BRAWLEY — As Andy Ruiz Jr. shouted, “Mom, we don't have to struggle no more,” after winning the world heavyweight boxing championship earlier this month, a strong wave of emotion overcame Anita Gonzales.
She couldn’t help but think that her son Armando Mendez Jr., a local MMA fighter, could’ve been in a similar position as Ruiz if it hadn’t been for one devastating day in August nearly five years ago.
While Mendez’s life story is unique to that of Ruiz’s, the fact that the two both come from a modest background in the Imperial Valley and pursued a fighting career tugged at the heartstrings of Gonzales as Ruiz held up his four championship belts June 1.
“When I saw Andy, I had to cry,” she said. “I thought here’s this mom, coming from humble beginnings and her son. And it’s like my son said, ‘Champs don’t come from money, they come from nothing because they have to fight hard.’”
Similarly, as June 1 fell on a Saturday, Mendez also had raised a championship belt on a Saturday — August 23, 2014.
However, that Saturday, during which he won the XAFS Welterweight belt, marked the last time Mendez would step into the octagon.
Three days later, the 18-year-old Brawley man was traveling with two friends in Imperial when their vehicle overturned several times after the driver lost control.
Mendez, who was a passenger, died at the scene while another passenger and the driver, a childhood friend who, according to law enforcement at the time, was suspected of DUI, were hospitalized.
While Gonzales was proud of Ruiz’s accomplishment, as she’d been following his fights throughout his career, it amplified the question of ‘what if’ for her late son and his career.
“[On Ruiz’s championship] I cried because it’s bittersweet,” Mendez’s mother said. “Andy Ruiz came from the Valley, but my son isn’t here anymore — and it hurts me.”
Per his longtime coach Steve Valdez and brother Christian Mendez, the 18-year-old had a promising career ahead of him and was on a sure path to competing professionally.
Capped by his XAFS welterweight belt, Mendez career included taking second place at Grapplers Quest 2011 in Las Vegas, first place in Teen's NOGI Advance 150-169 pound division, third place in Teen's NOGI Advance 170+pounds division and Men's NOGI Advance 170-179.9 pounds.
The 6”2’, 190-pound fighter held an 8-0 amateur MMA record — the last two of which were by knockout.
Born in Sacramento, Mendez and his family moved to the Valley when he was nine months old and lived in Brawley and Calipatria his entire life.
“They had their mom, a roof on their shoulders and clothes on their back, but other than that, we had nothing,” Gonzales said.
While the struggles of a single parent dictated how Mendez and his brother and sister grew up — not being able to afford to join any team sports or buy new clothes regularly — he didn’t let it get in the way of his love for fighting.
At the age of 13, he was introduced to Valdez and a boxing gym he’d run in the backyard of his Calipatria home. At the time, Mendez had no real experience in boxing but did have a broken finger on his right hand.
“He was pretty uncoordinated, very raw,” Valdez said. “But he was very determined to get better.”
However, with a past history of being bullied and the desire to protect anyone else from getting bullied, Mendez forced himself to overlook his finger splint and learned to box southpaw, which he would continue to do for the rest of his career.
By the age of 16, Mendez was six-feet tall and already competing against fighters in the 18 to 23-year-old range.
“He was destroying them,” Valdez recalled. “It was something to see this kid that wasn’t scared. He wasn’t intimated at all. He looked like he desired it. He wanted to be in there and fight the bigger older, guys just because of his overall goal of being a professional athlete.”
At this point, Valdez believed Mendez had outgrown all the training he could offer him and suggested he tried other options outside his gym.
Mendez then found a new home within Team United MMA in El Centro. Getting to the facility, however, was quite the daily task that tested his loyalty to the sport.
He would take the transit bus two hours from his Brawley home, train for nearly three hours then return on another two-hour bus ride.
In order to pay for these nearly every day expense trips, Mendez would sell cans, wash dogs and do nearly any other side job.
Even after he had a steady job at ServiceMasters, he would practice as soon as his 10-hour shift ended and put a majority of his paycheck into his training and gym membership.
His time with Team United was well spent, as he was introduced to and perfected his skills in MMA and grappling.
Completely engulfed in his dream of one day becoming a professional fighter, school took a backseat in Mendez’s mind.
Before dropping out his junior year at Calipatria High in 2012, he attended Brawley Union High his freshmen and sophomore year.
Mendez planned to eventually return to school — as explained in a journal he kept that wasn’t discovered by his family until after his passing.
Also in his journal were detailed entries which tracked his strict workout plans and his eight-meal-a-day food servings.
“He had his meals down to a science,” Armando’s mother said. “That’s who he was.”
Coach Valdez was not surprised at the intricacy of Mendez’s journal entries.
“It’s no doubt in my mind that’s all he thought about,” he said. “No girls, no partying and hanging out with friends very little. That’s all he really talked about was competing and how to lose weight. He was unbelievably into it.”
In the octagon, Mendez was a beast who handled business. However, once his opponent was taken care of, he was a humble, hospitable young man —feeding his entire entourage of friends whenever they came to his house and taking in stray dogs whenever he could.
“He was a very humble individual,” Valdez said. “He was like a big kid. He loved to smile, laugh and joke around. He had a big heart.”
Valdez recalled that Mendez would often help, as well as motivate, other kids in his gym, which he closed about a year ago.
After Mendez began fighting under Team United, he would still practice with Valdez, often working out with Team United and Valdez within the same day.
“You could tell he was going to be a great man,” Valdez said. “If he would still be competing to this day, he would be in the UFC. And be winning and would be a champ. He would hold a belt.
Armando’s mom explained how, due to a lack of funds, she would thrift shop for workout clothes for Armando when he was younger so he could wear to practice with Valdez.
“A lot of people have no idea,” Gonzales said. “Everybody thought he just had had new Nike and Under Armor.”
Sometime after her son’s passing, Gonzales gathered about three bins of workout clothes and donated it to the kids at Valdez’s gym in his honor.
She explained that she understands how difficult it is for single mothers to get their kids into sports, and hopes Valdez’s story can inspire those in a similar situation.
Throughout his life, Armando would often use the phrase, “I’m going to fight regardless,” which Team United now uses as its official slogan.
Christian believes that Armando used this phrase based on the circumstances he and his siblings grew up in.
“It’s not letting whatever is happening to you affect your passion for what you’re doing,” Christian said. “You may have the odds stacked against you, but as long as you have the determination, nobody could stop you. You just continue to fight regardless.”