Over the past two years, the featherweight division has risen to become one of the most competitive collectives under the UFC banner. While champion Jose Aldo has been dominating the opposition for a much longer stretch, it took a handful of ready-and-willing upstarts to turn the upper tier at 145 pounds into a shark tank of epic proportions.
There is perhaps no division hotter at the current time and Nik Lentz is looking to kick in the proverbial back door and shake things up. Better yet, the former lightweight turned featherweight contender is looking to do more than just crash the party; he’s gunning for the head chair at the main table.
Since dropping down into 145-pound waters in late 2012, the Minnesota native has been wrecking shop as he’s collected three consecutive victories. While winning is ultimately everything on a competitive landscape like the sport’s biggest stage, it has been the fashion in which the 29-year-old has been getting that job done that has been turning heads.
By most accounts, Lentz had a successful run as a lightweight as he went 5-2-1, 1 NC over a three year stretch. That said, he wasn’t gaining the traction he was looking for and made the decision to redirect his career in hopes of finding room to perform the way he knew he was capable of. As it turns out, the decision to make the drop down a weight class was absolutely the right choice as “The Carny” has been outmuscling and outclassing the opposition in each of his three showings.
“I feel like a new human being at 145 pounds,” Lentz said. “I’m stronger. I’m actually bigger than I was at 155 muscle and weight-wise. I work with Mike Dolce and gained about 10 pounds of muscle and lost 10 pounds of fat. I switched to American Top Team and things have never been better. I was just doing little camps down here and my improvement was phenomenal. Now, I live down here full-time and this is the first fight camp where I’ve actually been living in Florida and I’m in this gym every day. I’ve made an insane amount of improvement and things couldn’t be going better. I’m excited and I can’t wait for December 14.
“All of the fights I had at 170 and 155 really don’t matter as much to me because I really wasn’t putting everything together. I didn’t have the right kind of strength training, conditioning or diet. All of those fights were me in a very raw form. Now that I’ve made the drop, switched camps and teams, I’m putting everything together and doing things the way they should have been done in the first place. I feel great and believe the respect I’m getting is deserved. I’m looking forward to gaining more respect after I beat Mendes.”
Those performances had him on the verge of breaking through to the upper tier of the division. While he could have taken another fight to continue his progression and was slated to face Dennis Bermudez at Fight for the Troops 3, an opportunity arose - one many other featherweights would’ve and have passed up on - but Lentz saw it as the perfect vehicle to catapult him to the front of the line at 145 pounds.
The American Top Team product signed on the dotted line to face former title challenger Chad Mendes at UFC on FOX 9 in Sacramento in a bout that will hold heavy implications in the featherweight fold. Where the Team Alpha Male staple has been heralded and feared in the 145-pound ranks, Lentz has not only stepped up for the challenge, but has let his confidence be known.
During a pre-fight press conference last month, the surging featherweight shook things up by letting Mendes know he was going to defeat him, and his belief in the matter has only grown as the fight has drawn closer.
“I love this fight,” Lentz said. “When they called me I was ecstatic. Nothing against any of the other guys I was going to fight, but this is the kind of fight we expected after racking up three wins over the caliber of people I beat. Initially, when we didn’t get one of the top five guys, we were pretty disappointed with that. But then karma or whatever interjected and the fight I wanted came to be. The UFC called me up asking if I wanted to fight Mendes and I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
“He’s still a good wrestler. He still falls back on it. A lot of times when people get those new skills the way he has with his striking, fighters tend to leave behind what they do well. Mendes still has his wrestling but he’s become a little more accurate with his striking and his boxing has become a bit tighter. But I guarantee when I get in there and get in his face, he’s going to revert back to his old style of how he used to fight and it’s not going to work because I’m a better wrestler than he is and I’m stronger and bigger than him. He has no real physical or talent advantages over me. When it comes to the fight on December 14 he’s going to be in for a rude awakening. I’m bigger, stronger, faster and I’m a smarter, more technical fighter than he is.”
Grind It Out
The bout with Mendes will pit two fighters who rely on their wrestling bases to get the job done – albeit in different fashion. The Sacramento-based fighter is well-known for his explosive double leg takedowns and has used a power grappling game to gain the advantage over the opposition he’s faced.
While Lentz has also used wrestling to turn the action in his favor, his is more of a grinding style, where he uses top control to break the fighters he’s faced both mentally and physically. Where both fighters in this matchup will have similar strengths, Lentz believes his pace and strength will prove to be a nightmare for the former No. 1 contender.
“I always think I can break someone with cardio,” Lentz said. “One of the things people don’t understand is that when I get a hold of you…you aren’t going anywhere. I’m one of the strongest pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC. A lot of times before the fight starts, people have an idea like they can move and get away from me. When I fought Diego [Nunes], nobody had been able to take him down. It was really hard for anyone to hold him down, but when I put him on the ground, I could just feel him break mentally.
“I think the same thing is going to happen with Chad. Once I get a hold of him he’s going to realize that for all the training he’s done, he couldn’t replicate what I bring to the table. I can’t wait for this fight. I’m looking forward to it and it’s really going to be my chance to shine.”
While the bout with Mendes is undoubtedly a dangerous one, the potential reward for victory provides the ultimate appeal for Lentz. He has his sights set on becoming the featherweight champion, and defeating Mendes would make his case for title contention difficult to ignore. The only man to put a notch in Mendes’ loss column thus far is Aldo, and Lentz is hoping the Brazilian phenom holds onto the strap long enough for him to get there and take it away from him.
“I think a victory in this fight puts me in line for a title shot for sure. When I beat Chad Mendes, I expect to be in the title talk. I didn’t accept the fight for any other reason than I want to be a world champion. I don’t know names or anything, but I know a lot of people turned down this fight with Chad. I already had a fight scheduled and had a sure payday lined up. But when they offered me the fight, I threw that away because I want to be the No. 1 contender and I want to fight Jose Aldo. I want him to keep that belt because I want to be the one to beat him.”
Nik Lentz: A Different Type of Animal
"I think a victory in this fight puts me in line for a title shot for sure. When I beat Chad Mendes, I expect to be in the title talk." - Nik Lentz