Abu Dhabi, UAE — American Kickboxing Academy coach Javier Mendez has one of his star pupils in action Saturday. And ahead of UFC 254, much has been made about Justin Gaethje being Khabib Nurmagomedov’s toughest test to date.
As Khabib’s coach, Mendez knows a thing or two about the opponents “The Eagle” has faced. And with all due respect to Justin Gaethje, he doesn’t believe that’s who Khabib’s toughest test will turn out to be.
“I still to this day believe Conor [McGregor] was,” admitted Mendez, speaking to media outlets in Abu Dhabi ahead of UFC 254. “And the reason why I believe Conor was, is because of that precision striking. But Justin could easily prove me wrong, and prove to be the toughest test we’ve ever had.”
Still, continued Mendez, “if you think about it, who’s won a round against Khabib? Conor. And who’s given Khabib a tough time? In the first round, he took Conor down, but how much damage did Khabib give him? Conor was very good there. So to me, I have to give it to Conor for that.”
Given Mendez has yet to see Gaethje fight Khabib, that may change after UFC 254. “But right now, I think in theory, he’s number two.”
He’s still an awfully dangerous number two, mind you. “It’s the striking for me. And the fact that he has D-1 wrestling does also have a big impact. But it’s the striking,” Mendez opined when asked about what makes Gaethje dangerous. “He’s the best kicker in the business, I believe, at 155 anyway. I think Israel [Adesanya] probably takes the nod for being the best kicker all round. But I think at 155, I give it to Justin, he’s the best kicker all the way around over everybody in my opinion.”
Mendez, who no doubt knows Khabib Nurmagomedov better than most, also took time to discuss whether the loss of the champ’s father, Abdulmanap, had effected his camp. “It does affect, and I’ll tell you how it effects,” Mendez explained. “When I had his father with me, even though I’ve only cornered one time, and that was with Dustin [Poirier]. The fact that I would talk to Khabib about things, about how we apply things and he’d always tell me ‘yes, my father says same thing, coach.’ I don’t have that anymore, so I don’t have that back-up. Someone that grew with him and knew him better than anybody. I don’t have that. So for me, it’s a little bit more difficult per se. But he’s been handling it fantastic. He’s driven, he’s motivated to preserve the legacy that him and his father had planned.”
UFC 254 takes place on “Fight Island” (Yas Island) in Abu Dhabi at the Flash Forum on Saturday, October 24. The main card airs live on PPV following televised and online prelims.