'I see his father in him': American Kickboxing Academy trainer Javier Mendez says Khabib is 'already a great coach' (VIDEO)
Mendez, who is one of the most respected figures in mixed martial arts, didn't quite know what to expect when a quiet, unassuming Russian fighter without a word of English to his name walked into his gym eight years ago.
Several world champion caliber fighters had already walked through those doors in San Jose, California to spill their blood and sweat on the training mats. Some fulfilled their potential, others didn't. But with Nurmagomedov, Mendez says that it didn't take him very long to realize the extent of his new student's potential.Also on rt.com 'He wants to preserve that legacy': Khabib coach Javier Mendez says UFC fighter driven to honor late father Abdulmanap
"When he first came to me in 2012 the first I noticed was how incredible he was on the ground," Mendez said exclusively to RT Sport. "The only thing that frustrated me was that I wished he would listen - he doesn't listen! He does what he wants."
But whether that was down to the language barrier or stubbornness (or both), Mendez soon saw any concerns he might have had melt away.
"It wasn't until years later that I found out what he was really doing when he learned how to speak English. He said: 'Remember coach when you always told me to relax? I thought that meant to go harder.' So then I realized that I've got something, because now I feel really comfortable because he does listen."
The immediate results were difficult to ignore. Khabib's UFC debut came in early 2012 against respected Iranian wrestler Kamal Shalrous and - almost a year to the day later - by the time of his third UFC win, this time against Thiago Tavares, whispers about the talented Russian grappler began to swell into a roar.
As the months ticked along and the wins continued to mount - including an impressive performance against future UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos - Mendez became more and more assured of the fact that he was witnessing the maturation of a future world champion.
Little did he know at the time that it would be Khabib's final fight in the UFC cage for two years.
"To be honest, the most worried I've ever been was when he was having knee surgery and he came back to train too early," Mendez recalled. "That was when I was worried. I was never worried about any opponent ever. Injuries yes, but I was never worried about an opponent. I never felt anybody could beat him ever, and I still to this day believe that."
Nurmagomedov returned to action after repeated issues with his knee to take on unheralded short-notice opponent Darrell Horcher in April 2016 - but Mendez is of the opinion that his sternest-ever test in the octagon came later that year as part of the UFC's debut card in New York City.
Michael Johnson had garnered a reputation for himself as a powerful, if somewhat inconsistent, striker but had recently displayed a career-best performance when he knocked out Dustin Poirier in the first round of their fight just two months prior - and Mendez says he knew that this would be a far more robust challenge for his fighter.
Were his knees OK? Could he hang with one of the lightweight division's more feared stand-up threats? Ultimately yes, but Mendez says the win didn't come without a few moments of concern.
"For me, it was Michael Johnson [who was Khabib's toughest fight]," he said. "Conor [McGregor] was not the most dangerous. Nobody was dangerous to me. Nobody, except Michael Johnson. He was dangerous to me because [Khabib] stood with Michael and Michael hit him with a beautiful left cross. Right after that point, Khabib realized 'let me do what I do best'. But for me, that was a very dangerous fight. Nobody else to me was dangerous. They were tough but nobody was dangerous.
"The only reason is because Khabib decided to stand with him. His stand-up was good, but not as good as it is now. If Khabib wanted to stand with him now he could do it, no problem. Back then he was still learning."Also on rt.com 'It was the WORST camp': Khabib coach confesses UFC champion was HOSPITALIZED with MUMPS before missing training with a BROKEN TOE
As brutal as Khabib's destruction of Johnson ultimately was, it came on a night where Conor McGregor added a second world title to his collection with a picture-perfect performance against Eddie Alvarez but as Mendez says, this would be the last time that Khabib Nurmagomedov would play second fiddle to the notorious Irishman.
The years-long blood feud between Khabib and McGregor bears little repeating other than to say that it was the Russian fighter who scored the last laugh after aggressive press conferences and parking lot vandalism, submitting the Irishman in the fourth round of their fight at UFC 229 - just months after Khabib claimed the vacant world title against New Yorker Al Iaquinta.
It is a result that Mendez expects to be repeated should the two world-class fighters ever compete against one another again.
"You saw [that] Khabib smashed him... I think Khabib still smashes him. It's just a matter of what these other guys can and can't do. I don't see too many people being able to do to him what Khabib did to him."
But following Khabib's retirement in October after this 'Fight Island' win against Justin Gaethje, chances of a sequel to the UFC's best-ever selling fight are slim. Mendez says that Khabib's recently-announced fight promotion Eagle Fighting Championship "can be as big as he wants it to be" but also says that he foresees his charge as learning from both him and his late father, Abdulmanap, ahead of a potential move to coaching.
"He already is [a great coach], he just doesn't know it," Mendez explained. "He has learned so much from his father and from me. I watch him coaching and I see his father and me in him in his coaching style, so he already is a great coach - the world just doesn't know it yet.
"I see [his father] in him. I see how his father was running the guys, how great of a coach he was [and] how much love he had for his fighters. Maybe Khabib isn't as strict as his dad; his dad was the most strict coach that I've ever encountered but he did it for a reason. He loved the kids and didn't want them wasting around their life doing nothing. He wanted them to give their best and if it was meant to be, it was meant to be.
"If they're going to go into the sport of MMA, he wanted them to give their best and he was there to make sure that they did that."
So with Khabib's legacy now apparently set in stone, Mendez says that Nurmagomedov's focus is selfless: he wants to see his family members and training partners enjoy a similar type of success as he did.
"Getting his guys fights, getting them the right match-ups, getting them ready to fight [is what excites him]," Mendez said. "I see him getting really excited about planning a future for his fighters, continuing the legacy for his father and himself.
"For me, obviously Islam [Makhachev] is right there in title contention within a couple of fights. Islam, I believe, will be the next UFC lightweight champion from Team Eagle. Umar [Nurmagomedov] has got great potential and his brother Usman, who I started training, has got so much talent. He's so young, so strong - I believe he is going to be the biggest superstar out of all them."Also on rt.com 'I tend to my farm': Russian champ Khabib SHOOTS DOWN Dana White's hopes by admitting he has NO INTEREST in UFC return
For now, though, Mendez forecasts that it is Makhachev who is the heir apparent to Khabib's crown - something he says fight fans will see clearly a little further down the road.
"Islam technically has better stand-up than Khabib and on the ground, they're both Sambo two-time world champions. It's just a matter of luck if they get the right fights and they don't get hit with some great shots that could put them out. If everything goes to plan, Islam is going to be a little bit of a better version than Khabib in the technical sense - in the stand-up, not on the ground. I think Khabib is the best there ever has been on the ground.
"For me, no one in the world is tougher mentally than Khabib. He's the toughest I've ever encountered. He's the toughest there will ever be."