Vazquez
Win 8–0 Cub Swanson
Win 7–0 Anthony Morrison
Win 6–0 Erik Koch
Win 5–0 Mike Joy
Win 4–0 Steven Siler
Win 3–0 Art Arciniega
Win 2–0 Leland Gridley
Win 1–0 Giovanni Encarnacion