Chad Mendes knows what everyone is thinking.
A long layoff. Back-to-back bookings against lesser known opponents. His 10th anniversary as a pro fighter having just passed.
If Mendes’s next fight is any indication, he’s not being pushed to compete for a UFC title, something the 33-year-old has had the opportunity to do on three occasions. And it’s entirely possible Mendes is actually being used to prop up the résumé of Alexander Volkanovski, his opponent Saturday at UFC 232 in Inglewood, Calif., a featherweight prospect who has won all five of his fights inside the Octagon so far.
When the term “gatekeeper” is floated his way, Mendes acknowledged the possibility fans and officials might view him that way. Just don’t expect him to embrace that role.
“Of course I’m sure that’s what the UFC’s doing,” Mendes told MMA Fighting in regards to the matchmakers booking him as a test for fresh contenders. “This guy’s a young, hungry, up-and-comer. He’s trying to take my money, I’m not going to let that shit happen. This is still my game. I feel very good where I’m at right now, I feel like I’m still able to train extremely hard. My mindset and drive is there for this fight and I’m gonna get in there and I’m gonna prove that.
“I don’t know what the UFC’s plan is, but if that is their plan, I’m about to derail the shit out of it.”
Regardless of Mendes’s capabilities, for now inactivity has cost him his spot in the upper echelon of the division. Mendes was handed a two-year suspension in July 2016, retroactive to June of that year, after being flagged by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and choosing not to contest the findings. He has claimed full responsibility for the drug test failure, which he attributed to a psoriasis medication that contained a banned substance.
He returned at UFC Boise this past summer where he recorded a first-round TKO of Myles Jury. While Jury is a respected fighter who has been competing professionally as long as Mendes has, his name value pales in comparison to the likes of previous Mendes foes like Conor McGregor, Jose Aldo, and Frankie Edgar. In short, he had a lot more to gain from defeating Mendes than the other way around.
Other budding contenders have mentioned wanting to fight the returning Mendes, including Zabit Magomedsharipov (currently scheduled to fight Jeremy Stephens in March) and Volkanovski, who holds a decision win over Mendes’s teammate Darren Elkins.
Though he’s not the type to campaign for a specific opponent, should he spoil Volkanovski’s unblemished UFC record on Saturday, he is willing to wait for a top-ranked opponent.
“The goal for me 100-percent is either title run or I’m out,” Mendes said. “My goal is to fight until I’m 35 and I’m 33, in May I’m going to be 34. We’re getting close to that end of the line for me. I want that title run. For me, fighting, I love competing, but I don’t love getting my head beat in.
“We’re not making millions and millions of dollars doing this, so for me it’s more of a goal for me to say that I’m the UFC champion. I want to be at the top of my division and if that’s something that I’m not doing and I can’t do, then it’s probably on to the next adventure in my life.”
With 33 months between his last two fights, Mendes was able to get a head start on his next adventure, focusing on growing his Finz and Featherz hunting guide service. He also had two years to rest and recover from the wear-and-tear of the fighter life, something few get the chance to do once they reach the UFC level.
Mendes regrets the USADA suspension, but views much of it as a blessing in disguise and he also feels that his forthcoming approach has allowed him to feel at peace with the time off, regardless of whether or not the public accepts his explanation.
“I think once I explained what the situation was, I think most people are like, ‘Wow, that sucks.’ There’s still the haters that no matter what I could have evidence shoved in their face and they’re still going to say, ‘Nope. Cheater.’ Those types of people, it doesn’t matter, they’re just going to be haters and want to say negative stuff, but I think for the most part people understand it was just a shitty situation,” Mendes said. “It was my own fault, I’m not blaming it on anyone but myself.
“I definitely could have fought it and got less time, I think that kind of upset some people, that I didn’t. But ultimately at that time I wanted to take the time off anyways to let my body heal. And Finz and Featherz was something I really, really wanted to get started while I still had time in the fight game and I thought why not just focus on that right now? I’ll take my time, I’ll do it, let my body heal, get this up and going, and just try to make as much of a positive thing out of a negative thing as possible. It happened. Looking back on it now, that time went extremely fast to me and we got a lot of stuff accomplished. So all in all I think as crappy a situation as it was, it was good for me.”
Heading into Saturday’s fight with Volkanovski, Mendes had Elkins in his camp providing what data he could based on his 15 minutes with the Australian, and sparring partners like Josh Emmett to emulate Volkanovski’s style. He’s fully focused on the task at hand, though he still found time to reflect on the first decade of his career that’s seen him defeat all but three of the 21 opponents he’s faced in the cage.
“Throughout this whole training camp, I’ve really — for whatever reason — really been looking back on past life stuff,” Mendes said. “I was just thinking that the other day, I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now. It’s crazy how fast that time feels like it goes until I think about the beginning and starting out and going through all the grind and all that stuff. We’ve done a lot of shit. It’s been a lot.
“But if you don’t think about it, it’s like, ‘That was 10 years? That went by so fast.’ It’s just crazy to think of all the stuff that we’ve done and gone through and accomplished. It feels good looking back, it’s been a crazy, wild ride for sure.”