This is number twenty-five in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature American Kickboxing Academy’s Javier Mendez. Mendez, a former kickboxing champion, has been the trainer and coach for multiple MMA greats, including the current UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez. Many of you, who might only be familiar with the recent history of Javier Mendez and AKA, will be surprised to learn about important connections to some former champs. Please enjoy our conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Javier Mendez: My first experience was in 1978, training in Tang Soo Do Korean martial arts. From there, I went to West Coast Tae Kwon Do and trained under the former CEO of Strikeforce, Scott Coker. It was through Scott that I experienced kickboxing and the kickboxing culture, by running errands for him, picking up fighters, and helping him run the back room for fights. I eventually became one of the fighters for his shows.
JB: You were a champion kickboxer. What did you enjoy about competing, what was your most satisfying accomplishment, and how would you have described your strengths as fighter?
JM: I was the 1992 I.S.K.A. Light Cruiserweight Full-Contact World Champion. In 1995, I was the I.S.K.A. Light Heavyweight World Champion.
The thing that I enjoyed most about competing was winning. One moment that stands out the most for me, in terms of satisfaction and as an accomplishment, was when I was an amateur and beat a fighter nicknamed, “Thunderwolf,” for an amateur championship title. Thunderwolf was a heavyweight, and because it was not a California sanctioned event, I was allowed to weigh in fully clothed. To make weight, I had to weigh in with my boots on and wearing jeans and a leather jacket with rolls of quarters in my pocket.
In the earlier stages of my career, I lacked confidence. It was not until the fight I lost to Ian Jacklin that I realized that I could be a world champion. That realization watered the seed for the confidence that I needed. I never looked back.
JB: I believe that you got involved with MMA, and the UFC, through training Brian Johnston back in the mid-90's. How did you two first connect and what was that initial experience with the sport like for you?
JM: Brian Johnston came to me as a student and paid for his first month of lessons with me. After his first month of lessons, I told him his dues were up and asked how he was going to pay. He said he had no idea. I started training him for free, and less than a year later, Brian won the Northern California Special Seniors Boxing Championship with ease. After that, Brian met Paul “the Polar Bear” Varelans and he started helping Paul train. Brian then asked if I knew anyone in the UFC. I said that I knew Art Davie. Mike Swain, America’s first ever World Champion in Judo, and I both vouched for Brian, and that’s how we got him in.
The sport, at that stage, was horrible for me, because I really wasn’t 100% sure how to train properly for that type of competition. LOL. It was through Brian Johnston that I met Frank Shamrock, and that’s why Frank came to my gym when he was in San Jose. Then, as a result of that, BJ Penn came to my gym. And the rest is history.
JB: You were a part of Frank Shamrock's historic championship run in the UFC. What was it that made that relationship so successful at the time?
JM: I trained Frank, for all his stand-up work and strategies, from his first fight with working me, against Enson Inoue, in 1997, until his last fight with working with me, against Bryan Pardoe, in 2003. Frank was undefeated during that time, but I learned more about strategies from Frank than he learned from me. LOL. My relationship with Frank was so successful because Frank was ahead of his time as a fighter in all aspects of training properly for MMA. My experience as a fighter and coach helped me put all the puzzle pieces together for him.
JB: BJ Penn trained with you during some of his early years. What was BJ like to train and how do you think you helped improve his skill-set?
JM: BJ got introduced to me through Bobby Southworth, who was friends with BJ when BJ started practicing BJJ at Ralph Gracie’s in Mountain View. But he came to me to train because he knew I trained Frank Shamrock. BJ was incredible to teach. Everything I taught him, he picked it up as though he had known it forever. His level of progression was one of the best I have ever trained. What I think he learned from me is how to run his own training camp.
JB: In recent years, the amount of talent that you have discovered, developed, and trained at AKA has been astounding. Who have been some of the fighters who you have been especially proud of and who are some of the ones that you believe are on the brink of greatness?
JM: I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have had the number of fighters and talent that have come to my gym. Some of the fighters that I am especially proud of are Cain Velasquez, Josh Thomson, Phil Baroni, and Mike Swick. Those that are on the brink of greatness, I would have to say, are Luke Rockhold and Daniel Cormier because of their unbelievable talent and drive to win.
JB: I really enjoyed watching the "Fight Factory" television show. How was that experience for you, and how do you feel about how you and everyone else at AKA were portrayed on the show?
JM: I feel as though the show was amazingly well put together. But it’s reality TV, so everyone’s bad side or good side is magnified, and the small but important things that it means to be a fighter were slightly overlooked.
JB: Who are other coaches in MMA that you respect and admire, and what do you think your greatest strengths as a coach are?
JM: I have never really thought about that. There are so many great coaches out there. One that comes to mind would be Greg Jackson. Another is my good friend, Crazy Bob Cook.
My greatest strength is that I am not afraid to be blunt with my fighters about what they need to improve on physically or mentally. They may get mad at me for it, but at the end of the day, if it helps them improve, I’ll take the hit. Another aspect I consider my strength is that when I’m wrong, though it may take me a while to admit it (LOL), I will apologize or do whatever it takes to make it right.
JB: What do you think about the current state of professional MMA and how it has grown since you first got involved? What have been some of the most surprising developments in your opinion, and what concerns, if any, do you have about the sport going forward?
JM: I feel that the current state of MMA has gotten to the point where it is coming closer to becoming recognized as a worldwide mainstream sport. As far as how much the sport has grown, it has become extremely popular, something I had always hoped for but wasn’t always sure would happen. As long as the UFC is driving the world market the way they are, I have no concerns about the popularity or growth of the sport.
JB: Last question, Javier, and thank you for taking the time to do this. You've already accomplished a lot in your life. Who has been especially supportive of you, and what plans and goals do you still have for the future?
JM: I want to thank my wife, Joanna. She has supported me in every way throughout my career.
My future plans include being recognized, and continuing to be recognized, as one of the top fight camps in the world. I am also currently working on a new amateur company called Gallus Fighting Championships. Our first amateur card debuts on April 13th in San Jose. I plan for Gallus to expand into the pro market soon.
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