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Test of mental strength as Khabib takes on Justin

Ashwani Kumar/Abu Dhabi
Filed on October 23, 2020
BATTLE OF GIANTS: Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje face off during the weigh in on Friday in Abu Dhabi. — Supplied photo

(Josh Hedges)

Both fighters know their best weapons and look for the apt time to make the move

UFC 254 headline event: local favourite Khabib Nurmagomedov versus Justin Gaethje will be like a chess match — a true test of mental toughness — played out inside a steel cage in Abu Dhabi’s Fight Island on Saturday. The lightweight champion and the interim belt holding challenger know their best weapons and look for the apt time to make the move.

The Russian ‘Eagle’ — American ‘Highlight’ is touted as the biggest-ever fight by UFC president Dana White. And the first of the five rounds will set the tone of the encounter at the Flash Forum on Yas Island. Justin, the feisty brawler, is strong with wrestling and standing exchanging strikes and leg kicks. Khabib, the ace grappler, always eyes an opening to take his opponent down by the fence and choke them into submission.

In this high-octane contest, the fighters will be extra cautious with their movement. 29-0 beckons Khabib. It’s there for the taking but only if he doesn’t get instigated by Justin into a striking battle.

Coach Javier Mendez hopes that Khabib sticks to the strategy of his late father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov who passed away in July.

"Khabib’s the best on the planet that ever been at 155 on taking people to the ground and sticking on the ground. He always scares the hell out of me when he likes to stand with people. I’m hoping that it rings true to him to not stand with this (Justin) guy. I don’t want that because it’s not an easy feeling knowing that you have an easier route to victory and he chooses to go the harder route. With his father there, he went strictly 100 per cent the ‘father’s plan’ route. That’s the part that scares me a little."

Mendez said the loss of Abdulmanap is being deeply felt ahead of the crucial encounter.

"When I had his father with me, even though I’ve only cornered (with Abdulmanap) one time and that was against Dustin (Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi), the fact that I would talk to Khabib about things, about how we apply things and he’d always tell me, ‘Yes, my father say same thing coach.’ I don’t have that anymore, so I don’t have that backup before. Someone that grew with him and knew him better than anybody. So, for me it’s a little bit more difficult per se. But he’s been handling it fantastic. He’s motivated to preserve the legacy that he and his father had planned. That’s the one thing I can say that is great – his mind. He says, ‘Coach, if anything breaks, it is okay, because my mind is not broken.’"

Mendez acknowledged that Justin, on 22-2, could prove to be the toughest test ever for Khabib.

"He (Justin) is the best kicker at 155 pounds over everybody. He will not quit. He is as incredible as they come in every department."

Mendez noted that Justin also has an awesome coach in Trevor Wittman.

"I got a master chess player on the other end of the octagon."

The main card also features co-main event middleweight No. 1 Robert Whittaker fighting No. 3 Jared Cannonier. The 12-fight event starts with undercards from 6.30pm and main card by 10pm on Saturday.


Main card (starts 10pm)

Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje

Middleweight: Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier

Heavyweight: Alexander Volkov vs Walt Harris

Middleweight: Jacob Malkoun vs Phil Hawes

Flyweight: Lauren Murphy vs Liliya Shakirova

Light heavyweight: Magomed Ankalaev vs Ion Cuelaba

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