Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Chad Mendes’ long wait for UFC rematch with champion Jose Aldo nearly over

rbenton@sacbee.com

These are the times when Chad Mendes, who is part Portuguese, regrets not learning a second language. He wants specifics. His inquisitive mind wants to know: What has gotten into UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo?

The verbal challenges. The snarky critiques. The deliberate shove while the two were posing at a pre-fight news conference last summer at Staples Center in Los Angeles. None of this is characteristic of the charismatic, beguiling Brazilian who took the belt from Urijah Faber in a dominant performance 41/2 years ago at Sleep Train Arena.

Aldo hasn’t been touched since. Long-limbed and powerful at 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, he’s No. 1 in his weight class, perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in his profession.

But that stunt in L.A.? That was the type of cheesy antic that helped take down pro wrestling, not the behavior the UFC is trying to promote.

“He used to be humble and nice,” Mendes said recently at the Ultimate Fitness gym in downtown Sacramento. “But he just keeps trashing me and acting like a jerk, at least from what’s being translated. It makes no sense. The only thing I can figure is that I must be in his head.”

The two meet in person Saturday in a championship rematch that, Mendes said, is long overdue. It’s been more than 21/2 years since Aldo knocked out Mendes in the first round at UFC 142, handing Mendes his only defeat.

Saturday’s rematch was scheduled for Aug. 2 at Staples Center, but it was postponed when Aldo injured his neck during a training session. The real kicker to the rematch is the location – Rio de Janeiro, Aldo’s backyard, where they first fought. Instead of challenging the champion in front of family members, friends and most of his colleagues from his downtown Sacramento gym, Mendes will be supported by only a handful of familiar faces.

The change of venue has done nothing to change Mendes’ mood or his chances. The growing enmity between the fighters undoubtedly also is enhanced by common bonds and a shared history. Aldo dethroned Faber, the popular ex-champ who introduced the No. 2-ranked Mendes to mixed martial arts. Aldo’s teammate, Renan Barao, failed to make weight and withdrew from a recent match against defending bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw, another close friend and member of Team Alpha Male. Aldo’s injury forced the postponement of the long-awaited rematch and stretched Mendes’ layoff to an excruciating 10 months.

Mendes is so restless, he feelsas if he has been caged since his Dec. 14 victory over Nik Lentz.

“I can’t stand it,” Mendes said. “The reason I started wrestling was because I was such a hyper kid. I can still remember my dad driving me to my first practice and seeing all the wrestling mats and wondering, ‘Where the hell is the big ring like you see on pro wrestling on TV?’ I was 5 years old. Just sitting back these last several months, watching all our other guys fight, I’m going crazy.”

The return trip to Rio de Janeiro has been long, winding and adventurous.

Raised by his father in Hanford, about 35 miles south of Fresno, Mendes recalls a boyhood balancing act between wrestling and his love of the outdoors. Summers were spent working on irrigation systems, driving tractors or helping his father at the family-owned cabinet shop. The school year was dictated by academics – he was an excellent student – and the sport that fit both his temperament and his physical stature.

Always small for his age, the 5-foot-5, tightly muscled Mendes began dominating in elementary school. He ranked in the top 10 in California at Hanford High and – after rejecting a scholarship offer from Faber, who coached the Aggies’ now-defunct wrestling program – became a two-time All-American at Cal Poly. His only defeat as a senior was in the NCAA Tournament finale.

But Mendes already had been intrigued by cagefighting, with an assist from Faber.

“I met Urijah at this wrestling camp in Squaw Valley after my freshman season,” Mendes said. “He needed to train for a fight and was doing jiu-jitsu, and he was hurting everybody. Nobody wanted to work out with him. I finally said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll work out with you.’ That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. As soon as I graduated (in kinesiology), I packed up my stuff, drove to Sacramento and moved into a spare bedroom at his house. My career took off from there.”

Mendes (16-1) has won five consecutive fights. The loss, of course, came by the knee of Aldo on Jan. 14, 2012, with seconds remaining in the opening round.

This time, though, the candid, engaging Mendes insists he is prepared to counter Aldo’s devastating kicks and superior length with his own takedown skills and powerful strikes, particularly from the ground.

“A lot has changed since the last time we fought,” Mendes said. “I had never flown outside the country. I didn’t have a coach. Our (Team Alpha Male) training is very different. Everybody’s standup is improved, and our coach (Martin Kampmann) is a genius at striking and the ground game as well. A lot of this is technique – and some of this is personal. It’s the biggest fight of my career. Aldo beat Urijah. I’ve waited a long time. I just think I’m ready.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

UFC 179

▪ Who: Sacramento’s Chad Mendes (16-1) takes on UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo (24-1) in the featured bout

▪ When: Saturday, main pay-per-view card starts at 7 p.m.

▪ Where: Rio de Janeiro

▪ How to watch: Pay-per-view card starts at $44.95; go to bars.ufc.com to find a nearby location showing the card

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