Javier Mendez theorizes Justin Gaethje ‘second-biggest threat’ to Khabib Nurmagomedov after Conor McGregor

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Khabib Nurmagomedov faces a dangerous opponent this weekend, but the biggest challenge to his lightweight supremacy may already be in his rear-view mirror.

That’s how head coach Javier Mendez sees it, at least until he gets to see Nurmagomedov actually defend his title against Justin Gaethje this Saturday at UFC 254. Until then, any threat measurement is strictly theoretical and with that being the case, Mendez still considers Conor McGregor to have been Nurmagomedov’s toughest test yet.

“I thought when I looked at [Gaethje], I was thinking probably the second biggest threat [to Nurmagomedov] because I still to this day believe Conor was,” Mendez said at a media day in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. “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. We’ve yet to see that. But I know we’ve already seen Conor and that’s why I would say Conor.

“If you think about it, who’s won a round against Khabib? Conor. And whose given Khabib a tough time—The first round, he took Conor down, but how much damage did Khabib give him? No, Conor was very good there, so I have to give it to Conor for that. I haven’t seen Justin. Obviously, if I’ve seen Justin already and we fought him already and we are victorious like I’m hoping, then I can tell you 100 percent he was the toughest. Right now, I think in theory he’s number two.”

Nurmagomedov successfully defended his lightweight title against McGregor at UFC 229 in October 2018, an event that stands as the most successful pay-per-view in UFC history. Despite McGregor becoming the first UFC fighter to take a round from Nurmagomedov, it was “The Eagle” that triumphed via neck crank submission in round four.

Mendez admitted that up until recently he hadn’t focused too much on Gaethje’s exploits. It wasn’t until Gaethje’s one-sided win over Tony Ferguson this past May that Mendez really took notice.

“Long story short, I didn’t really pay attention to him until he dismantled Tony,” Mendez wrote. “Because now he was real, now he’s in front of us. So then I paid attention and I saw how great he actually is and what a challenge he is. That’s when I really paid attention.”

Pundits have pointed to Gaethje’s striking, inhuman endurance, and grappling defense as factors to consider when picking him for a potential upset. “The Highlight” has only lost twice in 24 pro bouts and 19 of his victories have come by way of knockout.

Gaethje himself has suggested that he needs to keep the fight standing and in the center of the octagon otherwise he’s “screwed,” but Mendez isn’t convinced that it will be that simple. Based on what he knows about Gaethje now, he doesn’t expect that anything Nurmagomedov does will break Gaethje’s will.

“Absolutely not,” Mendez said. “That guy ain’t quitting for nothing. That guy’s a true warrior. He ain’t quitting. You’ve got to kill him to stop that guy. Both of those guys. No, it goes in the middle, it goes on the cage, he’s fighting, he’s giving it all. You’ve seen what type of person he is. You’ve seen what kind of great warrior he is, you’ve seen the mentality he has. How can you not love him? You have to respect him. If you don’t love him, you have to respect him.

“Obviously, my job is I’m Khabib’s coach and I love him and I want him to win and we’re doing everything we can, but Justin is as incredible as they come in every department. Mental, physical, how he approaches the fight game, how he acts, he’s great everywhere.”

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