After weeks, if not months, of verbal sparring, former Cal Poly wrestling standout Chad Mendes and Conor McGregor will stop talking and start fighting Saturday night.
UFC 189 in Las Vegas was scheduled to feature a title showdown between featherweight champion Jose Aldo of Brazil, who has beaten Mendes twice in championship bouts, and No. 3-ranked McGregor.
But when Aldo pulled out June 30 because of a rib injury sustained the previous week, Mendes (17-2), who fights out of Sacramento’s Ultimate Fitness gym, was ready, willing and able to step in. He’ll face McGregor (17-2) of Dublin, Ireland, in the headline bout for the interim featherweight championship.
Mendes and McGregor not only want the belt, they want to punish each other. This isn’t just business — it’s personal.
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“Little Mendes shouldn’t have answered the phone,” McGregor said in a television interview after his new opponent had been announced.
It was a fight Mendes couldn’t refuse.
“I talked to (UFC president Dana White), and we made it happen,” Mendes said last week in a teleconference. “I told him, ‘Give me that contract; let’s sign this baby right now,’ and we did.”
Upon hearing reports that Aldo was injured, Mendes began training for a potential shot at McGregor. Mendes will have had only three weeks to prepare, but he said that doesn’t worry him. The 5-foot-6, 145-pound contender, a member of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, trains year-round and has had his eye on McGregor since the Irishman first set foot in the octagon.
“I live a healthy lifestyle, I stay in great shape year-round, and I never let my weight get too far out of control,” Mendes said. “For me, taking (the fight) in three weeks, this is perfect for me.”
Because of Mendes’ wrestling background, his bout with McGregor has garnered plenty of intrigue. Many consider Mendes a tougher opponent for McGregor, who has yet to face a world-class wrestler in five fights in the UFC.
“Conor has never faced anybody like me before,” Mendes said. “I have the athleticism, the strength, the power, the speed, and I have wrestling to put him on his back to finish this fight.”
Mendes was a two-time All-America wrestler at Cal Poly and was among the nation’s best 141-pounders as a senior in 2008. He trains alongside UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and MMA icon and former champion Faber.
While Mendes looks forward to a third shot at the featherweight title, this fight comes with bad blood. During a 2014 television interview before Mendes fought Aldo for the second time,
McGregor, who has become a fan favorite because of his antics and ability to back up his pre-fight trash talk, made fun of Mendes’ height. McGregor said he would someday beat Aldo for the title and “come back hunting for your little ... head.”
Mendes countered in the interview that McGregor “talked his way all the way up to the top.”
“He has definitely said things to make this personal, but he just likes to talk crap,” Mendes said of his opponent on “The MMA Hour” podcast. “That’s just Conor. He’s an actor. He’s a guy that sells fights. This is what he loves to do. I am not going to fight emotionally. I’m going to love to beat the crap out of this guy, though. Don’t get me wrong.”
Even though the bout is in Las Vegas, Mendes is expected to be in hostile territory. Fans from Ireland are accounting for 20 percent of ticket sales, according to Dave Sholler, UFC’s vice president of public relations.
McGregor considers it an advantage to have his countrymen on hand for the fight.
“I don’t think people can understand what it’s like until you’re in that octagon and the screaming fans are there,” McGregor said. “All week they’re in your face. It’s essentially like entering a bear pit.”
Hostile environments are nothing new to Mendes, who faced Aldo in Brazil twice. The Mendes-McGregor winner likely will face Aldo to unify the title, but Mendes has an idea whom he would like to fight next if the champ is unable to go.
“I think a fight with Frankie (Edgar) would be pretty damn fun for the fans to watch,” he said.
Edgar (18-4-1) is ranked No. 2 in the featherweight division and is riding a four-fight winning streak. Many observers considered Edgar worthy to fight McGregor. Mendes said he sympathizes with Edgar, but he believes he has done enough to get another shot at the belt.
McGregor, who is well known for predicting fight outcomes, said he would beat Mendes within four minutes of the first round. Mendes was a little more modest with his forecast.
“I’m going to give (McGregor) a little more respect,” he said. “I’m going to finish (him) within the first three (rounds).”