On Wednesday afternoon in the MGM Grand, Mendes and his next opponent took part in public workouts in front of a raucous crowd. Even here in Las Vegas, where spectrums are wider than anywhere else, it made for the most stark of contrasts.
Mendes was understated, efficient, in and out in about 15 minutes. Just like that he’d slipped back into the masses. About an hour later in strode Conor McGregor. From start to finish — and, all up, it took over an hour and a half — it was over-the-top, elaborate, an exhibition in standing out from the crowd.
Tomorrow night the two will be back at the sprawling casino complex to headline UFC 189 with an interim featherweight title fight. McGregor and Mendes may be the headline fight but it is so only because of the former. After all, the latter wasn’t even supposed to be here this week.
Mendes was the man summoned to fill a Jose Aldo-sized hole in the organisation’s grandest night of the year when the Brazilian went down with a rib injury just two weeks out from fight night. The Californian has done so in trademark style — with minimal fuss.
Speaking briefly after his workout, he brushed off concerns about his abbreviated build-up, pre-fight preparations that would normally take up to two months somehow squeezed into two weeks. He eschewed all opportunities to rise and respond to McGregor’s barbs, most of which have focussed on his height (he’s 5’6”, three inches shorter than the Dubliner).
“I’ve been a top-level competitor my entire life so I’ve dealt with guys like that all the time,” breezed Mendes. “I’ve seen it in the past, I get in there and that’s where I deal with it. I beat them up. It’s all part of it. I know this guy is going to talk all his trash. Luckily for me I didn’t have to listen to all his s*** through an entire training camp.”
This truly is a meeting of polar opposites. Trying to research Mendes’s past, or even present for that matter, can take on a bit of a Jason Bourne feel after a while. The army of bloggers and chroniclers who follow McGregor’s every step provide insight and analysis on seemingly each waking breath. You’d be fairly confident that, if you needed it, you could find a report on what McGregor had for breakfast this morning. Alongside it would probably be a preview of his breakfast tomorrow.
Trying to unearth just a little about Mendes’s background is a much more taxing task. He undoubtedly wants it that way. You expect that a fly-on-the-wall documentary would not, well, fly with the 30-year-old.
Raised primarily by his father in Hanford, California (about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco), family is clearly what Mendes, who is of primarily Portuguese descent, holds dearest. The outdoors come a close second. His social media accounts are littered with photos of him and his loved ones spending weekends on the river or in the wilderness, posing with prize catches that range from catfish to wild hogs, turkeys to stags.
A gifted wrestler in high school, he took his talents on to university where his only defeat in his senior year came in the prestigious NCAA final (a precursor to the bridesmaidery that would follow in the UFC). While McGregor regaled Conan O’Brien last week with tales of how he studied the movements of gorillas in the quest for athletic advantage inside the octagon, it is no little irony that Mendes graduated from Cal Poly university with a major in kinesiology, the study of human movement.
The days spent on the wrestling mats and in the lecture halls have been put to more than good use. Mendes’ professional career in mixed martial arts has been a hugely successful one. He has fought 19 times and lost only twice, both times to the same man, Jose Aldo. Both times, like that solitary NCAA defeat, a title was on the line.
It may be of the interim variety but there will again be silverware on the line for Mendes, who has never been knocked down in his lengthy career, tomorrow night. For the UFC itself, there is so much more at stake. It is indisputable that McGregor is both the golden child and the golden ticket for the fastest growing sporting organisation in the world. The Dubliner has been the battering ram that has broken down doors to new lucrative markets.
Were the UFC’s quiet man to silence the MGM and defeat McGregor, it would cause one almighty headache for his employers. It would also most certainly make Mendes stand out from the crowd. Just don’t be surprised if he soon blends back in.