Chad Mendes isn't a fighter that people are lining up to face.
The former title challenger has been a staple in the upper tier of the featherweight division for the past several years and has left a trail of wrecked opposition in his wake.
Since joining the WEC in 2010, "Money" has found success in 10 of his 11 showings, with his only loss coming at the hands of 145-pound king Jose Aldo when they squared off for the featherweight title at UFC 142 in January 2012.
Following his loss to Aldo, the perennial contender has rattled off four consecutive victories, with each win coming by way of knockout. In three of those bouts, Mendes was forced to deal with a change of opponent, as the fighter originally slated to face him withdrew due to injury.
In some cases, a replacement could not be found and Mendes was pulled from the card entirely. But in situations like his scheduled bout with Clay Guida at UFC on Fox 7 back in April, "The Carpenter" suffered an injury, and Darren Elkins stepped in.
The scrappy Indiana native was promptly knocked out for his troubles, and the bout with Guida was rescheduled for UFC 164 in August.
The matchup figured to be one of Mendes' toughest to date, as Guida's wrestling and nonstop attack presented interesting challenges for the California native, but Mendes handled the test with ease, becoming the first man to stop the former lightweight via strikes.
Where Mendes was once a nightmare matchup for the opposition based on his wrestling skill alone, now he has been unveiling a new weapon with his striking. The results of his improved stand-up have sent a stern message to the rest of the featherweight division.
"I think I'm definitely answering the critics," Mendes told Bleacher Report. "When I first started fighting, all I had was wrestling. I didn't have any stand-up or jiu-jitsu training and I had wrestled my whole life. Getting into it, obviously the stand-up took awhile to develop. The jiu-jitsu came pretty quickly because it's so similar to wrestling, but the stand-up was a completely different world for me.
"It was something I wanted to take my time to perfect and really become good at, but it took awhile because I wasn't really comfortable getting in there in a live situation and relying on my striking.
"I went back to my wrestling almost every time because it's a fight and I had to use my strongest weapon to win. If I hadn't done that then, I wouldn't be where I'm at now. It was something that needed to be done and the striking aspect is coming along. It's fresh in my mind and I'm becoming very comfortable in that aspect.
"I think my progress is showing and having Duane Ludwig out here coaching us and showing all the crazy techniques that go on in his mind has been unbelievable. The guy is a tactical genius when it comes to this sport. I think it has shown in everyone at Team Alpha Male. Everyone is loving him here and his system and the way he runs things has been perfect for us.
"For me it always takes time," he added. "Even in wrestling, it took me awhile to get comfortable taking different shots. It's just how I've always been. I like being completely comfortable and confident in a certain area before I start getting crazy...especially when my job is on the line.
"I learned a little more with each fight and now I'm here in a place where I'm knocking guys out. I just feel really comfortable and confident in there. I feel there is a lot more to improve upon and I'm excited to get out there and take the next step."
While the victory over Guida and a four-fight winning streak would typically be enough to warrant a title opportunity, the featherweight championship picture was in a state of disarray with the UFC waiting to determine who would get the next shot at Aldo.
That honor ultimately went to Ricardo Lamas, so the former No. 1 contender decided to keep things rolling and agreed to take another fight.
While finding opponents for Mendes has apparently been somewhat trying in the past, the UFC did not have to look too far for his next go-around.
Despite already having a bout lined up against Dennis Bermudez at Fight for the Troops 3, former-lightweight-turned-surging-featherweight Nik Lentz jumped at the opportunity when a chance to fight Mendes opened up.
"The Carny" has won all three of his showings at 145 pounds, and while that is impressive, Mendes believes the American Top Team product has bitten off more than he can chew. Lentz sent some verbal charges in his direction at a pre-fight press conference back in October, and Mendes believes his opponent will be brought back to reality when they step into the Octagon at UFC on Fox 9.
While Mendes had risen to the top of the featherweight ranks on the strength of his wrestling talents, the past four fights have shown a marked progression in his striking skills.
Team Alpha Male brought on former UFC veteran and Muay Thai guru Duane "Bang" Ludwig to serve as head coach for the Sacramento-based squad, and the results have been nothing short of impressive.
All six of Mendes' victories leading up to the Aldo fight came by way of decision, but his four wins following his title shot have all come via TKO or KO. The 28-year-old has found a new level of comfort on his feet, and that confidence has opened up a new avenue to his game.
He will be looking to continue that progression against Lentz and believes he'll have the advantage in nearly every department when the two men meet on Dec. 14.
"[Lentz] was doing it at the press conference. I don't know if he's completely crazy or he's just trying to pump himself up. Some of the stuff he's saying, I'm just like, 'Dude...you can't really believe that.' But it is what it is. You have to give the guy some credit for being confident in himself I guess.
"I think I'm a bad matchup for him. I'm a way better athlete than he is. I'm strong and I'm going to be much quicker than he is. I have better wrestling as well.
"The way he beats guys is to take them down and grind them out. He is slow and doesn't really have much in his stand-up. He looks strong, but I'm strong too and my speed and wrestling are going to be able to nullify that.
"He's probably the most confident guy I've fought—at least in the sense of letting everyone else know it. I'm excited to get in there and get that fifth knockout.
"I basically take it one fight at a time. But there are a few top guys in our division. Myself, Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson and Ricardo Lamas are at the top and I feel like it's our pool. Then we have guys like Lentz who are trying to break into that pool.
"This is a fight for him to get in there, so I understand why he has to be confident and try to pump himself up, because this is the biggest fight of his career. I look at this fight like it is just another great step towards the belt for me.
"He's a tough guy. He's a big guy and he is cutting down from 155. I'm expecting him to be strong, I just think I'm going to be too much for him."
While the bout against Lentz will hold heavy implications on Mendes' title hopes, there is a huge amount of additional appeal with the card taking place in Sacramento. He and his Team Alpha Male teammates call the city home, and three of them will be competing alongside him on Saturday night.
In addition to his bout, friends Danny Castillo, Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez will all step into action at the event with big bouts in front of them.
While they all have plenty to gain and more to lose at UFC on Fox 9, Benavidez will be making his second attempt to claim the flyweight title. With the close-knit group at Team Alpha Male, if their friend claims championship gold, it will be a victory for the entire squad.
Mendes has just as much hope for his teammate as he does for himself.
"It is awesome, man," he said. "I've actually fought on the same card as Joe and Faber before at a WEC event. It was awesome because we got a clean sweep and it was one of the coolest nights of my life.
"I have fought in Sacramento one other time back when the WEC did the only pay-per-view they ever did. Faber was also on that card and it was amazing fighting in front of the hometown crowd. The Sacramento crowd is unbelievable. They are rowdy and it's fun having them behind us.
"Now that Joe is going to be fighting for a world title with us on that card, it's just awesome. This is going to be so cool for Team Alpha Male. It's a great way for us to end the year and bring that belt back to Sacramento. All my friends and family have been talking about it nonstop.
"It's also cool hearing your name on local radio stations and hearing people talk about it in the gym. This is what we do all this hard work for and it's about to pay off. I couldn't be more excited."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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