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October 1, 2023

AKA the house of champions

“You will never amount to anything.”

Javier Mendez needed to hear those words only once for it to have a profound effect on his life. Mendez was 12 years old when he heard those words from his dad, Norberto, who died in 1999.

“He only needed to say it one time,” the 58-year-old Mendez said. “It stuck with me and from there I was out to prove him wrong. That was the driving force that got me where I am today.”

That would be as one of the top Mixed Martial Arts trainers in the world. As the founder and head coach of the famed American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)—its current roster includes UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov—Mendez is at the top of his profession, with no signs of coming down from his perch any time soon.

The unlikely story of San Jose and the South Valley area being home and producing some of MMA’s best coaches and fighters—Mendez lives in Hollister, Cormier in Gilroy, former UFC heavyweight champion and AKA member Cain Velasquez resides in Gilroy and AKA manager Bob Cook lives in Tres Pinos—traces back to a father’s words that have served as fuel for Mendez’s insatiable appetite to continually improve and stay on top of the fight game.

“My father was somewhat joking when he said those words, but they still stung,” said Mendez, who was born in Mexico but raised in San Jose and graduated from Andrew Hill High. “My dad never asked me one time how was my grades. He never asked one time what I wanted to do (as a career). It was more like you’re never going to be anything. I’m like, ‘Uh, yes I am.’ I refused to believe that I wouldn’t be anything. I didn’t allow anything to get in the way of what I wanted to do.”

Mendez and Cook aren’t the only San Benito County residents who have a connection to AKA. Tony Castro, a strength and conditioning coach who trains Velasquez out of his garage and also works with Cormier in a variety of capacities, is a longtime Hollister resident. But how did San Jose and the South Valley area become the epicenter of one of the most fertile training bases for MMA athletes?

It all starts with Mendez, who was 12 years old when he got caught stealing a couple of crescent wrenches from a thrift store. The police drove Mendez back to his parents’ house and knocked on the door before letting Norberto know what his son had done.

“Oh, you did well,” Norberto told Javier.

“He didn’t punish me, so I punished myself,” Mendez said.  I swore I would never do that again because it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I’m so glad I got caught because who knows what it could’ve led to. But that is all my dad said. He wasn’t a good father whatsoever, but he did love us.”

Tucked in a non-descript strip mall in south San Jose—just minutes away from Morgan Hill—AKA has another moniker: The house of champions. Dozens of pictures adorn the wall above the main training room, displaying the faces of fighters who have trained or are currently training with AKA. The list is downright impressive.

In addition to current titleholders Cormier and Nurmagomedov, Velasquez, legendary MMA figure Frank Shamrock, Luke Rockhold, B.J. Penn, Jon Fitch and Cung Le—just to name a few—have toiled on the AKA mats. As Mendez showed a reporter around the facility, he didn’t bother to point out the photo of himself holding a belt signifying his status as a former kickboxing world champion.

Like most of his peers of his generation, Mendez grew up admiring the late Bruce Lee, who became a cultural icon through his acting, directing and martial arts pedigree.

“I decided to go to martial arts (at 18) in part because of Bruce Lee,” Mendez said. “He was a huge inspiration to millions of kids and adults, and still to this day he is admired because of his philosophy, what he did and how he was able to do it.”

Even though he didn’t grow up with a dream to become a world-class kickboxer—I had zero ambition to be fighter, zero,” he said—combat sports gave him something to do.  At 12, Mendez started to participate in open gym boxing sessions in the cafeteria at Sylvandale Middle School in San Jose, under coaches who would give instructions while smoking cigars.

“They never showed me anything,” Mendez said, “but it was a start.”

Even though Mendez had a father who was never there physically or emotionally, Mendez

said it provided him with motivation of what not to be.

“I’m going to be a man in every way my dad wasn’t,” he said.

Mendez said his dad pitied himself and spent most of his money on alcohol and gambling, often coming home drunk on weekends. Although it was tough to accept, it served a greater purpose, as Mendez developed a chip—check that, a boulder—on his shoulders, allowing him to attack every opponent or goal with a tenacity that he might not have otherwise gained.

“I refused to accept my life was going to be like his,” Mendez said. “I grew up around people (outside of my dad) who used the race card all the time. I refused to fall into that line of thinking. I’m not saying it (racism) doesn’t happen; I’m just saying nothing was going to stop me from where I was going to be. I’m going to keep trying.”

Make no mistake: While Mendez was refreshingly candid and vulnerable in talking about his upbringing, he reflected no bitterness or ill will toward his father in the slightest. Despite everything that happened, Mendez said he loved his dad and simply wished Norberto would’ve spent more time with him.

And yet who knows what would’ve happened had Norberto turned out to be a better father and praised his son instead of saying Javier would amount to nothing? Would Mendez have developed that boulder on his shoulder, the very thing that became his calling card and helped carry him to lofty heights as a fighter, head coach and owner?

Mendez spent 11 years as a professional kickboxer, winning the ISKA light cruiserweight title in 1992 and the light heavyweight world title in 1995. He’s trained some of the greatest fighters in history in Cormier and Nurmagomedov—and yet he counts the longevity of AKA as his greatest accomplishment and pride.

AKA has been around for 18 years, and it’s still one of the top MMA training centers/camps in the world. Fighters of all types and backgrounds from around the world—amateurs aspiring to be pros and established ones aiming to be champions and all-time greats—flock to AKA to win and be a part of the AKA family.

In a sport where change is the only constant, AKA continues to stay at the top because Javier Mendez has surrounded himself with premier coaches and smart business people, including but not limited to Bellator MMA President Scott Coker, Ron Keslar, Leandro Vieira, Bob Cook, and Mendez’s partner of 22 years, Joanna Takacs. Mendez and Takacs have two sons, Brandon and Jeremy.  

“Joanna is a great mom and the hardest working woman I know,” Mendez said. “She takes care of all the business aspect of things, from the maintenance to the aesthetics side of the business. She does it all; I get credit for what she does.”

Even though Mendez is quick to deflect praise—instead crediting others for AKA’s success—others are more than willing to say what makes AKA go.

“First of all, you have to look at the No. 1 ingredient, and that’s Javier Mendez,” said strength and conditioning coach Tony Castro, who trains Cain Velasquez and works with UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier in a variety of capacities. “Javier has had six UFC belts under the name of guys he’s coached, and the guy is just brilliant. I’ve cornered fighters, too, and I’ve learned a lot from him. How he studies the fighters, how they should counter, he picks up on things fast. Khabib and all of the Dagestani fighters come to the gym because of Javier. AKA has a mystique and has been successful because of Javier. His mindset and coaching (is unparalleled), and he has surrounded himself with the best people. It’s a blend you can’t lose with.”

AKA has some of the best coaches in the industry, starting with Mendez, Vieira, Keslar and Cormier, who directs a highly popular youth wrestling program at AKA. But beyond that, the family atmosphere that AKA fosters is its greatest strength and asset. The saying that iron sharpens iron is an apt description of what happens at AKA everyday, as fighters spar with each other with goals to become an established pro and in the best case scenario a world champion.

Just like any household, AKA has rules and a pecking order.

“We don’t break the rules,” Mendez said. “If they get broken, I come down on you.”

Mendez said fighters need to show up and leave at certain times, and they can’t make orders when it comes to sparring.

“The head coach decides that,” Mendez said. “There’s a chief, the commanders and lieutenants. But what keeps us good is a lot of the guys know they have a voice, and your opinion matters. If you’re respected, it makes you feel good about where you’re at.”

Mendez also gives the fighters the power to approve or deny a fighter’s inclusion into the organization. Fighters are expected to support one another, and occasionally deep friendships grow out of this respect and support. Case in point: Cormier and Velasquez have developed a tremendous bond, and it all started when Velasquez welcomed Cormier with open arms when Cormier came to train at AKA in 2012.

“When D.C. first came to us, Cain Velasquez was our big fish,” Mendez said. “But on the very first day, he took to Daniel and started teaching Daniel how to do this and working with him knowing full well he could compete with him one day.”

Cormier and Velasquez have repeatedly said they would never fight each other—although they’ve sparred literally hundreds of times at AKA—and Mendez said when Cormier was in the midst of a 13-fight win streak early in his UFC career, he dropped weight rather than stay or go up a weight class to fight Velasquez.

“His love for Cain was that strong,” Mendez said.

The love goes both ways. When UFC President Dana White called Cormier to set up the fight with Stipe Miocic—in which Cormier delivered a first-round knockout to win the heavyweight championship on July 7—Mendez said Cormier cleared it with two people first.

“His wife and Cain,” Mendez said. “If either said no, Daniel wasn’t going to do it. So you tell me what kind of bond the gym has created. Here’s a guy willing to throw away millions because of his friendship with somebody.”

Mendez and Castro said Cormier goes above and beyond his duties as a pro athlete, taking his responsibility as a role model seriously.

“D.C. had me working on him the last fight,” Castro said. “He’d work with me, then coach the kids at the high school, train again, go home and then train the kids at AKA. The guy is amazing. To witness how he fits all of that in a day is absolutely amazing. D.C. loves the kids.”

Mendez said while Cormier was in the midst of a heavy training period in preparation for one of his recent fights, Cormier still took time to coach a youth wrestling club team at tournaments, which are often all-day events.

“Any other fighter, there is no way in hell they’re doing that,” Mendez said. “They’re going to rest, but D.C. is the most giving pro athlete out there. He does things behind the scenes for people that no one knows about. Money has changed him—for the better. He helps so many people, and he’s the most beautiful person I know.”

Talk about humble beginnings. Before Mendez and Takacs moved AKA to its current location on Realm Drive in 2010, Mendez started training people out of a warehouse garage in 1985 at Jim and Nancy Armetta’s Capitol Glass Shop.

“It wasn’t my desire to be a gym owner (at that point),” he said. “The plan was to make money and focus on my fighting. I needed to make extra money, so I started teaching (martial arts to) people. From there, one thing led to another and things kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Mendez started training amateurs and professional kickboxers before entering the UFC scene in the mid-1990s when he started training Brian Johnston. Mendez then got connected to Frank Shamrock, who knew Johnston. Mendez trained Shamrock to a UFC championship, and the pipeline was established.

Legendary MMA star B.J. Penn spent time at AKA, and from there it was only a matter of time until AKA became synonymous with excellence. In 2015, Mendez became the only trainer to have three fighters holding belts simultaneously (Velasquez at heavyweight, Cormier at light heavyweight and Luke Rockhold at middleweight).

From humble beginnings, Mendez has built an MMA juggernaut in AKA. However, Mendez knows it takes a humble approach everyday to stay on top. That is why humility runs deep at AKA, as all of the fighters take turns cleaning up the facility. That’s right: with a big mop in hand, fighters clean up the training center.

“Everyone cleans except when you’re a TV fighter,” Mendez said. “Cain, D.C. and Luke all cleaned. The only one that didn’t is Khabib because he was a camera fighter before he came to us. Still to this day, if I train Cain one-on-one and he’s made a mess, he’s cleaning. (Occasionally) Khabib will make the whole crew clean. It’s part of what humbles us, and I hope it never stops—it shouldn’t.”

Cormier became just the second fighter in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously when he knocked out Stipe Miocic to win the heavyweight championship in UFC 226 on July 7. AKA’s other golden goose, Nurmagomedov, fights Conor McGregor in UFC 229 on Oct. 6 in what will likely be the highest grossing pay per view event in UFC history.

Nurmagomedov has trained with only two coaches in his career: his father, Abdulmanap, who is a famed MMA coach residing in Russia, and Mendez. Khabib listed a couple of reasons for picking AKA as his training center.

“I came here in 2012 at the beginning of my UFC career because I followed Cain, D.C., Luke, (Josh) Thomson, Javier Mendez, that is why I come here,” Nurmagomedov said. “It’s very important to have good energy inside the gym, and that is why I love coming here and training here. My father and coach Javier, they think the same for my game plan and background. My father says, ‘Hey, you have to do what you’ve done all your life—go forward, make opponents tired, more wrestling (equals) more tired opponents.’ And Javier says the same thing. … My father and coach Javier are almost the same age, and they think the same. MMA is all about mental; No. 1 is mental and No. 2 is your skills.”

Mendez speaks highly of Nurmagomedov, whose popularity is enormous. Arguably the best fighter in all of MMA, Nurmagomedov has broad appeal, in large part because of his faith. Mendez said Nurmagomedov attracts more visitors to AKA than Cormier, Velasquez and Rockhold—who is now training at the Hard Knocks Gym in Florida—combined.

“He’s the first Russian Muslim UFC champion, so it’s a big deal,” Mendez said.

With a win over McGregor, Nurmagomedov—who is already one of the most dominant fighters in UFC history—will have a resume second to none. Nurmagomedov is a superior grappler and wrestler, and most fight experts give him the advantage in the cardio aspect as well. McGregor has a superior standup game and will have a puncher’s chance because of his potent knockout ability.

“The bottom line is everyone knows Khabib beats everyone on the ground,” Mendez said. “Until I can see someone who can beat him on the ground, why would we change and go into someone else’s arena when you don’t have to? Khabib is also getting better on the standup, but when he’s so far ahead of everyone, does it not make sense to use your strongest weapon? The only time you use your other weapon is when your strongest weapon doesn’t work.”

Even though AKA is known for training world champions and carrying a roster of future stars, the majority of its programs cater to everyday folks who are interested in MMA, getting in shape and building confidence. In fact, AKA has built its reputation on working with novice athletes. Cormier runs a highly popular youth wrestling program at AKA, which also offers an MMA kids camp, youth kickboxing and jiu-jitsu and adult kickboxing and jiu-jitsu classes.

“The biggest reason why we’re growing is through the kids,” he said. “Parents see what is going on and they’re bringing their kids. Daniel’s wrestling class is packed in there.”

Every great trainer/coach connects with their athletes on a deep level. Mendez said establishing a solid relationship is paramount in getting into a fighter’s psyche.

“If I want to get the best out of them, it’s all about the mind and talking to them,” he said. “It’s not the technique; it’s getting into their mind and understanding who they are, what makes them tick and not tick because you don’t want to go against that. I teach them through examples, show technique and why it works and why it doesn’t work. So they gain their confidence in you. I’m not the greatest mitt holder, but I can get them to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Mendez knows if he’s not improving or learning from his mistakes, it’s a detriment to his fighters. That’s why Mendez has a mentality to grow from past mistakes.

“One of the ways I improve is by not making the mistakes that I have before,” he said. “The biggest mistake I’ve done at times is work my fighters too hard.”

Mendez said his experience as a former kickboxing world champion—he spent 11 years fighting professionally—allows him to know what his fighters are going through, either in training or in a fight.

“My fight career helped me greatly because I always had similarities that related to how my guys feel when they train for fights and actual combat,” he said.

And yet, perhaps it was all of Mendez’s experiences growing up—plenty of moments of adversity that have made him stronger—that allow him to tap into the mind of his fighters, a skill that all great coaches must possess.

Growing up with an unsupportive dad, a mom who was saddled with paranoid schizophrenia and four brothers—two of whom are manic-depressive—Mendez has had a particularly tough road to the summit. Mendez’s mom, Abigail, died last year but not before enduring years of a debilitating mental illness.

“My mom was the most beautiful person on earth, and I learned compassion and everything through my mom,” Mendez said. “But it was very difficult because when I was a kid she was afraid people would poison, threaten or beat me.”

Mendez’s dad, of course, was absent and never encouraged Javier in anything. Norberto even had the gall to show up to one of Javier’s championship fights in an inebriated state.  

“After one of my championship fights, he was drunk and tried to hug me,” Mendez said. “I got mad at him because I was like, ‘How dare you come to my fight and try to show me all this affection when you’ve been drinking.’ He had to be drunk to show me affection. I was disgusted with that. What happened when I was a little kid? Where were you then?”

Two of Mendez’s brothers, Norberto Jr. and Joe, are manic-depressive. Norberto Jr. is missing and Joe lives is in Mexico. Mendez sends money to support the caretaking for Joe in Mexico.

“When he had episodes (from being manic-depressive), it was literally hell,” Mendez said. “One time he was on a flight and said he was going to bring this plane down. It wasn’t like he was serious and going to hurt anybody, but he did say those words.”

Another time, Mendez was talking to Joe on the phone, with Joe saying he was going to kill “all these drug rats and drug dealers.”

“I’m hearing people in the background and thinking my brother is going to get killed,” Mendez said. “(As for Norberto Jr.) I haven’t heard from him. He left the family and I don’t know where he’s at. I know 100 percent he’s either dead or a homeless person no doubt. If he’s still alive, he’s 60 (years old).”

Mendez reflected on his upbringing with poise, staying composed throughout.

“I loved my dad because he brought us over the border legally in a truck when I was 6,” Mendez said. “I appreciated what he did. We just never had a relationship whatsoever.”

One thing is for certain: wherever Mendez is, he’s thinking about AKA, the fighters, strategies, the next day’s training session. Even when Mendez is not in the gym, he’s thinking about ways to keep AKA as one of the best MMA training centers in the world.

“It’s very possible I (always keep myself busy and) do this in part as an escape to face the reality that there was nothing I could do about helping my brothers get well or finding them,” he said.

Mendez credits one of his older brothers, Jesse, for being a truly influential big brother and the father figure in place of Norberto.

“Jesse told me one time that if I ever did drugs, he was going to beat the living hell out of me,” Javier said. “I never did drugs because my brother said that. He couldn’t beat me up because at the time I was 12 years old and bigger than him and had gotten into boxing. But he still told me he would beat me up and I listened to him because I respected him.”

Mendez was also effusive in his praise for Coker, an influential figure in the MMA world who has been a mentor, friend and confidant.

“He’s the individual who has helped me stay in the game,” Mendez said. “If it wasn’t for his friendship and the talks we’ve had, I seriously doubt I would be here doing what I’m doing.”

Mendez admired former coach Walter “Pops” Carvalho, who died in 2014 at the age of 83.

“He was 81 and still catching people,” Mendez said. “He was catching Cain Velasquez, and he’s a little squatty guy holding these tiny mitts and telling fighters to kick and punch harder. He was an amazing guy and had a great attitude all the time. Even as he was dying, his attitude never changed. I want to be like him and coach all the way to the end.”

Mendez is as motivated as ever, and that drive shows no signs of waning.

“I love getting through the grind everyday,” he said. “It’s a motivating force to be involved in this sport everyday. The sport has given me so much. It’s not about the money because if it was, I’m in the wrong business.”

Mendez is a regular at Flames Coffee Shop in south San Jose, and during one of his visits with a reporter in March, the server asks the reporter a borderline rhetorical question: “So you want to talk to the best coach in the world?”  

AKA has satellite campuses in Sunnyvale and Thailand, and it’s probable more locations around the world will be opening up in the future. Perhaps none of this—the makings of one of the great MMA training centers in the world—would’ve come to fruition had it not been for the words that Mendez heard from his father at age 12: “You will never amount to anything.”

From those words, a confused and rudderless Mendez would morph into a world kickboxing champion and head trainer/coach of AKA, which is one of the longest running MMA camps in the world at the highest level of the pro ranks.

“My goal is to have AKA in the top 10 for the rest of my life,” he said. “To coach at the highest level for the rest of my life. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but so far so good.”

Emanuel Lee
Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.

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