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AKA founder and head coach for Khabib Nurmagomemdov Javier Mendez appeared recently on Submission Radio, and discussed the title defense vs. interim champ Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 on October 24.
“I rank [Gaethje] second behind Conor, but I could be wrong on that. He could be more dangerous than Conor. We’ll see. If we’re not able to take him to the ground, we’re going to have a fight on our hands, and I’m anticipating we’re gonna have a fight on our hands. Because if I don’t anticipate that and it does happen, I’m gonna be caught not thinking properly. So, I’m assuming that the process is, we can’t take him down, we have to stand with him. That’s what in my mind. But I’m hoping that’s not the case.”
Why does the coach rank McGregor a greater challenge than Justin?
“Conor’s precision striking,” answered Mendez. “To me, Conor is just the best striker ever in the lightweight division, I think personally. And Gaethje, with his wrestling, he creates a big problem, he really does. And his power and his guts. ... He’s coming to fight. He’s not gonna run from you. He’s coming to you. And if you’re not fighting him, you’re not beating him. You have to fight him. You have to. And we’re prepared for that. We know what he brings to the table, he brings a lot. And I only rank him two only because of the unknown. If it was known that we could take him down no problem, then he wouldn’t be number one, Conor is. But what if we can’t take him down? Then obviously he takes that number one spot because then that would make it the most difficult fight we’ve ever had. And he could very well be number one.”
“He’s the best leg kicker in the business, from what I see. So, they’re huge. … We have to be able to address them, we have to be able to avoid them, and we have to implement what we need to do. …. For us to think that it’s not a big deal, then I haven’t been watching MMA as of late with all these people getting destroyed by calf kicks. I mean, anybody that’s getting in there against Justin Gaethje would have to be an idiot. … They’re the most dangerous, most effective lethal striking in MMA at the present time. I mean, look at all the fights. Guys get hit one good time, all of a sudden their skillset has diminished greatly because of that danger to the calf. So, we’re fully aware of that and we’re prepared for that. And what happens when you get kicked there, we’ll see, but I’m assuming we’re gonna do fine. But, it’s definitely a superweapon.”
Curiously, Nurmagomedov has never faced a top wrestler in the UFC. Dustin Poirier wrestled in high school. Al Iaquinta wrestled at Nassau Community College. Michael Johnson was a top NJCAA wrestler, but was never Div I. Pat Healy wrestled Div II, but without great distinction. Gaethje on the other hand was a Div I All American, and he uses his wrestling to keep the fight standing, where he can thrill the fans.
“From a wrestling standpoint, I’m sure it’s not division-one level at the present time,” said the coach. “But from an MMA standpoint, I’m sure it’s the best it could be. He might very well have the best takedown defense out of anybody because he has that wrestling background. But remember, this is MMA, there’s a lot of variables to takedowns. So, that’s an advantage he has, but that’s also an advantage we have. It’s not pure wrestling. If it was a pure wrestling match, I don’t know how we’d fare. But this isn’t wrestling, this is MMA. So, there’s a lot of things you can do in MMA that you can’t do in wrestling that would prevent the takedown in a regular wrestling match. But in an MMA match there’s almost sometimes nothing you can do, you’re getting taken down regardless. If you get hit in the right spot and it’s done proper, you’re going down.”
“The big disadvantage I feel is he’s never met anybody that’s going to continue to stay on the wrestling and continue to wrestle him five rounds. He’s going to have to wrestle five rounds. It’s not gonna be that Khabib’s gonna shoot in a couple of times and it’s over. How many times have you seen Khabib stop after two shots? Uh-uh. Unless he wants to stop, he’s not stopping. He’s prepared to go five rounds, attempt takedown after takedown. And if he’s successful one time, he’ll be successful two times. And if you’re successful two times and you manage to get up after two, I don’t know how much more you’re going to have.”
Mendez is living in the UAE, and running the camp there, without Khabib’s father Abdulmanap, who passed away from COVID-19 on July 3.
“I’ve only cornered with his father one time since 2012. He’s been with me every fight since 2012," said Mendez. "So, his father has only been able to corner one of those fights. So, to me it’s like normal. No big deal. The only thing that I miss is him here, because I miss him, his presence, and the great person that he was. But as far as the coaching responsibilities, no, I’ve already been doing it for so long that it’s not gonna change. How Khabib approaches it, I can tell you right now, he’s mentally super, super strong. We’ve never discussed nothing of his father in regards to missing him.”
“We don’t talk, we have not talked about it this camp at all, we focus on what needs to be done. And I do say one thing, I say ‘father’s plan, father’s plan’. Because his father is the one who made him who he is. I basically got lucky enough to have him with me and then utilize what he has, and it was basically his father’s teaching that makes him great. And I always use ‘father’s plan’ in reference to when I want him to fight right.”