After Nova Uniao’s Renan Barao lost his title to Team Alpha Male’s T.J. Dillashaw – the rivalry between Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes heated up. They meet next at UFC 179 for the second time and this is the biggest challenge facing Aldo in his career to date. You instinctually would not think that after watching the first fight but Mendes seems to have improved more than Aldo in the almost three years since the first fight. Here we will take a look at what Mendes needs to do win the title and what Aldo needs to do to retain it. Along with my prediction at the end.
A look at the Champion
I am amazed at how often people criticize Aldo and other UFC champions for being conservative. In Aldo’s case it is not understanding the situation fully. It is not just about Aldo but also his opponent and how they fight him. When he was a challenger working his way up in the WEC he fought several fighters who never even made it into the UFC and several that were with them only a short time.
Those fighters would make a lot of mistakes and Aldo is brilliant at capitalizing on his opponent’s mistakes. He is like a shark with blood in the water at sensing your mistakes as you make them during the fight. As he moved up and start fighting the best in the world his opponents started making less mistakes leaving him very few openings to seize. Even in those fights he has rarely been pushed and never really threatened. This is the first fight where it seems like his opponent has a legitimate chance to win the fight.
Is that because Dillashaw beat Barao and by the transitory properties of MMA his teammate will be able to beat Barao’s teammate? Or is it because Aldo, if not slipping, he is at best just staying the same old Aldo leaving him vulnerable to the improving Mendes. Being the same old Aldo has earned him an impressive 24-1 record with a perfect 9-0 in UFC and WEC title fights. His lone loss came back in 2005 and it was just three years later in 2008 when Mendes had his first MMA fight.
What Dillashaw did against Barao will have no real bearing on this fight at all. Barao is a different fighter than Aldo and Dillashaw is different from Mendes. It is a good story between the two camps adding some hype and drama to the fights but this will be different than Dillashaw and Barao. It will also be different than the first fight between them.
Is Aldo slipping?
Not yet. It is easy to say that he is because he is not finishing fights as frequently as he did in the past but that is just a quick surface view of the situation. The truth is he has finished two of his six title fights in the UFC. The two fighters he stopped were Mendes, which is his only loss to date, and The Korean Zombie. The four he did not finish were Ricardo Lamas, Frankie Edgar, Kenny Florian, and Mark Hominick. The four who went the distance fought smart fights and did not give Aldo any openings for a finish. As a fighter he is always ready when the opportunity occurs but he will not take chances to get the finish. Instead he is looking for you to make a mistake.
Part of the lack of finishes from those four fights comes from the way they fought Aldo. Even Chan Sung Jung was more cautious in the way he attacked Aldo in their fight. The problem Aldo’s opponents have when facing him is he does not leave many openings himself. He fights with very solid defense, anchored by his excellent head movement and impeccable footwork. It is not just his head movement that is amazing but his movement in general. When he moves back to avoid strikes he stays balanced and ready to attack. Always ready to attack, even in a defensive mode.
The only fight he really even struggled in was the Hominick fight. It was the one where he showed the most vulnerability. The big issue he had in that fight was his jab. Hominick was able to slip it easily as the fight went on and do some damage to Aldo’s body which contributed to him wearing down in that fight – as did an extremely difficult weight cut.
Like a true champion he did not sit on the laurels of his victory in that fight. Instead, he went out and fixed those two holes. He has changed his diet and approach to cutting weight and has had no real problem since that fight. The other big change was to his jab. It went from being a liability to one of the best in the UFC. We saw him use it against Edgar who has some of the best boxing in MMA himself. When you break him down Aldo is still one of the best in the world and very technically sound.
While he has not made many major changes to his game and style, he has adjusted when needed. During his time in the UFC he has subtly continued to tweak his training and his fight game. It has led to him becoming a dominant champion who currently sits behind only Jon Jones on the pound for pound list.
Looking at his career he has faced many different challenges already including top wrestlers, strikers and jiu jitsu fighters and handled them all with relative ease. For all of the criticism of him recently he has only lost three or four rounds in the UFC total. For Mendes to defeat Aldo he will have to be a different fighter than he was the first time. He will have to be a different fighter than anyone Aldo has faced already.
The once and future challenger
Mendes is a different fighter and it is his evolution as a fighter that has many people picking him to take the title. The question is are the changes that Mendes has made in his game enough to overcome Aldo? Or has he benefited from not having to face an elite striker in his most recent run? At the very least he has the best chance on any of Aldo’s challengers including the earlier version of himself. When you look at the two fighters Mendes is as good of an athlete as Aldo and might be a little quicker and more powerful.
We have seen the power in his recent five fight win streak that has included four TKO/KO finishes with three of those coming in the first round. The most impressive may have been stopping Clay Guida in the third round of their fight. Guida had never been stopped via strikes before. Throughout his UFC career Guida had spent much of it up at lightweight and has faced some of the best strikers in the UFC. Stopping him the way Mendes did means something, what exactly it does mean and how it will pertain to the Aldo fight is harder to ascertain.
When you look closely at those fights and it jumps out at you and that Mendes’ opponents were all wrestling based fighters in his five fight win streak. During that stretch he has faced top ranked fighters but none of them are what you would consider elite strikers and nothing close to Aldo’s level. It makes it difficult to see how Mendes will fair against Aldo who is a much more dangerous and technical of a striker.
There is no doubt that Duane “Bang” Ludwig has improved Mendes striking. In the past he was classic Team Alpha Male with an almost impossible to stop takedown behind a lightening fast and powerful shot, combined with a strong overhand right and excellent ground and pound. This led to a simple formula of success for him until the Aldo fight. Since then his striking has been cleaner and more powerful. He is consistently rocking his opponents on his feet now.
The power came together for him in the Cody McKenzie fight when he landed a hard pinpoint right hand to the liver after catching a kick. Then clipped him on the way down and few hammer fists later it was over.
Against Yaotzin Meza he slipped a lefthand and brought an overhand right crashing down.
In the Darren Elkins fight he rocked Elkins with a right hand to the temple as Elkins was moving away from him. Once Elkins was wounded, Mendes stalked him down and landed another overhand right that sent Elkins down and a couple of punches later it was over.
The Guida fight was just further conformation that Mendes’ power was very lethal but none of these help figure out whether or not he can land that power against Aldo. Guida’s movement is so unique that you cannot compare him to anyone and he is easier to hit than Aldo who avoids slightly over seventy-four percent of his opponent’s strikes to Guida’s sixty-six percent.
Each of the other three fighters made several mistakes. Elkins originally got rocked by moving away in a straight line. Once he was hurt Mendes finished him off. While Meza carried his chin way too high making himself vulnerable to the overhand right which is one of Mendes’ best weapons since the start of his career. The McKenzie TKO started with the catching of the kick. This was easy for Mendes to catch because McKenzie was throwing a lot of single naked kicks that were easy to read and while he kept his chin nice and tucked as the taller fighter he was wide open for the body shot. Aldo is a much better fighter and will not make the same mistakes.
Looking at this fight it is hard to see too many ways for Mendes to win this fight without catching Aldo with one of those right hands. There is no doubt a clean right hand would end this fight, it is just hard to see Mendes landing it. Aldo’s standup is much cleaner and more technical than any other opponent that Mendes has faced. It is very unlikely that Aldo will make sloppy mistakes like McKenzie’s easy to read kicks. Aldo either uses his within combinations or times his opponent’s movement and unleashes them when they cannot catch his kick. No, do not look for Aldo to leave himself open. It will be up to Mendes to find a way to create his openings. If he can he has the power to end the fight.
One way is for Mendes to get the fight to the ground. Everybody remembers the fence grab but forgets that Mendes did get the fight to the ground moments later only to have him get right back up. Mendes is good enough to get him down but it is tough to keep him down. There have been two fights where Aldo has found himself on the bottom and they show the growth he has made as a fighter.
The first time was in the Hominick fight in the fifth round and Aldo took some damage from the bottom.
You see Hominick punish the body and then work the head. This came in the last two minutes of the fight and Aldo had already won the fight by that point meaning he could afford to lose the last round. He was also exhausted from the worst weight cut of his career and the body work that Hominick had put on him during the fight.
In the Lamas fight again Aldo finds himself on the bottom in the fifth round of a fight he was winning against a fighter known for his ground and pound. In this case a much fresher Aldo negated most of Lamas’ ability to do much damage.
Now Lamas did land some good elbows but he was not close to ending the fight and was well behind on the judge’s scorecards by this point with no hope of winning a decision. He needed the finish to win the fight and few elbows at the end was not nearly enough.
For Mendes to win this fight he has to not just look to get this fight to the ground or just try to out strike him. Aldo eats up fighters that approach him one-dimensionally. Mendes will have to blend together his striking, and grappling to try and find a way to frustrate Aldo and get on the inside. From there he can do some damage, open up the possibility of the takedown and negate the leg kicks at that range. It also sets up the possibility of a scramble and Mendes like all Team Alpha Male fighters thrives during the scrambles and is always looking to land a strike in those moments.
It was unfortunately in one of those scrambles that Aldo landed the knee that KO’d Mendes. Aldo thrives during those moments as well. Always alert for the slightest opening and they both like to strike their opponents as they are moving away.
Another area that Aldo usually controls is the space, distance, timing and movement battle. He is usually able to control the distance of the fight because he moves so sublimely effectively. He stalks fighters around the octagon cutting them off and landing his combinations. His senses of timing is excellent and almost unreal how quickly he is able to pick it up. Even though Mendes has great timing himself his best chance to win is to use his explosiveness to disrupt Aldo.
One X-factor could be whether or not they are inside of each other’s head. They have been a little heated at times which is usual for these two fighters. They both are mentally strong and it would be surprising if either was affected by the pre-fight talk.
The other X-factor is Conor McGregor. He will be in attendance and both fighters have vowed to shut him up after they win. If either fighter is slightly distracted by McGregor that could be all the edge the other fighter needs.
My gut and everything else says that Aldo will be celebrating again in Brazil to remain the lone non-American to hold a UFC title. The one way I see Mendes winning this fight is if he can close the distance and land a clean power shot either in the standup or on the ground. It is possible but I like Aldo to retain the title. Right now he is as complete of a fighter as there is in the UFC.
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