For those that are not very familiar with the name, Javier Mendez is the founder, owner, and head trainer of the American Kickboxing Academy. Javier first made his name in the Martial Arts world as a two-time ISKA World Kickboxing Champion. After his illustrious career in Kickboxing was finished, he opened up AKA and became one of the top coaches in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Some of the greatest fighters to have ever lived have called the American Kickboxing Academy their home.
Frank Shamrock, BJ Penn, Josh Thomson, Cung Le, Josh Koscheck, Cain Velasquez, and Jon Fitch are just some of the names that have been under the guidence of Javier Mendez. In this very in-depth two part interview, you’ll have a chance to get to know the man behind one of MMA’s elite camps. Find out what life was like before MMA, the early days of AKA, and who his top student is.
Thank you Javier for taking the time to do this interview. For those who aren’t familiar with your name, how did you get your start in Martial Arts?
I started in 1978 in the Korean Martial Art of Tong So Doo under Jeffrey Scott.
You’ve come from the world of kickboxing and have had an illustrious career. Do you still follow the sport and if so who are some fighters you enjoy watching?
I haven’t followed the sport forever. Since K-1 USA (K-1 hasn’t had an event on American soil since 2008) is no longer happening, I don’t really follow kickboxing anymore. I can tell you who the old greats are; I can tell you who my favorites were back then. But I couldn’t tell ya now.
That’s ok, well when you were following K-1 USA were there particular kickboxers that you enjoyed watching? Guys like Michael McDonald from my hometown of Vancouver made a name in K-1 USA.
Michael McDonald was fun to watch and there were a few other ones, but really the US hasn’t really produced many world class kickboxers. Michael McDonald did really well in the K-1 USA. Other than Michael and Maurice Smith, there weren’t many names. I actually cornered Maurice in K-1 USA.
Oh wow you cornered Maurice Smith?
Ya man, but other than those names I can’t really think of many successful North American guys.
Your right, a lot of the guys that came into K-1 USA actually came from outside of America. They came from Europe, guys like Semmy Schilt.
Ya they came from Europe, there weren’t many North American guys. If you want to talk about who was really good to come from North America, you hit it on the nail, Michael McDonald and Maurice Smith.
I agree those two were my favorites.
I don’t think there was anyone else from North America that was as good as them, especially in K-1.
The American Kickboxing Academy is one of the most respected camps in Mixed Martial Arts. How was AKA formed and how did you guys get involved in MMA?
Of course I was a fighter myself; I attracted students that wanted to learn how to fight. Some wanted to learn how to box, some wanted to learn self-defense. As a result of that, I had a student of mine named Brian Johnston. He wanted to compete like me, so I took him into amateur boxing. He won the Golden Gloves in our section here and after he won he asked me if I thought he could have a good career in boxing. And I told him he was 26 at the time, honestly speaking its kind of late for you to start boxing. If you really want to start boxing on a world class level, you have to start at a younger age in order to be successful. Then he asked me about the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
At that time, the UFC started a few years prior to him asking me when Royce Gracie was their biggest star back then. I knew Art Davie, called him up to see what he thinks about Brian fighting in his promotion. I actually met Art Davie through K-1 USA, he was one of the guys that brought that here, and I got two of my fighters Jerome Turcan and Jean-Claude Leuyer to fight in the first K-1 USA event. Art was also one of the matchmakers for both K-1 and UFC at the time.
Back then in the UFC it wasn’t about how good they were, it was about how big they were. So I pitched the idea of Brian Johnston fighting in the UFC to Art Davie, my good friend Mike Swain (American Judo legend) vouched for him too, and as a result he got in.
We honestly didn’t know what we were doing back then, lots of people act like they knew about the ground game but truthfully no one did. Unless you were a Gracie, you knew nothing about that element at the time. They were the masters of the ground. Eventually we caught on to what they were doing and everyone else did too. We were able to adapt, evolve, and use it to our style.
Through Brian Johnston, I met Frank Shamrock. Frank came into the San Jose and he asked if could use my gym for training. I said “sure” and he started to come to my facility. So he came to train at my gym and I asked him one day if he needed any help with his striking. That’s how I started training Frank. We never lost a fight together when I was in his corner. During his time here he was becoming one of the first well-rounded Mixed Martial Artists. That was attributed to my time with him. Back then I wasn’t that well-known and still not, but it was me back then that helped him with his striking.
Frank was very successful and as a result of that while I was training Frank, BJ Penn was good friends with Bobby Southworth who used to teach for Ralph Gracie. Bobby was actually the one who told me about BJ. He told me about this kid who was a prodigy and asked me if he could come train at the gym, just to train.
When I met BJ he was a great kid, he’s just like all the Hawaiians I met, really cool! BJ told me he always loved to fight. He told me he fought all the time in Hilo, guys used to just go outside, and just bang. BJ said to me he was focused in conquering the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and after he accomplishes that he wanted to get into fighting.
As time went on, after only three years of training BJ Penn became the first American to win the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. He came to me after accomplishing his goal. Since I helped Frank Shamrock reach championship glory in MMA, he believed I could do the same thing with him. So I started training BJ and more people were beginning to pay attention. Little by little, more people started signing up for the gym; Josh Thomson was one of the guys that came through.
Frank Shamrock started his own school within my school when BJ started training with me. He called it the Shamrock Submission Fighting Team in my gym. As time went on he had a whole bunch of guys, I never really helped his team, but I did help fighters individually here and there. Frank was the only guy I really helped at that time. BJ brought his whole team to the gym, his brother and Tony DeSouza. With BJ really getting into this sport, we started building our own team.
“Crazy” Bob Cook was Frank Shamrock‘s fighter at the time, I helped him for one fight as well. Crazy Bob had a bad eye, so I made him retire, and as a result of him retiring he began to help out the fighters in the gym. He took a lead role in helping run Shamrock Submission Fighting Team.
A situation came up, a fighter named Kelly Dullanty from Frank’s team came up to me and said “Hey, I’m fighting this kickboxer named Duane Ludwig and I’m going to sock him up”. I asked him again just to be sure, “who you fighting?” and he replied “Duane Ludwig, I’m going to stand with him”. I replied to him “your gonna stand with him? He’s going to beat the hell out of you, you can’t stand with him. You better take him down”. From that point, I started to personally get involved with Kelly and I’d have my guys come in, some kickboxers. Had Jerome Turcan work with Kelly. Jerome kickbox and Kelly would just practice on taking him down. That’s all I had Kelly do, work with good kickboxers, and take them down. Just getting him used to not standing with those guys, because would have beat the hell out of him.
Anyways, he was very successful. He beat Duane Ludwig, which is a big feather in his cap, probably the only feather he’ll get. Considering he didn’t go any further from there. But from that point on, I started getting involved with the fighters. We actually had a problem back then getting fighters fights because when you say Shamrock Submission Fighting, a lot of people didn’t want us to fight for whatever reason. Some people had problems with Frank, various reasons, political problems. So I suggested that we change the name to AKA. Some of the companies back then were calling us AKA already, so we decided to just call it AKA. We went with that and once we changed the name to AKA, it was easier to get fights.
From that point Bob met Duane Zinkin who was a big developer in Fresno. Duane was a Division One wrestler back in the day and has big ties to college wrestling. He wanted to go into business with us, a partnership. We decided to go into business with Duane Zinkin and as a result he’s responsible for bringing in Cain Velasquez, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Mike van Arsdale way back then, Daniel Cormier. Zinkin is the one who brought all these major wrestlers to the table. He brought in Mark Ellis last year, Ben Askren from the management aspect, Phil Davis he brought him in too.
A lot of our success came from what we done, but Duane Zinkin was a very big part of making the team strong as it is today.
Many world class fights have come from your camp. Names you mentioned BJ Penn, Cain Velasquez, Jon Fitch, Josh Thomson, and many more. I know your team is a very tight knit family, but who really stands out as a top student in your mind?
Cain Velasquez hands down, top student. He does everything I ask him to do, he’s never questioned me on anything. I tell him to do something, he does it. The next one for me, I’d have to say is Cung Le. Cung Le was incredible for me. This one doesn’t really matter because he isn’t going to be fighting much longer Herschel Walker, we really bonded. Mark Ellis and I have a great relationship going, Justin Wilcox does really well with me too.
Believe it or not, the technique is great, but it’s the mental bonding that I find is crucial to guide these fighters when your in their corner. Because if you connect mentally, they’ll believe in you, and trust in your advice. I have it with those guys really well. Another guy I’m connecting well with is up and coming lightweight named Jeremy Anderson. He just joined the team and we connect really well.
I connect really well with Phil Davis as well, but he really loves San Diego, and he has a good thing going on down there.
You have quite the team sir.
Ya, I’m missing a whole lot of guys. Luke Rockhold, Daniel Cormier, and a whole bunch more.
Next week, get to know about the other leading men in AKA, potential Strikeforce / UFC dream matches, and the new facility that just opened up in San Jose, California. For more info on Javier, AKA, their new gym, and the rest of the team, check out akakickbox.com. You can also add Javier on Twitter @akajav.
Special shout outs to my friend Darcy McBride from RadioTKO.com for setting this up!