When Chad Mendes stepped into the cage against UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo at UFC 142 in early 2012, I was certain that “Money” was going to be the man to knock Aldo off of his throne. Despite a first-round knockout loss for Mendes that night and a few more dominant showings by the champion after that, I still believe that Mendes is the guy to beat Aldo.

Two years ago, a much less refined version of Mendes was supposed to give Aldo the toughest test of his UFC career. Undefeated and extremely motivated, “Money” brought a strong wrestling game and an endless gas tank to the cage, which on paper still seems to be the blueprint to take out the champion. Mendes was (and possibly still is) the best grinder in the featherweight division, and if anyone could get past Aldo’s legendary takedown defense, it would be the former Cal Poly All-American.

When they actually stepped into the cage, it was a different story. Aldo’s devastating leg kicks started landing early and often, and despite getting in deep on a single leg and grabbing double underhooks from the back, Mendes had virtually no luck in getting Aldo to the mat. Aside from a brief two-second period where Mendes threw Aldo on all fours with a takedown, the challenger didn’t seem to be in control during any portion of the bout. Aldo spun away from Mendes’ back control and landed a perfectly placed knee to the jaw with just seconds left in the round. A follow-up punch earned the Brazilian the stoppage at 4:59 of the first frame.

Mendes supporters love to bring up Aldo’s blatant grab of the fence as a major turning point of the fight, but it probably just sped up the inevitable. With just under a minute left in the round, Mendes pulled Aldo away from the cage and lifted the champion into the air to try to slam him to the mat. Once he became airborne, Aldo grabbed a fistful of fence and managed to stay on his feet, earning a warning from referee Mario Yamasaki. Roughly 45 seconds later, Mendes was unconscious and Aldo was being mobbed by the Brazilian fans after running into the crowd to celebrate.

Although the fence grab was unfortunate and may have contributed to Mendes being finished as early as he was, odds are that “Money” was going to end up going down at some point during that fight. Mendes didn’t have nearly enough on the feet to cause Aldo any concern in the striking game, and that allowed the champion to concentrate most of his defensive efforts on Mendes’ takedown attempts. When you’re as good at defending the takedown as Aldo is, that spells disaster for the opposition.

I have to admit that after rewatching the first fight earlier this week, my certainty that Mendes would leave Los Angeles with the belt in August took a bit of a hit. There’s no doubt that the Team Alpha Male product was thoroughly outclassed by Aldo back in 2012, and if the second bout looks anything like the first, then it may be an extremely long (or short) night for the challenger. However, the Mendes of 2014 is a far superior fighter to the one that stepped into the cage a couple of years ago, and he’s improved enough to actually live up to his hype this time around.

If you break Mendes’ resume into pre-Aldo and post-Aldo sections, he looks like a completely different fighter. The Mendes that stepped into the cage with the champion in 2012 was a grinder at heart and wanted nothing more than to drag his opponent to the mat and smother them with ground-and-pound en route to a decision. If a finish happened to come in the process, that was just icing on the cake for the Team Alpha Male fighter.

The new Mendes is a completely different animal. In the five fights since he suffered the loss to Aldo, Mendes has taken out four of his five opponents with strikes, including iron-chinned contender Clay Guida. The addition of striking coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig to Team Alpha Male garnered instant improvement in the stand-up skills of the entire camp, but Mendes’ game might have evolved more than anyone else’s skills. He has suddenly become a force no matter where the fight goes. After scoring just one finish in his first seven fights on the Zuffa roster, Mendes rattled off four straight in order to get back into the mix before scoring a decision win over Nik Lentz earlier this year.

The emergence of Mendes’ striking game can make all the difference against Aldo, who looked far too comfortable on the feet in their first meeting. The champion was able to keep Mendes at a distance with his leg kicks, and “Money’s” inability to close that gap and score any offense left him a sitting duck in the striking department. Over his last few fights, Mendes has showed off aggressiveness on the feet that will serve him well against Aldo, who fights best when he’s able to square up and land his brutal kicks. Consistent offensive pressure has always been Mendes’ bread and butter, but he didn’t have the tools to work that game against Aldo the first time out. With his newfound punching power and willingness to engage on the feet, he can try to force Aldo to move backwards, negating the power in Aldo’s strikes and making an attempt at a takedown that much easier.

Mendes’ definitely isn’t the same fighter that we saw step into the cage at UFC 142 a few years ago, but neither is Aldo. While Mendes has been stopping opponent’s left and right in order to get back into the hunt, Aldo has been retaining his belt in a series of increasingly safe performances.

The featherweight champ is at his best when he’s standing toe-to-toe with his opponent and working his striking game. He has made sure to stick to what he knows in his last few bouts, scoring workmanlike victories over his last three fights. As the pressure of retaining his title continues to grow, Aldo has abandoned the flying knees and wild punches he once threw in favor of a more cerebral leg kick and jab-heavy striking approach. It’s an interesting approach for a fighter as explosive as Aldo, and thus far it’s produced some great results. It’s also a style that can be incredibly effective against a fighter like Mendes if Mendes is unable to get going early and falls into a lull out of the gate.

This is going to be an incredibly difficult fight for Mendes, but it seems like he has the all-around game to pull off the upset this time around. Aldo is as dangerous as they come on the feet, and if Mendes allows Aldo to get comfortable and start rattling off combinations and kicks, then Mendes may as well throw in the towel. However, if Mendes can mix up his game and keep Aldo guessing as to whether he’s jumping in for a big punch or a big takedown, then Mendes can win the strap. As difficult as Aldo is to get to the mat, we’ve seen him struggle when taken down before, and he’s never had a grappler as strong as Mendes laying on top of him and dropping elbows. With Aldo’s suspect cardio, that type of top control can change the fight quickly and lead the champion into trouble in the later rounds.

The recent struggles in title fights for members of Team Alpha Male have been well documented, but Mendes can buck the trend (if T.J. Dillashaw doesn’t beat him to it later this month). He has the striking—and more importantly, the finishing power—to make Aldo respect him on the feet, and that should lead to some openings for him to get the fight to the floor. It may take a few attempts and Mendes will have to stay out of trouble, but if he’s persistent in his attack he’ll eventually be able to close that distance and score the takedown. After that, the fight is in Mendes’ world. As long as he doesn’t get sloppy against the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Mendes should be fine.

Aldo is one of the five best fighters in the world and probably the greatest featherweight of all time, but he’s far from invincible and has shown more weakness in the past than some of the other dominant champions. Eventually, someone is going to figure out the right game plan to stifle “Scarface,” and Mendes could be that guy. It’s going to take a near-perfect performance for Mendes to pull off the victory, but the stars are going to align for Team Alpha Male in August.

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.