These are times of high energy and high stakes at the venerable American Kickboxing Academy.
Two of the San Jose-based camp’s star fighters, Luke Rockhold and Cain Velasquez, will headline UFC cards this month, while Daniel Cormier, Gray Maynard, and Josh Thomson are poised contend for titles this year. And after amassing one of the most successful welterweight campaigns in UFC history, Jon Fitch finds himself fighting outside the Octagon for the first time since 2005.
In a recent interview on the Sherdog Radio Network “Rewind,” AKA founder and head trainer Javier Mendez spoke candidly about where his camp stands.
Follow the SRN Rewind on Twitter @SherdogRewind.
Sherdog.com: Luke Rockhold makes his UFC debut May 18 against Vitor Belfort. Did you see a UFC main eventer in him when he walked in the door, or was there a point that you began to see that?
Mendez: Actually, the very first day he walked into my gym, he came in with a good friend of his who’s actually been a friend of my gym named Mike Weaver, a Claudio Franca Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. And he brought Luke in to try it out. He looked very enthusiastic. He wanted to spar; he wanted to test himself. So I said, “Well, do you have a mouthpiece?” He said, “Mouthpiece?” He goes, “No.” I said, “Well, if you want, you can go to Target right across the street and get one.” Well, guess what he did? He went right across the street, got a mouthpiece, came back, and I let him spar. I was really amazed at his athletic ability and how he was able to use jiu-jitsu, the knowledge he had at that time, to its fullest. So he actually was competitive with some pretty tough guys back then, just on his very first time doing any kind of hard sparring.
Luke believes in himself more than I did at times. He made me a believer. Going up the levels, he wanted to go a little higher, and I wanted to go a little lower. He was telling me, “No, I can do it, trust me.” And I’m like, “Well, being the coach that I am, we’ve got to go a little slower, and we can’t go that high up, step by step.” And he’s like, “No, I want a challenge. I get motivate by challenges.” He kept doing that to me, and I kept pushing him in.
The last one where it was a challenge was when he was going to fight [Ronaldo Souza], and I didn’t want that fight right then and there. I wanted to have at least one or two more fights before “Jacare,” especially in a five-round title fight. So I wasn’t comfortable with that. I felt that we could win, but didn’t feel that good about it because I thought the pressure of being in a five-round fight might be too much for the kid. Well, he believes in himself; he kept telling me, “No, no, you’re wrong.” And then I saw how great he was doing in sparring. One month before the fight, I looked at him I said, “You know what, Luke? You made a believer out of me. You’re right. You can do it, you’re gonna win.” That’s what surprises me about him, and what stands out more than anything is that he believes in himself and what he’s going to go out and do. Now, I don’t doubt him. Now, if he tells me “I’m going to do this and watch,” I’m just gonna go, “OK, I’m going to help you achieve that goal.”
He’s an incredibly gifted fighter mentally and doesn’t need any pep talks from me. If anything, he’s telling me. I’ve never had that, I’ve never had a fighter tell me how he wants to attack him, how he thinks it should go, and I don’t question him because he’s always been right. When he says, “No, Jav, I think I want to do this,” I just think really quick and go, “OK.” He’s comfortable, and I know if he’s comfortable, he’s going to execute, and I go along with what he wants because he actually knows what he’s doing.
Sherdog.com: You mentioned being concerned Rockhold in the past was taking on too much too soon. Does that feeling kick in again now that he’s going to make his UFC debut in a main event against Belfort in Brazil?
Mendez: No, no, not at all. Luke’s ready for the cream of the crop in the division, and that’s how it’s going to propel him, to push himself to another level. The Strikeforce champions or contenders who come in and challenge the UFC guys, if you do the count, you’ll find that Strikeforce is ahead of the UFC in regards to who’s winning. The majority of the Strikeforce guys are beating the UFC guys. If anyone says anything about that, I’m telling you, it’s going to be a fight, and it’s going to be a fight that slightly favors Luke.
Sherdog.com: As Cain Velasquez prepares to face Antonio Silva again, it must be tempting to think he’s going to be able to do exactly what he did to him in their first meeting last year.
Mendez: It’s also one of those things that [we] as the coaches have to be careful [about], too, because we may get ourselves a little overconfident and thinking that we’re going to just come in and smash him again. I find myself thinking that at times, and I toss it out real quick. I go, “What am I doing? You’re stupid.” So it doesn’t last long.
And with Cain, I don’t really think he takes anybody lightly. I think he takes everybody for what they are, and his main goal is to keep that title for a long, long time. So he’s looking to clean out all the challengers who are coming up, and he’s got to do what he’s got to do.
The first fight, it ended quickly -- premature somewhat, because of that big, nasty cut. So who knows what could have happened had the fight continued and had Silva been able to gain momentum. That [would be] a bad judgment call on my end if I stuck with that kind of mental thinking. And thank God it only pops in for a couple of seconds, and then it pops right out, and I go, “Oh, don’t be an idiot, because Antonio is not a joke.”
Look, he destroyed Fedor [Emelianenko], and Fedor is arguably was the greatest MMA fighter of all time. I still think he should hold that distinction of being regarded as the greatest heavyweight of all time, and [Silva] destroyed him. And then [Silva] goes in with Alistair Overeem, and at the beginning it was kind of a little rocky, but you could tell that his game plan was to go in and soften him up a little bit and get him to expend some energy before he let it go. And that’s exactly what he did, and he knocked out Overeem in a very impressive fashion. So for us to think it’s going to happen again like it happened last time, that would be horrible on my part.
Sherdog: What did you think of the UFC’s decision to rematch Cain with Silva instead of doing a rubber match with Junior dos Santos?
Mendez: I thought it was a good move. I thought that [because] the rematch was so one-sided -- there wasn’t a round that Junior won -- I thought the fans weren’t going to pay for that one right now. So I think they figured [they should] rebuild it, let Junior get back on track, and then we’ll do it again. I thought that was the only option, because Fabricio Werdum was not available. That would have been my next pick, but he wasn’t available. So I thought that was actually the best move that was available to build the momentum. Because let’s face it, [Velasquez-Dos Santos 2] didn’t do as well in the ratings as it should have, and it was because of the fact that Cain came off that injury, and everybody was thinking, “Well, he got knocked out. I’m not going t pay to watch another knockout like that.” People want to see a competitive fight, and if they don’t believe it’s going to be a competitive fight, they’re not going to pay for it.
Sherdog.com: As coach, what role do you play in deciding if Daniel Cormier fights Cain Velasquez?
Mendez: I’m not going to play any role. I just have to support them both if that’s the decision that they both want to [make]. But my gut feeling tells me that rather than do that and separate the coach from the student, meaning Daniel being the coach and Cain the student, I would think since Daniel can make it to 205 at a later point in his career that Daniel would prefer to do that than to fight his student. Cain, I know, has never indicated one time that he would ever want to fight Daniel. So for me, as long as the option is there for Daniel to drop the weight safely, I don’t think they’re ever going to fight. Because hey, there’s no point. And let’s face it, a fight with Daniel Cormier against Jon Jones is 10 times more interesting in my opinion than Daniel fighting Cain. I think that’s more likely what you’re going to see. They’ve got such a bond with each other, too, on top of the fact that Daniel’s his coach. The bond and friendship is just too strong, I think.
Sherdog.com: Was there an idea as soon as Daniel started training at AKA that he would cut to 205 if he got within striking distance of Cain, or did that only become evident recently?
Mendez: That only became evident when Strikeforce sold out to the UFC, because Strikeforce was paying damn good money, and they were building great momentum. So we were looking at Daniel to be the king over there and Cain to maintain his position with the UFC. So that didn’t become something we had to think about until Daniel came over [to the UFC].
Sherdog.com: At this moment in time, where does Daniel stand on this question? It looks like his next fight will be at heavyweight, not light heavyweight.
Mendez: OK, well think about this. Daniel Cormier is fantastic at marketing himself and planning out things properly. Daniel’s next fight will be at heavyweight, but because he’s going to be busy and active, he’s going to fight this next one under 230. So he’s going to drop more weight in preparation for the drop to light heavyweight. So let’s say the fight with Roy Nelson gets made. Daniel gets down to 220, 225, and he whoops up on Roy like I’m expecting. From that point, Daniel’s close to [making] 205. Then it’s like, let’s go, bring it on. And if you think about it, it’s perfect if you market it right, and it’s being told that this is his goal. So he fights a top heavyweight -- and Roy Nelson is perfect, but there are other ones too -- and he goes down the next fight at light heavyweight, and it was a safe cut for him, and in the meantime he’s fulfilling his contract obligations. I think Daniel knows what he’s doing.
Sherdog: Jon Fitch will be fighting outside the UFC for the first time in memory on June 14 for World Series of Fighting against Josh Burkman. Where is he at right now?
Mendez: He’s in a good place mentally because he’s got a job. What Jon Fitch does is, he’s not like a lot of fighters that sulk and go, “Why me?” He’s had to fight his whole life to be put in a situation where he can make an impact on the world of MMA, rather than it being given to him. Nothing was given to him; he’s had to earn everything.
I mean, the poor guy, he got accepted to go to “The Ultimate Fighter,” and this was the kind of luck he had. He’s in the airport. He already booked his luggage. He’s waiting for the plane to board, and as he’s waiting at the airport for this to happen, he gets a call that says, “Hey, they elected not to use you. You don’t have to come.” So the poor guy didn’t end up going, but his luggage went to Vegas, and he had to get his luggage back. Nothing Jon Fitch got was given; it was earned. I have the utmost, highest respect for that man. He doesn’t give up for [anything], and you can’t bring him down. He’s going to bring himself right back up, and he’s going to make the best of [it].
Sherdog: Does Jon care if he’s fighting for the UFC?
Mendez: Oh, I’m sure he cares. He wants to be regarded as the best of the best, so obviously he cares. But right now his obligations [are to] the World Series of Fighting, so his thing is to fulfill his contract, win the gold there, take care of Josh Burkman and then see what happens from there. But right now, when you’re in a contract situation, as you know, you can’t be thinking, “I’m going to go to this.” You’re going to be stuck in that contract, as long as you’re the champion, forever. So I’m thinking he’s looking at [it like], “I’m going to take the opportunities I have to put food on the table and achieve my goals.”
Sherdog: How is Gray Maynard doing? Is he working with AKA full-time for the T.J. Grant camp?
Mendez: He’s been back. He didn’t work with me at the first go-around with Clay Guida. I run the whole team, so I’m running his camp too, but [it wasn’t] personal, one-on-one. And he just asked me, for this camp, if I could help him, and then for the camp he may ask another coach to help him. But for this camp, I’m hands-on with him, and he’s looking fantastic.
I’ve been watching plenty of film on [T.J. Grant]. You cannot take him lightly. If you do, he’s going to catch you sleeping. That guy is very dangerous. You watch his fight with Johny Hendricks, man, that was a tough fight. Every one of his fights that he’s had, T.J. Grant comes to battle. The one fight that probably wasn’t one of the more productive ones where he looked good was against [Ricardo] Almeida. Against Almeida, he kind of didn’t look as good, but man, he’s dangerous in all of the other fights and very dominant as a lightweight.
Sherdog: What’s Gray’s mindset in terms of the division? He’s been so close to the title on two shots. Does he think this run is do or die for his title hopes?
Mendez: I’m not sure if he thinks it’s do or die, but he’s definitely been wanting this situation to pop up again, because the circumstances on when he fought Frankie [at UFC 136] were very, very bad for him. He’s let me in on some of the details and showed me pictures of how he was, and my God, it’s amazing he even made that fight. And I’ll just leave it at that, it’s amazing he even fought. So obviously, all fighters, they want to come back and redeem themselves and show people who they really are. When you fight to the best of your ability and you get beat, you get beat. But when there are circumstances that no one really knows about and things happen, it really sucks for that fighter. I’m really saying more than I should, because fighters don’t want to make excuses -- not real fighters.
Sherdog: It seems like there really is a strict code to never discuss injuries at AKA. Cain Velasquez was very upset that news and video of his knee injury was out before and after the first Dos Santos fight.
Mendez: Yeah, and the reason being is the fighters are going to take the fight. And sometimes they take the fight because they need to do it for their money, or they need to it for themselves. And if the injury leaks out, then obviously it gives confidence to their opponent. I have a few other fighters that have taken decisions, and they should never have fought, but it was bad, and it happens. We didn’t just do it one time. I won’t mention the names, but quite a few of my fighters have been in that situation, where they took fights -- and they weren’t forced to take the fights; I don’t want you to think that -- but it was a bad decision. And if you’re injured, and you lose that fight, don’t be complaining about, “Oh, I hurt my knee, or this or that.” Hey, you knew what you were going into. You took that chance; shut the hell up. You had the reason to pull out and you didn’t pull out, so don’t go telling me, “Oh, my knee.” No. Shut up. I don’t want to hear it. And that’s my mentality. It’s like, if you’re going to take the fight, then take that fight. If you’re injured, and you take the fight, then it’s on you. No one wants to hear you complaining about it. We feel bad as a team. We all lose. When our fighter loses, we go with it too. And sometimes I’m maybe a little too hard on it, but it’s only because I want them to be mentally strong and prepared.
Sherdog: It strikes me that Maynard and Josh Thomson’s paths might cross, considering their places in the lightweight division.
Mendez: Yeah, honestly, that one’s more likely to happen than the Cain and Daniel fight. And there’s also another guy, he was with us the last two camps, and he’s with us again for this one. Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is 19-0, and he’s a contender. So we’ve got three top lightweights, and at one time or another, one of them is going to be fighting for a title against each other. So I really do expect one of those to happen. I really do. I just don’t know when. But Josh Thomson, as long as he stays injury free, I could easily see Josh Thomson being the UFC lightweight champion, and Gray Maynard. And Khabib, maybe. He has a few more fights to go, but I see him as a contender also.
Sherdog: How is Mike Swick’s health? Have we seen his last fight?
Mendez: Mike Swick is in the process of still trying to take care of himself and his medical issues that he’s been having with the eating. He’s actually gaining weight. He’s never been 100 percent. He doesn’t say [anything], and I guess I’ll just shut up and leave it at that. Mike Swick's a warrior. That’s all I can say. He is by far my kindest, nicest fighter that I’ve had in my whole entire life. That guy, he will not hurt anybody on purpose. He goes out of his way to be the nicest guy possible. I think you will see Mike Swick at one point at 100 percent, ready to go. And in the meantime, he’s actually been working on an AKA gym in Thailand, so you’ll be seeing that in the near future.
Sherdog: And have we seen the last fight from Herschel Walker?
Mendez: Well, I’m not 100 percent sure, because at times, he’ll say [he is] coming back, but he won’t show up because he’s such an incredible businessman. He’s got so many businesses out there that are extremely successful. I’m not really sure he can devote the time to training while he’s got these million dollar, huge business. So I don’t really know. He says he wants to do one more fight. Last I heard, I had read that he wanted one UFC fight and that the UFC rejected it. But I don’t even know if that’s true. That’s just what I read, and I don’t know. I would say he has the ability to do it if he wanted to. He’s got to devote the time to it. But Herschel Walker is always training – definitely the greatest athlete I’ve ever trained. He’s family to us. And Herschel Walker, if he was going to fight, he’d go nowhere but [AKA].