Sometimes mixed martial arts fans see the sport at face value. They run their perceptions and opinions cold without thought or consideration for those who live, eat, and breathe MMA. Those who call it their lives, not their interest but their lives, they are the backbone of this sport called MMA.
For a casual MMA fan to gain the unique insight of a MMA lifer is quite a rare opportunity. To cheer for UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez and to support his ascent in this sport is one thing. But to hear the wisdom of the man who has raised Cain to become the fighter he is today is quite another.
One of the men to help Cain transition to MMA is the founder, owner, and a coach at American Kickboxing Academy. His name is Javier Mendez, and it was the absolute honor of the staff of Hurtsbad MMA to earn a moment of his time recently.
Mr. Mendez is a veteran of over two decades in the sport. He started his run in this game chasing his own dreams and has found that his inspiration has influenced some of the most amazing careers in MMA.
Names like Frank Shamrock, B.J. Penn, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, and Cain Velasquez have found shelter under the wing of Javier Mendez. Under his tutelage they have all found success in MMA.
Speaking of the Champ, Mr. Mendez credits former Arizona State University Head Wrestling Coach Thom Ortiz for making the connection between AKA and Velasquez. He talked about how that relationship came to fruition.
“I got to know Thommy Ortiz through DeWayne Zinkin," Mendez said. "DeWayne and Thommy have been good friends for quite awhile. Thommy connected Cain Velasquez with DeWayne his senior year.
"Thommy actually called up DeWayne, he helps me manage my guys also, and said that he has got the next heavyweight champ in the works and he is just waiting for him to get out of college. That's how the connection was made, he brought Cain over to us.”
As a man who has influenced some amazing MMA careers, the regard with which Mendez holds Cain and his potential is quite a compliment. When asked about his first, and overall impressions of the Champ, Mr. Mendez had this to tell Hurtsbad MMA.
“From the very first day he came in he was just a workhorse. Unbelievably gifted like nobody I've ever experienced in training. He kept impressing me. The more I got to know the kid the more impressed I was with him as a person as well as a fighter. His physical abilities and everything were great.”
“But you don’t really get to know him more, about who he is as a person, until you actually get to know him awhile. Because he's not that easy to get to know. It takes awhile for him to break the ice. He was fairly quiet going into a year. He wasn’t really saying much and then he started opening up to me. But it took about a year or so.”
Javier went on to say, “What you find out about him is you can't really find any individuals that are good in heart like Cain Velasquez. He is an unbelievable kid.”
As for that unbelievable kid, he is sidelined with an injury that keeps him out of the gym and keeps him from training to defend his title. When asked about it Mendez states the champ's recovery is coming along slow and it is difficult for Velasquez.
“He kind of gets frustrated, because he loves to work out. If he is not in the gym training he wants to be with his family. But there are so many things you can do when you know you’ve got a title to defend. You can improve so much. He has still got so much room for improvement. It's kind of getting to him a little bit.”
Speaking of difficult tests, Mr. Mendez recently endured a trying situation as two of his beloved students squared off to compete for the number one contender spot to George St-Pierre's UFC title.
Jon Fitch is both a welterweight and AKA staple. He is a man who has represented that camp with great pride and ability. He features one of the most technically proficient all around games in the division across the sport.
Jon recently fought to a draw with B.J. Penn. The two went to war for fifteen minutes and divided the MMA community with the decision that followed their match. While it is debatable, it was also extremely close. Both sides make strong arguments as to why either fighter may have won.
In the end the debate may never be solved. Not even for Javier Mendez, Fitch's coach at AKA. What many people may not realize is that even though Jon has trained with Mendez for a long time, it may come as a surprise to know Mendez also coached Penn earlier in his career.
For Mendez, the fight between Fitch and Penn put him at a disadvantage emotionally as he clearly carries great love and respect for both of his pupils, both past and present.
Mendez opened up on not only the two fighters, but the result of their fight as well. Even he, with all his experience, found the match to be difficult to judge with any real sense of certainty
“It was a really really hard fight for me," said Mendez. "Because I was B.J.'s first MMA coach. I was the one that exclusively started way back when with B.J. when he had brought all his guys over. Tony De Souza, his brothers J.D., and Reagan.”
“He would bring all those guys in to train but I would only train B.J. I wouldn’t train anybody else. I would run B.J.”
Yet as time passed Penn began to reconsider his current situation and being so far from his home of Hawaii.
“So when B.J. left, he asked for my permission. He said he was homesick, he had just lost to Pulver, he was unsure as to what the situation was. Was it the camp training, was it us? So a lot of things were going through his mind. And he asked me if it was OK for him to go back and what were my thoughts.”
Mendez gave the answer any loving coach would in a situation where a student takes the next step towards their own mastery of combat arts.
“I said you know what, I think you should go back. I said listen you brought all your training partners here and you’ve learned everything you need to learn from me so go and create your own thing over there. If you’re homesick I think you should go home.”
“I said you’re always going to be with me. So B.J. was always with me, regardless of whether he left my camp or not. He left my camp willingly with my blessing. So for me, B.J. and I have always been in contact.”
That relationship posed some difficult questions for Mendez, as one of his greatest pupils returned to challenge a new student he called his own.
“So when B.J. decided to take that fight with Jon it was kind of hard for me personally because I love them both. I really was stuck on that.”
Mendez shared his thoughts on the actual outcome. But even still, you can sense his hesitation to commit and the fact that he still wrestles with the idea of choosing against one or the other.
“Lets fast forward to the fight. Am I being a little biased, I'm not sure. I probably have to watch it again, but I thought that Jon probably should have won the fight. But if I was being a little bit biased I thought B.J. should have won the fight.”
“I don't think there should have been a draw. I felt that basically either B.J. won the first and the second and lost the third for sure, we know that. Or Jon won the second and the third. I thought Jon won the second and the third.”
“But again, it could be one of those deals where I might be favoring Jon because he's is with me, even though B.J.'s with me, he's not. So I could be being a little biased. I just saw it as Jon controlled the second round more so than B.J.”
Mendez explained why he leans that direction.
“B.J. didn't really have him in trouble, didn't have control very much, and when he took Jon down he got reversed quicker the second time. The first time was no doubt, it was a B.J. round. And the game plan that B.J. came in with was a great game plan.”
A lot of people looking on were shocked when Penn took Fitch down in both the first and second rounds. Mendez was not nearly as surprised as most people who saw what was happening.
“I wasn’t as shocked because B.J. is really really strong. People just don’t know that about him because of the way he looks but he's super strong. And also too, Jon wasn’t focused on thinking B.J. would take him down.”
“No matter what you tell a fighter, in their mind they think something, or they see something. I don’t think Jon really fully understood how strong B.J. Was.”
What great insight from the inside of that situation between two amazing fighters who this coach holds very close. What an honor to glimpse into a unique line of sight regarding the thoughts and perceptions of a legend among legends like Javier Mendez.
For a man who has seen his ripples spread across the sport of MMA, it may seem commonplace and routine to work with and influence some of the greatest fighters in the sport. But from the outside looking in it is a rare opportunity to observe MMA wisdom at its finest.
Again it was a great honor for the staff at Hurtsbad MMA to spend a moment talking about the fight game with a guy who live, eats, and breathes it like Javier Mendez. Thank you to him and American Kickboxing Academy for all they have done for this sport.
To hear this interview in its entirety select the Hurtsbad Radio link at Hurtsbad MMA.