When the WEC merger was first announced some fifteen months ago, featherweight champion Jose Aldo was deemed to be the star acquisition. Eager to see him delight those who are oblivious to his immense talent, the UFC scheduled him for a quick Octagon debut on the year’s first fight card. Things didn’t go according to plan however, as a shoulder injury forced Aldo on the sidelines for a few months, and since his return, he hasn’t quite looked like the fighter who terrorized the WEC ranks. Despite two successful title defenses under his belt last year, Aldo has simply looked like a more tentative and less violent version of the man who shattered Cub Swanson‘s face in eight seconds. Stories of arduous weight cuts further enhanced trepidations surrounding Aldo’s future performances, and talks of a move up in weight have since emerged. For the champion to silence the hard-to-please critics, he needs to deliver in his home country in spectacular fashion, and be the first man to inflict a blemish on Chad Mendes‘ spotless record.
Featherweight title fight: Jose Aldo (c) vs. Chad Mendes
Despite the pressure weighing firmly on the Brazilian’s shoulder, it is Mendes who faces the more daunting task, as a shaky fifth round against Mark Hominick aside, Aldo hasn’t looked vulnerable in years. The champion’s performance against Kenny Florian may have underwhelmed, but he still managed to win the bout in relatively straightforward fashion — despite Joe Rogan‘s best attempts to convince us otherwise on commentary — and did so without ever really needing to switch gears.
However, it would be disingenuous to ignore that Aldo didn’t quite look like his usual dynamic self. Despite landing typically crisp and clean shots, and displaying some great hips to stay vertical, Aldo lacked the trademark explosiveness in his attacks. Moreover, he seemed to be throwing with less volume, and wasn’t quite as willing to move forward as he usually is. And while it remains too early to speculate whether this is a direct result of the shoulder injury sustained a year ago, his upcoming bout will be telling in that regard.
Aldo is a master at gauging distance. Like his compatriot Anderson Silva, he likes to dissect his opponent before picking his primary method of attack accordingly. Having one of the most diverse striking arsenals in the sport allows Aldo to choose between a boxing-oriented approach (such as the Manny Gamburyan fight) , or one that is more reliant on his devastating leg kicks (see the Urijah Faber bout). Ever since capturing the title in breathtaking fashion against Mike Brown back in 2009, Aldo has developed into a more patient striker. In fact, that tile-winning performance was the last time Aldo completely blitzed his opponent from start to finish, as he overwhelmed Brown with a barrage of kicks, knees and some terrific combinations. From that point onwards, Aldo has implemented a more measured approach, highlighted by less volume, better boxing technique, and improved counter-punching. Such versatility makes Aldo an incredibly difficult opponent to prepare for, as there is very little indication as to the specifics of what he has in store. This sort of fighting maturity is unusual at Aldo’s age, but it is what makes him such a special talent.
The main issue with Mendes is that despite technically solid striking, he shows very little confidence in his stand-up. When he actually throws with conviction, his punches are quite crisp. However, he very seldom does, and his lack of belief in his striking is quite evident. His outing against Michihiro Omigawa remains perhaps the only time where Mendes exhibited real improvement in his stand-up skills, only for his striking to look curiously regressed against Rani Yahya. His performance against the former saw Mendes show a remarkable ability to get on the inside and put clean combinations together. Specifically, his right cross looked extremely sharp, and he showed a surprising ability to sit on that particular punch and land with power. Getting on the inside will be vital against Aldo, especially if the Team Alpha Male fighter is able to show the kind of sharp boxing he did against Omigawa, as it would allow him to set up takedowns properly and potentially put the champion on his back, which ultimately remains his main goal.
And yet, getting on the inside against Aldo is not only a difficult task, but a risky one as well. The champion is an expert at controlling distance, and as long as he throws his leg kicks liberally, Mendes will be far too worried about them to be able to step inside, counter, and switch levels. Furthermore, Aldo is simply devastating on the inside, be it with combinations, snapping knees to the body, or some solid clinch work. The uppercut in particular could be a game-changer, as Aldo sets it up beautifully by faking a left hook, and it serves as a great counter to a constantly level-changing opponent.
Should Mendes succeed in avoiding Aldo’s laser-guided punches and go for the double leg, he is certainly capable of putting him on his back. It will be vital for Mendes to secure clean takedowns away from the cage in order to make Aldo’s life more difficult in his efforts to get back to his feet. However, Aldo’s hips and overall takedown defense will make Mendes earn his keep, as it is unlikely the challenger is going to be able to effortlessly and consistently put his opponent on the bottom. Should he succeed in doing so however, Mendes needs to show a dominating top game he has yet to display. “Money” does little in terms of guard-passing or significant ground-and-pound, and instead stays tight inside the guard, occasionally landing some short elbows. While this could actually limit scrambling opportunities for the champion, it increases the chances of referee-induced stand-ups, especially when a chorus of Brazilian boos is showering the cage simultaneously.
In light of his last two showings, the main worry for Aldo will be his conditioning, as he has looked somewhat faded in the closing rounds against Florian and especially, Hominick. This in turn could mean that Mendes will have less trouble taking the champion down in the final ten minutes, which, if accompanied by a solid outing in at least one of the earlier rounds, could well win him the fight. Nevertheless, banking on Aldo’s cardio to ultimately cost him the fight is — while possible — a bit far-fetched.
More likely, Aldo will control the distance and eventually polish his opponent off with superior striking. Mendes could well have his moments and get the fight to the ground, but those occasions will likely be very few, and would only delay the inevitable.
Official Prediction: Jose Aldo to defeat Chad Mendes by TKO in Round 2
PHOTO CREDIT – UFC