Javier Mendez is well aware of the narrative heading into Khabib Nurmagomedov’s next UFC title defense.
The head coach of American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) hears the fan and media chatter about Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) potentially facing his toughest challenge yet against a man considered by many to be the best defensive wrestler in the division, Justin Gaethje. The two are set to clash in a title unification bout at UFC 254, which takes place Saturday on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
Coach Mendez is aware Gaethje’s (21-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC) skillset raises questions in the wrestling department for his student, with “The Highlight” having only been taken down twice in his seven-fight career with the UFC. The NCAA Division I All-American recently trained alongside UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman but, despite Gaethje’s mat credentials, Mendez says it’s hard to prepare for Nurmagomedov’s brand of high-pressure grappling.
“I know he’s working with the welterweight champion, so he does have someone good working with him, but it’s different when you’re fighting Khabib,” Mendez said on Monday’s episode of Hablemos MMA. “It’s different. Let’s see what happens, but he’s preparing well, he’s preparing with the champion and the champion is really good.”
Mendez admits there is an unknown factor with Gaethje as he hasn’t previously faced a fighter who predominately wrestles. But although unknowns may be perceived as dangerous, in this case, Mendez feels it favors Nurmagomedov.
“The thing with Justin is, when has he used wrestling?” Mendez said. “I’ve never seen it. Just to get up, but he hasn’t used the wrestling. So let’s see what happens. If we can’t get him down, we have a fight. If we get him down there’s not going to be a big problem because he doesn’t work on the ground, from what I’ve seen. If you’re not working wrestling in your fights, it’s going to be hard in your first fight given how big the fight is and that he’s taking on the master of the ground in Khabib. It’s going to be tough for him. However, if we can’t get him down, it will be hard for us.”
At the end of the day, Mendez is confident in Nurmagomedov’s ability to take the fight to the ground. The seasoned coach believes “The Eagle” can take anyone down in MMA, including Gaethje.
“He says he’s tough to take down, so let’s see what happens,” said Mendez. “I don’t think it’s going to be as hard as he thinks, but it’s possible that it’s tough to take him down. I don’t believe it will, because Khabib is a master at taking the fight to the ground. Look, if you’re an Olympic wrestler and it’s in MMA, he’ll take you down. He’s the master of this. He knows how to penetrate, how to enter with his striking, he knows. It’s different, it’s not the same.”