American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) head coach Javier Mendez, believes that Justin Gaethje is Khabib Nurmagomedov’s second toughest opponent in the UFC lightweight division, after Conor McGregor. The undefeated Dagestani and ‘The Highlight’ are set to fight for the undisputed lightweight title at UFC 254 on October 24th on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
A Tough Night For The Lightweight Champion
“Right now I rank him (Gaethje) second, but he could very well be number one, easily,” Mendez said. “I rank him 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 gonna have a fight on our hands.
“I’m anticipating we’re gonna have a fight on our hands because if I don’t anticipate that and it does happen, we’re gonna be caught not thinking properly. So I’m assuming we can’t take him down and we have to stand with him. That’s, in my mind, what I’m assuming. I’m hoping that’s not the case. I’m hoping we can take him down but we have to be prepared for times when we can’t.
“Conor’s just the best striker ever in the lightweight division, I think. Gaethje, with his wrestling, he creates a big problem. He really does. His power and his guts, the guy is 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 and we’re prepared for that.”
Can Gaethje Stop The Takedowns?
Many believe Gaethje will be the toughest challenge yet for Khabib as along with his exceptional striking skills, he’s also a two time Arizona State wrestling champion and a NCAA Division I wrestler. However, Mendez believes MMA wrestling is a lot different than collegiate wrestling.
“From a wrestling standpoint, I’m sure it’s not Division I level at the present time, but from an MMA standpoint I’m sure it’s as best as it can be,” Mendez said. “He may very well have the best takedown defence out of anybody because he has that wrestling background. But remember, this is MMA, so there’s a lot of variables to takedowns… If it was a pure wrestling match, I don’t know how we’d fare but this isn’t wrestling. This is MMA and there’s a lot of things you can do in MMA that you can’t do in wrestling.”
Khabib will be fighting for the first time since the tragic loss of his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, due to complications related to COVID-19 in July.
Heading into fight, Mendez has stated that Khabib has been mentally very strong, and the presence of Abdulmanap still remains a strong part of their training camp.
“How Khabib approaches this, I can tell you right now he’s mentally super, super strong,” Mendez said. “We’ve never discussed nothing of his father and missing him. We don’t talk we just go right into what needs to be done. We have not talked about it in this camp at all. We focus on what needs to be done.
“I [only] say one thing: ‘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 utilise what he has and it was father’s teaching that makes him great. So I always use ‘Father’s Plan’ as a reference to when I want him to fight right. Sure, I made him better at his striking and I’m making him better continuously, but he’s not a champion on striking, he’s a champion on ‘Father’s Plan’.”
30-0 And Retire?
Khabib currently holds an incredible record of 28-0 and will be looking to make it 29-0 at UFC 254. One thing he has discussed in the past was to retire undefeated at 30-0, which was also the desire of his late father.
However, Mendez has said that should Khabib choose to retire or continue to fight, he will fully support the champion’s decision.
“Well, he won’t get that (continue to fight) from me,” Mendez said. “If we manage to get to 30, he’s not gonna get me to say, ‘Hey, I think you should continue.’ I won’t say nothing. I’m there for him. I’m gonna say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you, whatever you want. If you want to retire, I’m there. It’s up to you. I’m not gonna say I think you should fight.’ If he asks me, I’ll tell him but if he doesn’t ask me I’m just gonna go with whatever his wishes are.”
Do you believe Conor McGregor is a tougher challenge than Justin Gaethje for Khabib Nurmagomedov?