UFC featherweight title contender Chad Mendes still thinks about the last chance he had to become a champion. Maybe that's the problem. Even on the verge of a title fight against UFC 145-pound champ Jose Aldo (20-1) on Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro, Mendez (11-0)says there are still times when he can't stop thinking about the one that got away.
"I'll still catch myself sometimes at night replaying the match in my head while I'm lying there in bed," Mendes said. "Next thing I know I'm all tensed up and I have to make myself relax."
The match that's still on a constant loop in his mind happened to be for the 141-pound NCAA national wrestling championship. Mendes maintained an undefeated record throughout his senior season at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2008, then lost on points in the finals to Ohio State's J Jaggers.
And that was it. Just like that, Mendes' days in the sport that had defined him since he was old enough to write his own name were suddenly over.
"It's something I still think about," he said. "That was my goal growing up. I started wrestling when I was five years old, and from the time that I actually had the knowledge of what college wrestling was and what a national championship meant, it was a goal I set for myself. It's something I worked for my whole life. To get there finally and to come up just short, it's pretty hard to take."
He used the bitter sting to propel him straight into Urijah Faber's Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male gym. "The day after I graduated I put all my stuff in a U-Haul and drove up there," Mendes said. "I've been there ever since."
Faber, who was then the WEC featherweight champion, had been after Mendes to make the jump to MMA for at least a couple years by that point. It started when the two met at a college wrestling camp in California's Squaw Valley years earlier, Faber said. The way he remembers it, the two of them tussled on the mats for a while and Mendes couldn't stop talking about how impressed he was with Faber's strength.
"I didn't say it back to him but I was thinking, dude, he thinks I'm strong? Chad was like a brick sh--house. I knew he'd be a tough guy to beat up if you got him in the cage. I knew I wouldn't want to fight him."
Back then, Faber was well on his way to blazing a trail for the little guys of MMA. The UFC didn't feature their weight class. Few promoters thought enough of them to pay them serious money. Faber scraped together a living as best he could in his early years in the sport, but at least coaching at wrestling camps gave him the chance to earn a few bucks doing something he loved. Plus, he needed the bodies for his own training, even if he had a discouraging effect on would-be sparring partners in those days, according to Mendes.
"I think Urijah was preparing for his third or fourth fight at the time. None of the wrestlers knew anything about jiu-jitsu or anything like that, so he was hurting everybody and no one wanted to work out with him. I decided, hey, I'll jump in there with you. He kicked my butt, but I just fell in love with it."
By the time Mendes made his way into MMA, Faber had laid some valuable groundwork for him. Northern California promoters knew the value of a solid featherweight, because Faber had demonstrated it to them in a fashion they couldn't ignore. He also had a home base to work out of, and a rare gym full of like-minded, appropriately-sized sparring partners to learn from.
"I wanted to make it easy on guys like Chad," Faber said. "I had to wash dishes and do all that just to get by, but I didn't want them to have to do all that just to train and fight."
At least in Mendes' case, it worked. He practically rocketed through the ranks after becoming an MMA fighter, winning his first five bouts before getting a WEC contract, which eventually led him straight into the UFC after Zuffa, the parent company of both organizations, consolidated the rosters.
Now Mendes' perfect record has earned him a title shot in the UFC's featherweight class, but it's hard for him not to see the parallels between this chance at a championship and the one that still keeps him up at night.
Both were preceded by unbeaten runs through the division. Both culminated in showdowns with fierce opponents. In college it was Jaggers, who went on to become a two-time NCAA champ. This time it's Aldo, who has sliced through the UFC's top featherweights -- Faber included.
And just as Mendes feels certain that he'll be a UFC champ by Sunday morning, he felt the same way about the NCAA title. That one seemed like destiny in the making, right up until the moment when it became someone else's glory and his bitter failure. It was a surprise ending that didn't fit with the narrative he had in his own mind. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this, but somehow it did.
"It sucks to say, but I think maybe it was something that needed to happen," he said. "It was the end of that chapter in my life. It's definitely motivated me and pushed me to become the MMA fighter that I am today. Maybe if I would have won that I wouldn't have had the same drive coming into MMA. Now I have the goal of being a world champion at this, so it's made me push myself that much harder."
He already knows what it's like to have one version of the story rewrite itself at the climax. If he lets this one slip away, Mendes can look forward to more sleepless nights, more chances to think about what went wrong.