Entering into Ernest Mendez’s school of mixed martial arts (MMA) takes some guts. Heavy punching bags are strung up and portraits of legendary Brazilian martial artists adorn the walls. The mere notation of full contact fighting can steer people away from the sport. However, Mendez works to make it as inviting as possible.
Mendez moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2006 from Dallas. He soon began teaching MMA and opened his own martial arts school not long after. Mendez is the proud owner and lead instructor at Aspen MMA, located in Basalt.
Resting on the mat during the RFWJ interview, he is clearly comfortable in the training room – a space designed to cause a degree of calculated discomfort.
Mendez’s MMA training began when was a junior high schooler in 1990. “At that time, I trained because I liked the combat aspect of it,” says Mendez. “Once you’re on the mat, everyone is equal,” he adds. Training continuously for 25 years, Mendez earned the rank of black belt in Gracie Jiu Jitsu (pronounced joo-jit-soo) in 2015 at a surprise award ceremony for him.
Jiu Jitsu is an ancient Japanese system of unarmed combat and physical training, and translates as “gentle skill.” Taken to Brazil around 1914 and taught to influential businessman Gastão Gracie, Jui Jitsu was passed down from generation to generation in the Gracie family. Over the past century, they have refined the Japanese techniques into one of – if not the most – effective styles of hand-to-hand combat ever developed, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Aspen MMA features a range of training options from self defense to full-on professional fight coaching. Many of Mendez’s students are kids.
One young student has been training with Mendez for about four years and has achieved the rank of orange belt. “Coach Mendez is nice. He shows you how to get better,” says the pupil. “My best move is the arm bar. I’ve submitted six opponents at tournaments with it.”
Jiu Jitsu tournaments are opportunities for students to test their skills in a real-world setting. The parents of the students usually video record the bout. “You only lose when you don’t fix your mistakes,” says Mendez. After a tournament loss, Mendez will carefully review the video and then aggressively pinpoint where the match went wrong. “If you get stubborn, and say, ‘I lost because I lost’, then you really did lose. If you fix your mistakes and then succeed; that’s the goal.”
Mendez’s philosophy of coaching is progressive and he strives to make his jiu jitsu lessons applicable to life outside of tournaments as well. He donates ample swaths of his time and energy to help train people of all walks of life from police officers, juveniles-at-risk, or individuals struggling with addiction. Jaywalker Lodge – the sober living house in Carbondale – is a place where he frequently works with people.
“A good coach is someone who can listen and observe,” says Mendez. Recognizing that everyone will have strengths and limitations, he finds unique ways to help each individual. “Even though we train as a class, I try to teach each student individually, like it’s a private lesson.”
Mendez believes in a realistic approach to self defense. “Assess the situation. Be aware,” says Mendez. He stresses that knowing your surroundings is key to avoiding trouble, and develops drills to reinforce this. Allowing five or six students to use a punching bag simultaneously is one such drill. It requires that all students be aware of what is going on, not just in front of them, but all around.
“I’m not going to show you something super fancy, that you’ll never use. I’m going to show you something simple.” In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Karate Kid,” Mendez coaches a student to “answer the phone.” The student rapidly brings his palm up to his ear to protect his face from a sweeping right hook punch. It is practical, efficient and fun.
Although Mendez was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States as a child, he says he never allowed that aspect of life to define him.
“I get my work ethic from my parents. I never thought I was put into a role, like ‘you’re Mexican.’” While recognizing that some people may have reservations about their immigrant status, Mendez says he chose not to. However, he can relate to them and uses his personal experiences to help make connections in this regard.
When he is not coaching, Mendez enjoys spending time with his wife of 10 years, Jennifer. They are currently preparing for a race in Croatia. Formerly an advanced mountaineer, Mendez’s days of climbing peaks ended after an ill-considered fall from a third-story window. Although he survived after significant medical care, the injuries left a lasting impact on him.
Aspen MMA will be hosting some upcoming clinics at their gym in Basalt. Highly regarded grappling coach and a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, Octavio Couto, will be giving a clinic on Sept. 21.
Eduardo de Lima, Mendez’s coach and 4th degree Gracie Jiu Jitsu black belt, will also be giving a clinic around mid-November. Check Aspen MMA social media for exact times, registration and fees.
Aspen MMA is located at 1460 E. Valley Rd., Suite 012, in Basalt.