The Greatest Title Fights in UFC History Part Four: Featherweight

Chad "Money" Money Mendes was a remarkably better fighter when he met UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo in a rematch last month at UFC 179: Aldo vs. Mendes 2 | Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Chad “Money” Money Mendes was a remarkably better fighter when he met UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo in a rematch last month at UFC 179: Aldo vs. Mendes 2 | Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

In this ongoing series for TuffGnarl.com, I am isolating a single UFC title fight from the annals of history and identifying it as, by far, the finest of the pack—the single greatest division-specific championship bout in UFC history.

As you may have guessed at this point, but for one backstep two weeks ago, we’re ascending the UFC’s current nine titled divisions based on weight. This week we’re focusing a division that has never been quite as hot as it currently is: the 145-pound featherweights.

Event: UFC 179: Aldo vs. Mendes 2 — October 25, 2014
Fight: Jose Aldo vs. Chad “Money” Mendes

One of the two incumbent champions to have their WEC belts transform into UFC ones upon their absorption by the larger promotion in early 2011 (the other, bantamweight Dominick Cruz, was featured in this series’ second installment), Jose Aldo had gone from plowing through nearly all of his opposition en route to capturing the title from Mike Thomas Brown in November 2009 to having all but one of his subsequent defenses go to the judges’ scorecards.

And then, in January 2012, Chad Mendes came along. At that time a decision-inclined former NCAA All-American and Pac-10 Wrestler of the Year, “Money” possessed an elite grappling skill set that many believed would test Aldo like never before. Fighting out of the still highly-regarded Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, CA headed up by former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber, Mendes brought an 11-0 record and an ever-improving striking game with him into the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 142: Aldo vs. Mendes.

The infamous cage grab.

The two exchanged strikes—mostly leg kicks—for the first minute before Mendes shot in for his first takedown attempt. It failed poorly, as most shots in open space tend to do. After getting cracked with a thudding uppercut, Mendes managed to get a hold of Aldo’s leg but, once again, the champion got away. By the third attempt roughly three minutes in, the challenger’s strategy was apparent and failing miserably. Finally, with less than a minute remaining, Aldo overcommitted on a strike and the Team Alpha Male standout secured a belly-to-back body lock against the cage. Many point Mendes hoisting the Brazilian up for a suplex and being stifled by Aldo grabbing the cage as the most pivotal moment in the fight and I, for one, agree with them. Less than 40 seconds later, Aldo separated Mendes’ hands and threw up a crushing knee that punched the American wrestler’s ticket into La-la Land. What followed—Aldo running out of the Octagon into the frenzied crowd—remains one of the most memorable moments in any championship fight, ever.

It took Mendes almost three years to make his way back to a title fight, but he was by all accounts a completely different fighter by the time he once more found himself standing across the cage from Aldo. Two months after Mendes lost his title bid, Team Alpha Male announced they’d hired kickboxing prodigy and former UFC welterweight Duane “Bang” Ludwig as their new (and, at the time, first-ever) head coach. The changes he inspired in the team, most notably in their collective striking acumen, won him a Coach of the Year nomination at the 2013 World MMA Awards and uniform acclaim throughout the MMA world. Ludwig’s two most prized pupils? Current UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and, you guessed it, Chad Mendes, who went on to knock out all but one of his opponents during a five-fight tear that earned him another crack at Aldo.

UFC 179: Aldo vs. Mendes 2 once again took place on Rio soil, this time at the Maracanazinho Gymnasium, and featured an inarguably ho-hum undercard.

  • UFC 179’s co-main event was a deserving (albeit sleep-inducing) one between top 10 light heavyweights Phil “Mr. Wonderful” Davis and former title challenger Glover Teixeira, which Phil Davis won by doing his best Phil Davis impression.
  • In the only other fight most fans cared even a lick about, Fabio “I Have A Hurricane-Tested Cement-Filled Steel Skull Encased in Adamantium” Maldonado TKOed Hans Stringer after escaping early danger.
  • Darren Elkins vs. Lucas Martins earned a nomination for Worst Fight of the Year in one of the most dreadful mixed martial arts affairs in all of 2014.
The threat an improved Mendes posed may have been just what Aldo needed for motivation. | Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images

The threat an improved Mendes posed may have been just what Aldo needed for motivation. | Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images

By the time Mendes began his walk from backstage to the cage, many—myself included—were all thinking one thing: “This had better be worth it.” And it was. For five straight rounds, the champion and challenger gave each other all they could handle. Mendes’ work with Ludwig had reached full fruition. He cut sublime angles, strung together jarring combination and was so confident he forsook his grappling background altogether in favor of an almost exclusive striking contest. Aldo, whose critics calling the champion unmotivated and deficient in cardio became louder with every consecutive appearance, put on a vintage showing, retaining his title in a fight which isn’t done proper justice by the words “unanimous decision.”

The two men truly brought the best out of one another, and the post-fight buzz hung in the air in the following days, with the bout being called the greatest in featherweight history in nigh unanimity. Between Mendes’ drastic improvements, Aldo’s rejuvenation and the multiple turns of tide which took place within their clash’s 25 minutes, it’s wholly deserving of the acclaim.

The reasons this fight earns top billing instead of Aldo vs. Edgar and Aldo vs. Hominick are threefold:

  • The sheer level of improvement shown by Mendes was jaw-dropping when finally put into practice against the champion. No longer just a wrestler pretending to know his way around kickboxing, “Money” was a fully-formed mixed martial artist when he fought Aldo again. Edgar and Hominick, though both exceptional combatants in their own right, put on performances essentially in line with what was expected of them. With Mendes, it was revelatory.
  • It was the first time since they first faced one another that the division truly had a “champion vs. #1-ranked challenger” fight. Since Mendes never lost to anyone after losing to Aldo in 2012, he kept his #1 slot in the rankings and was skipped over (some say undeservingly) until being given a second crack at Aldo.
  • Both fighters had the other in trouble on several occasions, lending to a see-saw effect in terms of momentum synonymous with enduring athletic contests of all types. Though both Hominick and Edgar pushed Aldo to his limit and won rounds against him, neither man had the champ legitimately hurt like Mendes did.

Watch this recap for highlights from their fight (Aldo and Mendes’ segment begins at 3:38):

(Slider image: Buda Mendes/Getty Images.)

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest days in film have yet to come. He isTuffGnarl.com‘s editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter: @JesseScheckner.

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Jesse Scheckner

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He is TuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief, a feature staff writer for MMASucka.com and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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