The Bill Belichick of MMA Is Ready for the Fight
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because power often is just about who controls the power.
By Sean Culligan and Eugene S. Robinson
While waiting in line at the bank, or at the grocery store, or even getting gas, you could be faulted for making the mistake. Once.
Because at about 5-foot-10 and maybe 50 pounds over his one-time fight weight of 175, Javier Mendez could easily be just another 50-something Silicon Valley wage slave or, best case, a soccer dad. But Mendez, head coach of San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) has been the driving force behind a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight team where the good get humbled and the great might get put on injured reserve in no time.
“Some of the camps are still in the stone ages and need to be brought up-to-date,” Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) head Dana White told Ireland’s Setanta Sports in 2015 while leveling a critique Mendez’s way. “AKA is one of those places. You’ve got Cain Velasquez, our heavyweight champion, who’s always hurt. Those guys go to war every day.”
Mendez, 59, only partially disagrees with the contention as we stand on a mat watching his pro team run through sparring drills in six-minute rounds. “We heard that and made some changes,” he says, scanning the room and directing a few of the match-ups, including now-former heavyweight champion Velasquez. “Now if someone is hurt, it’s OK for them to not train.”
A sentiment, on a certain level, it probably killed him to make. You see, training, and training hard, was a way of approaching both the fight game and life in general for Mendez, who was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. as a child. Buried deep in his ancestral memory and burrowed deeper under his skin was a moment he shared with his late father — not a fighter himself and not even a particularly good father. In a moment of casual connectedness, Mendez the younger had expressed an interest in doing something special with his life. His father, not to be mean, but more by way of observation, simply said, “Oh. You’re never going to do anything.”
This is my team. If you don’t like it, there’s always something you can do about it. You can use that [door].
“He wasn’t angry when he said it either,” Mendez says. But Mendez wanted to show him something — anything. While trying to make his bones as a real estate banker, after not that long training in Tang Soo Do himself, Mendez ended up an International Sport Karate Association Kickboxing champion. Then, instead of hermit crabbing it around to other schools, he opened up AKA. His first MMA fighter, Brian “The Fury” Johnston, debuted at UFC 10 in 1996 with a first-round drubbing of Scott Fiedler.
First fight, first win and a sort of Eureka moment for Mendez, as it was for many other martial artists: This could really end up being something. For perspective, UFC 235 hits on March 2, headlined by the damned near legendary Jon Jones, an archenemy of the current UFC heavyweight champ and AKA Team Captain Daniel Cormier. Their 27,000-square-foot facility also houses UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, best known for recently beating the brakes off Conor McGregor.
For those keeping count, that’s both lightweight and heavyweight champion, bookends, under one roof. And not only has Nurmagomedov not lost in 27 fights, but Cormier went to two Olympics for wrestling. Moreover, in 2016, UFC sold to a Los Angeles investment group helmed by the folks at William Morris Endeavor for $4 billion. With the winningest team in MMA (according to many observers based on longheld stats), Mendez has done a little more than “anything.” He’s arrived!
Which mattered not at all to Josh Koscheck, a just-retired former UFC welterweight standout. One day about a decade ago, a mutiny broke out in full view of the entire assembled team, with Koscheck screaming about where were his jiu-jitsu coaches, and why with a fight coming up did he even have to ask? “This sucks,” Koscheck concluded.
Mendez slid up on the apron of their boxing ring and, without raising his voice, said not even to Koscheck but just the room in general: “This is my team. If you don’t like it, there’s always something you can do about it,” and he pointed to the front door. “You can use that.”
While Koscheck later left the team and subsequently said in a TV interview that he wished AKA would burn to the ground — “Is that bad? Hopefully, no one’s inside … well, maybe one person … Javier” — Mendez remains unflappable: “You can’t make everyone happy.”
But since when was happiness a requisite for winning? Velasquez, whose recent loss to Francis Ngannou is mired in competing narratives regarding whether his knee blew out before he was TKO’d or he was TKO’d before his knee blew out, says about Mendez: “It’s not that complicated at all. I listen to Javier and I win. I don’t and I don’t.” It’s a compliment Mendez deflects by pointing out “Crazy” Bob Cook, Cormier and a whole coaching staff involved in earning AKA “gym of the year” awards in 2015 and 2018. “But anyone can get knocked out,” Mendez says, “if they’re not careful.”
And “careful” seems to be the watchword for how AKA fighters have pretty consistently managed to keep both Mendez and AKA in the mouths of the MMA media, on fans’ watch lists and in the win column more often than not since 1996. They watch films as if they were made by Zapruder, devise fight strategies and frame hours and hours of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, cardio conditioning and nutrition — with no steroid scandals of note on record — around doing what gets most of us out of bed in the morning: winning.
“I couldn’t do this if I didn’t love doing this, and I love doing this,” Mendez says, with two more UFC bouts coming up before spring even fully kicks into gear.
But inquiring minds want to know: Was there ever a reckoning with the father who said he’d never do anything?
“Yeah. I reminded him. He said, ‘You know I was just joking,’” says Mendez, himself now a father of two adult sons, not smiling, just watching the room while buzzers announce the round’s start and end. “Joking or not, it got me here.”
Read more: She’s fighting her way from reality TV to UFC stardom.