If you like your categories easy, Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes are cut from the same cloth. They are the American wrestler who learned to box. 'Wrestle-boxers' they are sometimes called. But of course that description is just as vague now as the painfully outdated “striker” and “grappler” billings attached to fighters. The stylistic subtleties and quirks of both men are well worth a look just to give a better grasp of what to look for in the bout, and with three solid days of terrific fights bearing down on us at high speed, it's best to start talking about them now.
Frankie Edgar's return to title contention has been a crawl at glacial pace, which is odd because his bout with the champion was a close one and he's done nothing but win fights ever since. It probably had something to do with the Penn debacle. After taking time out to coach another series of the interminable The Ultimate Fighter, Edgar faced off against a man he had already beaten twice, coming back from retirement, and a weight class lower than he had ever fought before. The result was a predictable and handy beating dished out by Edgar but it left everyone feeling uncomfortable. As most fans prefer to forget that fight even happened, it did little to raise Edgar's stock.
But when Edgar halted the momentum of featherweight favorite, Cub Swanson it seemed like he was well and truly back in the title picture. A victory over Urijah Faber, who had never lost a non-title fight in the UFC or WEC to that point, cemented the notion that Edgar is still the cream of the crop.
Chad Mendes is in a more severe state. He has come up short against Jose Aldo twice and most recently against Conor McGregor. A loss in this bout ensures that he is the bottom of the four featherweight greats, while a victory would doubtlessly secure him a title fight (spare the inevitable immediate rematch between Aldo and McGregor).
Precision versus Power
Frankie Edgar isn't a hitter. There's no denying that. Chad Mendes can put most men away with one glancing punch. That's the key difference that everyone is focusing on and don't be fooled, it's a damned important one. Not only is Edgar not a power puncher but the style in which he fights serves to amplify this. Edgar has that one quality which coaches long for, he is disciplined even when hurt or under fire. This extends to the point that he will very rarely move his weight into blows, he doesn't like to put himself at risk of missing or running himself onto a counter blow. One need only watch his bout with Urijah Faber.
Against Faber, Edgar's management of distance and that small, phasic movement in his stance which Bruce Lee used to rave about made the difference. Faber would break from his stance and literally run at Edgar, exposing himself completely for a chance at a good punch, and Edgar would take it on the shoulder, leverage guard it with a stiff arm, catch it on his forearm, or duck it, and come back with his own punches. As Faber was always leaning off of his overhand, Edgar repeatedly met him with the uppercut.
Edgar can land with pop when he wants to, just as anyone else can. All he needs to do is make sure that his weight is moving into the blow just as Mendes and Faber do on every single one of theirs. But Edgar prefers to always be in position to duck his weight out. Edgar is one of the best examples in mixed martial arts of a fighter who angles off after he attacks. Not only this, but Edgar's constant movement around the cage means that he often comes in as the opponent is turning, and exits to a new angle before they have time to get a read on him. There are few ways a fighter can actually control where his opponent moves, but forcing him to turn is one of them and Edgar does it constantly.
The question with all of these non-punchers is “why hasn't someone just walked through their hands and knocked them out”. Getting hit with even half hearted blows while whiffing power punches rapidly changes the plan of most fighters who have that thought. Edgar has fought some of the biggest punchers at lightweight and featherweight but through craft, movement, and good defensive positioning he has never been stopped and indeed, hardly been convincingly bested.
We discussed how undervalued feints are as a weapon in The Power of the Punch Not Thrown and Edgar has been demonstrating it for years. When Faber clocked that he wasn't going to catch Edgar by running in with wild overhands, he started to wait on Edgar. Each time Edgar looked to be stepping in, Faber would try to land a checking left hook. Faber being keen on his knockout power, threw his weight into these hooks. Every time he missed, he exposed himself to a follow up from Edgar.
And this is where Edgar works best. Not in combinations but in set ups. He baits a trap, makes sure you're really keen on the bait, and then starts working. Faber's missed hooks for instance exposed his right side to level change wide rights to the ribs or kidney, a favorite of both Edgar and his former team mate Eddie Alvarez.
A crossing right hand with a dip to the left side (you will recognize this as Junior dos Santos' favorite way to catch opponents with his overhand).
A low kick into the back of Faber's pivoting lead leg, at its most exposed:
Or, as Faber's elbow left his side, Edgar would get in on Faber's hips with ease.
And then there's the genius of Edgar's signature single leg pick up. Hidden amid the body jabs and level changes. It doesn't matter if they're not the thudding body jabs of Junior dos Santos, in fact if you ignore them all the better.
Edgar dips as if to perform his usual body jab, but the hand goes to the shoulder or face, drives the opponent back, and takes the weight off of their lead leg which suddenly becomes much easier to pick up. In an era where single and double leg shots are getting less and less successful, Edgar continues to take bigger, stronger men to the mat with ease and with none of the work along the fence.
Chad Mendes' striking had been looking markedly better in each fight, though I still thought he was pretty much a master of the right hand and only went to the rest of the striking game when he fancied it. His second bout against Jose Aldo showed him to be a complete and dangerous striker in every range. Where previously he had sprinted into right hands like Faber, he was clipped and economical in his motions. The short counter left hook which dropped Jose Aldo as he led with a right uppercut was proof that if Aldo didn't watch it he might get a boxing lesson from the wrestler.
Moreover, Mendes' movement looked sharp in that bout. While the beef between Team Alpha Male and Duane Ludwig overshadows a lot of what they were able to do together, Ludwig's influence on Mendes was never more clear than in that fight where he looked to be every bit one of the top mixed martial artists in the world and not just a hard hitting wrestler. But in his most recent bout, against Conor McGregor, it was back to sprinting in to swing right hands. He connected plenty of times, and McGregor's chin might well have saved him, but it wasn't Mendes' power that almost stole the second match with Aldo, it was tightening up his means of delivery.
Mendes' eagerness to get off against McGregor was reportedly due to his short camp and being worried about cardio, but his complete absence of lateral movement was noticeable. If you didn't notice it, Conor McGregor certainly did. One surefire way to make linear kicks less dangerous is to move laterally—if you want some proof of that check out Alexander Gustafsson versus Jon Jones, where there was scarcely a decent low line side kick in sight. Instead Mendes ran at McGregor, then stood still and ate kick after kick to the midsection with no means of moving through it.
Mendes' tendency to reach to parry punches also gets him in trouble when he is faked out or his opponent hooks off the jab. Hooking off the jab got Aldo back into the fight after he was stunned by Mendes and might well have saved the title.
But generally, when he's not running at opponents, Mendes might be a more limited striker but he is an effective one. He has shown that he can corral opponents and has a heap of knockouts where he walks his man to the fence, steps in and knocks them out along it.
He's got good counters and if Edgar doesn't take care to feint consistently and mix up his attacks, he has a great chance of eating one even after landing his own strikes. What's more, Mendes' uppercut is lethal. Edgar's occasional habit of ducking onto blows might make it more so.
What I would most like to see out of Mendes, as the less varied striker but the stronger man and harder hitter, is a move to the fence. Cutting the cage as he did against Lamas, and stepping in with the right hand, but pressing into the clinch instead. A Chad Mendes who can use his hitting power in the clinch with dirty boxing is a scary idea indeed and for the always smaller Frankie Edgar, that has to be a nasty thought.
For Edgar, feints would seem to be the key. Tire the bigger puncher by making him swing, miss, and eat biting low kicks and right hands for his trouble. Even at the top of his game, Chad Mendes in the third or fourth round is not the same as round one, coming right at you Chad Mendes. The takedowns will come easier and the counters will come back less often in the later rounds even if Edgar gets lit up in the early going.
I have no idea who will take this bout, but might be the best fight of left this year. That's a bold statement with Rockhold vs Weidman and Aldo vs McGregor on the way, but that is how strongly I feel about the featherweight division as it is now—stacked with talent and with four truly brilliant all around fighters at the top. Keep checking Fightland over the next two weeks, we've got a lot to talk about before the UFC's three night extravaganza.
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