Javier Mendez didn’t know what to expect when he flew out of San Jose, California, on Sept. 10, bound for Dubai. A five-hour flight from California to New York, then a layover in JFK Airport. Thirteen more hours in a plane would take him to the United Arab Emirates. And all the while, he didn’t really know what awaited him.
Mendez has been the head coach of undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov since 2012. Over the past eight years, they have won 12 consecutive bouts, claimed the UFC’s 155-pound championship and grown into one of the most recognized and celebrated teams in the sport.
But in the weeks prior to Mendez’s departure for Dubai in September — to start camp for Nurmagomedov’s title defense against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi — the two had barely spoken. When they did, it was all business. When would camp start? Where would it be held? Who would attend?
They didn’t discuss a topic that had reverberated throughout the MMA world: the loss of Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, who died in July from heart complications made worse by the coronavirus.
“I didn’t know what to expect from him,” Mendez said. “I thought there might have been enough time for him to grieve before camp, and I was thinking we’d have a big hug and just resume work as normal, but I really didn’t know.
“What I told you, though, is exactly what happened. We hugged each other, and we didn’t talk about nothing. It was just, ‘Let’s get started.'”
The entire MMA community mourned the loss of Abdulmanap. Not only was he responsible for his son’s 28-0 record, but he also was the reason so many others fighting out of Dagestan made it to the UFC, including Islam Makhachev, Tagir Ulanbekov, Rustam Khabilov, Umar Nurmagomedov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov.
But the bond between Nurmagomedov and his father went well beyond sports. He consistently referred to his father as his best friend. After Nurmagomedov defended his title at UFC 242 last year, a reporter asked what advice he would extend to his millions of young fans around the world. He responded, ”Respect your parents.”
“The relationship between them was something I’ve never seen,” said Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz. “It made me think, ‘Wow, this is the relationship I need to have with my own sons.”
Many of those closest to Nurmagomedov have echoed Mendez’s account of how the undefeated champion has dealt with such a personal loss. He has done so privately.
Abdelaziz can’t remember exactly who called him in July to deliver the news, but he is certain it wasn’t Nurmagomedov. He knows this because he distinctly recalls not talking to Nurmagomedov for days. It was the longest the two had gone without speaking since Abdelaziz began managing him in 2016.
“We talk more than once every day,” Abdelaziz said. “That was the first time we didn’t. It was four or five days before we talked. I gave him space. I didn’t know what state of mind he was in.”
Nurmagomedov did not make any immediate public comment in the wake of his father’s death, and he didn’t post anything to social media for several weeks. When he did resurface, it was in the form of a tribute to his father on Instagram. He ended the post with these words from Islamic scripture: “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.”
Less than one week later, Nurmagomedov made a second post on Instagram. It began, “Training continues.” His title fight against Gaethje was announced later that day.
“I never asked him about fighting during that time, and the UFC never asked when he would be back,” Abdelaziz said. “They were very respectful, and I just wanted to be there for him emotionally. I think day by day, he understood this is something he wants to do. He has a family name to carry, and his legacy is attached to his father’s legacy.
“One day, he called and said, ‘I’m going to fight.’ And that was it.”
One of the most important wins of Nurmagomedov’s career occurred 13 months ago in Abu Dhabi, when he submitted interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 242.
It was significant in that it unified the UFC’s lightweight title, and it happened in the Middle East, where Nurmagomedov’s Muslim faith resonates with a huge fan base. The significance was magnified by the fact that his father was able to corner his son for the first time in Khabib’s UFC career. Abdulmanap had been unable to do so previously because of visa issues.
When Nurmagomedov visualizes walking to the Octagon without his father in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, he acknowledges that he doesn’t know how he will feel.
“Who knows how I’m going to be, how I’m going to feel inside the cage. Nobody knows,” Nurmagomedov said. “Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I feel great too. But this is first time I’m going to have a hard situation when I go to cage. Nobody knows.”
One thing Nurmagomedov will have, however, is what he and Mendez refer to as “Father’s Plan,” which is essentially everything his father taught him about fighting — on the ground.
Mendez chuckles when discussing it, because it is ironic in a way. Mendez is a former kickboxing champion with more than 30 years of experience tied into striking. But if it were up to him, Nurmagomedov would never throw a single punch. During Nurmagomedov’s sparring sessions, Mendez’s advice essentially consists of, ”Take him down! Father’s Plan!”
Sometimes Nurmagomedov listens. Other times — whether to prove a point or simply because he is enjoying himself — he resists.
“The only time he’s truly fought the way I wanted him to was when his father was present,” Mendez said. “Every other fight, every other practice, it’s part of what I want and part of what he wants.
“It’s pretty simple; it’s black and white. He’s the best fighter on the ground, probably ever. Why would I want him to do anything else? You can’t equate the amount of time he’s spent working on stand-up with me to the amount of time he spent with his father. There’s no comparison. And that’s the only thing we really talk about that concerns his father — following Father’s Plan. Because 95% of what Khabib does is knowledge he got from his father.”
In 2019, Nurmagomedov split his camp for UFC 242 between San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy and Dubai. This time, due to concerns surrounding COVID-19 in the United States, he has not trained at AKA for the first time in his UFC career and has held all of his preparations in Dubai.
Some of the camp’s most crucial work has taken place in a large gymnasium in the sprawling Nas Sports Complex, which outfitted the gym with a full-size Octagon. This is where Nurmagomedov sparred as his coaches looked on from chairs arranged cageside. This is where his father primarily ran practice in 2019.
“His father wasn’t too vocal — I’m probably more vocal than his father — but he was very, very attentive,” Mendez said. “He made sure everyone was disciplined. If someone got out of line, his father would be chewing them out. Don’t waste the time of anyone who is here to work — that was his thing.”
Although Nurmagomedov’s title fight against Gaethje is his team’s biggest matchup this month, four of his teammates were scheduled to compete during the UFC’s current five-week stretch on ”Fight Island,” a nickname coined for Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
“Why I need this fight? I’m already one of the greatest. I have money. I have name. I have business. I have family, kids. Why I need this fight? One thing. I love competition. I love this. That’s why I’m here.”
“My father take young guys, like seven fighters, when they were very young and make them UFC fighters,” Nurmagomedov said. “He worked with them for 14 years. This is not like someone with 10 years in wrestling and goes to [an MMA gym] and they make him UFC fighter. My father, when he have student, they come to him with nothing.”
To Nurmagomedov, this team of Dagestani fighters is his father’s legacy. Prior to Abdulmanap’s group, there had never been a UFC fighter from this war-torn region of the world. And in a way, Abdulmanap’s legacy is still being written, as a number of his Dagestani fighters have only just begun their UFC careers.
“Khabib has taken his father’s role in that,” Mendez said. “Every day, he addresses the team on the mats just like his father did. Everyone lines up and he talks to them, and then they go through their routine. That’s Khabib, and that was his father too.
“Exactly what his father did, now Khabib does.”
Mendez has heard Nurmagomedov discuss a blueprint for the end of his career only once. It was in April 2019, when Mendez visited Nurmagomedov and his father in Dagestan. Nurmagomedov was 27-0 at the time, and his father wanted him to retire 30-0, with one of the final matchups taking place against former two-weight champion Georges St-Pierre.
“I had never heard them discuss anything like that, and that was the only time I’ve ever seen him talk about it,” Mendez said. “We were in the car driving to the gym. We didn’t have an intimate talk about it or anything, but they were discussing it.”
Over the past 18 months, that narrative has spilled into the public — in part because Nurmagomedov’s father told a Russian news outlet, “For Khabib, 30-0 is enough.”
On one hand, it’s easy to assume that must be the plan for the end of Nurmagomedov’s career. But if you ask him, he’ll say he doesn’t know. He is intrigued by the idea of 30-0 — “the Floyd Mayweather of MMA,” as he calls it — and does like the idea of fighting St-Pierre. But overall, he is noncommittal about both. He is open to following the path his father laid out for him in the car in 2019 — or finding his own.
— khabib nurmagomedov (@TeamKhabib) August 2, 2020
For now, in the midst of an incredibly difficult year, it seems what Nurmagomedov wants most is the competition he has sought and known his entire life. It probably explains why the first words Nurmagomedov offered to the public this summer, after the tribute to his father, were centered around training.
“I have only one thing why I’m here,” Nurmagomedov said. “Why I need this fight? I’m already one of the greatest. I have money. I have name. I have business. I have family, kids. Why I need this fight? One thing. I love competition. I love this. That’s why I’m here.”
Having been an MMA coach since 1996, Mendez has seen fighters compete under every situation imaginable. UFC 254 will not be his first experience cornering an athlete who is dealing with personal loss.
“I find these guys give it more,” Mendez said. “They do more. They want more. They lost a loved one and they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They try to honor their loved ones by going out and being something more than they were before. It’s not always the case, but usually I find my guys have been stronger.
“And I’m expecting the same from Khabib.”