Exactly one year will have passed since his last fight when Augusto Mendes faces off against tough bantamweight prospect Merab Dvalishvili near Dvalishvili’s home territory on April 21 at UFC Atlantic City. And the stakes will be high for the Rio de Janeiro native.

A decorated jiu-jitsu player, Mendes has been sidelined since suffering a hard-fought decision loss to Aljamain Sterling in April 2017. “Tanquinho” was subsequently supposed to meet Boston Salmon last October at UFC Sao Paulo, but was forced to withdraw from the contest after tearing a ligament in his ankle in training. After hoping for a busy 2017 campaign, Mendes was frustrated by the injury, but now is excited to be back with a fight that could go a long way to determining his Octagon future, as Mendes’ meeting against Dvalishvili represents the last bout on his current UFC contract.

“That’s my last fight on my contract, so let’s see what going to happen after that,” Mendes told MMA Fighting ahead of UFC Atlantic City.

“I didn’t pay attention to [Dvalishvili] before, but there’s nothing special there that can make me be worried about him. He’s a tough guy, like anyone else in the division.

“I think he’s a good matchup for me. He’s a good wrestler. He likes to go the ground, and if he goes to the ground, he goes into my world. I’m not scared to go to the ground. He should be scared, not me. But there’s nothing special about him in the striking [game], he’s kinda wide a little bit, and I think it’s a good matchup. Anybody who wants to grapple and stay close to me, it’s good for me, so let’s see. Let’s see what he brings April 21st.”

Mendes, 35, is an unusual case when it comes to UFC prospects.

The Brazilian arrived to MMA late in his athletic life, staging his first pro fight just months before his 32th birthday after racking up an impressive career on the jiu-jitsu circuit. From the outset, he was granted few gimmes. Mendes signed with the UFC at 5-0 and immediately was thrust into the shark tank, getting matched up against bantamweight contenders Cody Garbrandt, Frankie Saenz, and Sterling in his first three UFC bouts.

While his recent ankle injury derailed his plans of an active 2017, Mendes was at least able to put his extra time off to good use. The black belt returned to his BJJ roots to compete in two of ACB’s high-profile jiu-jitsu events, first winning an eight-man grand prix in December then competing in a championship superfight against Paulo Miyao in January. And the opportunity to do so helped keep Mendes’ competitive fire smoldering while he sat on the sidelines.

“I’m a competitor and I love training jiu-jitsu. I train jiu-jitsu all of the time in my academy and teaching my students. So when they invited me, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’m healthy now, UFC hadn’t scheduled me to fight. I can’t be here just sitting around waiting. I’m getting old, time is passing by, I’m training, so let’s test myself against the best in jiu-jitsu again with the superfights there, whatever,” Mendes said.

“It actually helped too, for sure, not just doing the training and having motivation to prepare for something — even the grappling and the jiu-jitsu, I fought tough guys, some of the best in the world right now in grappling — but I think it’s also keeping my jiu-jitsu sharp, my timing good, and my competitive side alive.”

The opportunities with ACB helped in a different way, as well.

Despite his remarkably tough slate of opposition thus far in the Octagon, Mendes remains on an entry-level UFC contract. Between his show and win purse, he earned a disclosed $20,000 for his victory over Saenz. And Mendes says the payouts from ACB have been much better.

“My last tournament at ACB, the one grand prix that I won, I made like three times more than what I make in the UFC,” Mendes said. “Three times more, including show and win, everything. And for the superfight, I lost, so I just got my show money there, but I think it was the same thing that I’m making in the UFC right now. So it’s good. ACB is coming strong and they want to pay, they want to have the best, and all the best are signing with them already. I’m excited to fight for them again. But even though I’m making less money in the UFC right now, that’s my focus. That’s what I want to do.

“I’m not doing MMA for the money. If I was just fighting for the money, I would just stay in jiu-jitsu. I make a lot more money in jiu-jitsu. I’m sure if I just announced that I was doing jiu-jitsu full-time again, I would get a lot of sponsors and a lot more invitations to fight in the tournaments and make more money, but I want to do MMA.”

While he remains committed to mixed martial arts, “Tanquinho” also knows that at age 35, his window to compete in the highest levels of the sport is limited, so he is keeping his options open as he heads into the final fight of his UFC contract. His distinguished jiu-jitsu pedigree and still-improving MMA skills could make him an interesting pickup for Bellator or other promotions out there on the open market.

“If they pay me more, I’ll do that,” Mendes acknowledged. “I’ll keep doing MMA for sure, because I want to do it, but I want to get paid for it. So if they want to pay me more, we’re going to sit down and see who’s paying more and I think I deserve it.”

Either way, Mendes isn’t looking past the man who stands in front of him at UFC Atlantic City.

Dvalishvili is a game opponent who won six straight fights and reigned as Ring of Combat’s bantamweight champion prior to his recent Octagon debut, which saw him lose a split decision to Saenz.

But high stakes or not, Mendes has already swum with the sharks at 135 pounds, and he’s taking the pressure in stride ahead of his most important UFC showdown.

“I never put pressure on myself, especially because I’m fighting always tough guys,” Mendes said. “Merab is a tough guy too, and I’m sure a lot of guys turned him down and don’t want to fight him. But I don’t put pressure on myself. I’ll go there and do my best. If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose, then move on, go to the next step.”