It might have taken a little less courage to insult Chad Mendes earlier in his MMA career.
But now, leading up to a nationally televised fight that should put him in line for another title bout, the former Cal Poly All-America wrestler is riding a brutal string of knockout victories, and Mendes has to wonder about the sanity of those trying to get under his skin.
Nik Lentz (24-5-2), Mendes’ 145-pound featherweight opponent for Saturday’s UFC on FOX 9 card, has ticked Mendes off, claiming to be stronger and a better wrestler than the former NCAA runner-up.
Javier Vazquez went that route in 2010, calling Mendes “spoon-fed” and questioning the legitimacy of the former Mustangs’ quick ascent up the ranks.
“Even the week of the fight,” Mendes said, “he was sending baby spoons up to my room, little stuffed animals, inappropriate things. That felt good to beat up that guy.”
Mendes (15-1) whipped Vazquez by unanimous decision, the first in a run of four straight decisions that pushed his overall professional record to 11-0 before a knockout loss to UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo.
Aldo stopped Mendes with knee strikes in the final second of the first round to give Mendes his first professional loss nearly two years ago.
Since that defeat, however, Mendes has addressed criticism that he relied too heavily on his wrestling background.
A lifelong grappler best known at Cal Poly for ending his undefeated senior season and amateur wrestling career in a deflating loss in the 141-pound NCAA Championship match, Mendes has had to learn striking techniques from the ground up.
Early on in his MMA career, training partners said he hit hard. Mendes just didn’t know how to punch effectively.
After the loss to Aldo — the winner of 16 straight fights, including five straight UFC title defenses — Mendes had an epiphany.
Just 31 seconds into his next fight, Mendes put down Cody McKenzie with a body shot in July 2012. It was his first knockout victory in his past 10 fights.
“I hit him to the body and he went down,” Mendes said. “Then I hit him a few more times and I was like, ‘Wow, I can really knock people out with these light gloves on, if I hit them in the right spot.’
“Then the next fight, I had the confidence. It happened again, and then it happened again, and then it happened again.”
In the month following the victory over McKenzie, Mendes was sought by police in his hometown of Hanford for an alleged drunken bar brawl, but after battery charges were dropped following a plea deal, Mendes continued his roll in the octagon.
He punched out Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins in the first round in his next two fights and TKO’d Clay Guida in the third in August. It was the first time Guida had been knocked out in his 10-year career.
Now, not only does the 28-year-old Mendes have wrestling techniques hardwired into his brain by his dad since he was 5 years old, he has the striking power to end fights early.
“I think I just didn’t have the confidence,” Mendes said. “I knew that I could hit hard, but I didn’t have the confidence to know I could get close enough to do it.”
That confidence, Mendes said, has come with the tutelage of Duane Ludwig, the new head coach of Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male, the club Mendes trains with alongside founder and former featherweight champion Urijah Faber.
A former top-ranked lightweight, Ludwig owns the fastest knockout in UFC history for putting down Jonathan Goulet in six seconds in 2006.
Since joining Team Alpha Male last December, Ludwig has drilled the fighters like never before, slowing down the mental process and teaching them how to recognize openings to strike.
Mendes credits Ludwig, whom he calls a striking genius, with crucial improvements in accuracy and timing, improvements he’s hoping can land him another shot at Aldo and the title.
First, he must get past Lentz, whose verbal barbs Mendes called “crazy” in a recent interview.
Prior to Ludwig’s arrival, Mendes said, “we never really took the time to slow things down and look for openings and have someone actually explain to us, when someone does this, you’ve got to look for that opening here.
“I was always an explosive style of wrestler, and I think that translated well into developing knockout power.
“I always had the power. I just didn’t really know how to use it.”
Now that he does, those insults must be tougher to muster.