MILWAUKEE – There is little doubt that Chad Mendes was one of the two best featherweight mixed martial arts fighters in the world when he climbed into the cage on Jan. 14, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro to fight the legendary Jose Aldo for the title.
Mendes was not only unbeaten, he was also winning convincingly and looking for all the world like he might be the guy who could end Aldo's stint at the top of the featherweight division.
Mendes, though, brought a secret into the cage that night with him. He wasn't fully developed as a fighter, and he knew it. He relied on superb wrestling technique to carry him through his 11 fights. His lack of diversity and his inability to strike at a high level was a red flag that people didn't see.
After Aldo took Mendes out in the first round of a scheduled five-rounder, Mendes set out to remake himself. At the same time, Team Alpha Male hired Duane Ludwig as its striking coach, giving Mendes the kind of guy who could help him quickly develop that side of his game.
The results have been extraordinary, even if the three opponents post-Aldo don't match up favorably with any of the 10 pre-Aldo opponents.
Mendes has stopped, in order, Cody McKenzie, Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins, needing a combined time of two minutes, 34 seconds to finish those three fights.
He heads into his fight Saturday against Clay Guida at UFC 164 at the Bradley Center a different man, not only in outlook, but in style. Mendes has exceptionally heavy hands, and he's able to put them to good use with guys so wary of his takedowns.
Elkins has been on a good run, but Mendes blew right through him on April 20 in San Jose, and faces another tough test against Guida.
"For me, it's just that I'm kind of finding myself as a fighter," Mendes said. "I'm getting comfortable with my standup. After that first knockout of McKenzie, I realized I could put people down if I hit them in the right spot. It's kind of made my confidence go up. And also, having Duane Ludwig at our camp now, drilling tons of standup stuff we've never really done before, has helped a ton."
Mendes' admission that he fought Aldo with essentially mediocre standup skills is astonishing, in many ways. He had rolled through some of the best featherweights in the world, beating guys like Erik Koch and Cub Swanson along the way to get the match with the champion.
Aldo is a brilliant fighter with no discernible weaknesses, and he's virtually impossible to beat when an opponent has everything going. It's almost laughable to think one could beat him without a fully developed standup game, but that's the Herculean task that Mendes faced.
The improvement in his game will make him much more of a threat should he ever get another crack at Aldo.
The UFC matchmakers don't wait until fighters feel it's the perfect time to offer them matches against the challengers. UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby thought Mendes was ready and offered him the bout.
Even knowing he was going in with a major aspect of the game not where he wanted it, it was all but impossible to say no.
"It's not that I wasn't confident as a fighter, but the standup part of the game wasn't there for me yet," he said. "A lot of people said I took that fight too early for me in my career, but it's a title shot. I'm not going to turn it down. You never know what is going to happen in this sport."
Mendes has a bit of guessing to do when it comes to what he'll see from Guida. For most of his career, Guida was an aggressive fighter who closed the distance quickly and looked to exchange.
But in his last two bouts, Guida has incorporated much more movement, which he believes has made him better able to take advantage of mistakes.
"I don't just stalk forward like a zombie, swinging for the fences," Guida said. "There's meaning and purpose behind my footwork now. We've worked a lot of it. I've worked a lot of Frankie Edgar's footwork. Mine's a lot more erratic, and probably sloppier, but I have the same tendencies as Frankie as far as making it hard to track our footwork and putting a long-range step in there."
Guida's movement will put Mendes' newly found striking skills to the test, because it's never easy to hit a moving target.
It's a critical fight for Mendes not only to win, but to look good in doing it, considering that Ricardo Lamas and Swanson are each on a roll and have a legitimate argument for the next crack at Aldo.
Mendes isn't sure what to expect for Guida, but has had essentially back-to-back camps since the fight was postponed once because of an injury.
"You just don't know what Clay is going to show up," Mendes said. "Is it going to be the one that's in your face banging who will never let you breathe, or is it the point fighter we've seen lately? You just don't know. We've trained for both and that movement is something we have our eyes on, and we're planning for it."