American Kickboxing Academy head coach Javier Mendez believes that Justin Gaethje’s devastating leg kicks are the biggest threat to undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov’s title reign on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Gaethje’s Division 1 wrestling pedigree has been highlighted as something that can mitigate the grappling onslaughts that have helped Nurmagomedov to a 28-0 record.
Yet, interim champion Gaethje has announced his intent to use his signature low kicks to immobilize Nurmagomedov throughout fight week.
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s coach Javier Mendez (left) fears the leg kicks of Justin Gaethje
The American has a reputation as one of the most deadly fighters in the game with his legs
‘Justin’s low kicks are the number one threat,’ Mendez, head coach of Nurmagomedov, told Sportsmail.
‘His kicks could derail anybody; he’s the best kicker in the sport right now. He’s coming with them, it’s obvious, I know it and it’s just a matter of how many do we have to take, or do we have to take any before we get him to the ground.
‘He’s definitely going to be throwing them. He’s been landing them like crazy and he obviously knows Khabib’s weakness is his stand-up, so why not attack something that can immobilize him?’
Coach Trevor Wittman has witnessed Gaethje stop opponents with leg kicks on a number of occasions and is adamant his fighter can make the Russian reluctant to shoot for takedowns if he can execute the technique in Saturday’s headline bout.
‘His kicks are brutal,’ Wittman said.
Nurmagomedov and Gaethje faced off for the final time before fight night on Friday
‘Leg kicks are a very different thing. When you get hit in the head, it’s almost like being in a bar fight, you take one and you’re ready to throw back – it’s like fuel. Even getting hit to the body, it takes your heart away but you can still get through it with a good poker face.
‘The low kick is different; you feel the pain even if adrenaline is running through your body. It only gets worse as you continue to take them. You have to put weight on your legs during a fight and it hurts like hell to do that the more you take kicks. Eventually, even a poker face won’t save you – it visibly disrupts your motion and definitely has an impact if you’re shooting in for takedowns.’
Although Gaethje’s low kicks have visibly hindered his opponents throughout his career, many strikers are reluctant to throw them against elite wrestlers as it can present an opportunity to be wrestled to the canvas.
Mendez agrees that Nurmagomedov could use Gaethje’s kicks to open up takedown entries, but only if they’re thrown a certain way.
The challenger risks getting taken down if his kicks are too high but can do serious damage
‘If he places the kicks above the knee it will give us a great opportunity to land a takedown, but he’s going to go below the knee,’ Mendez explained. ‘That’s going to make the leg a lot harder to catch for Khabib. It’s not impossible, but it makes it a lot more difficult when it goes below the knee.’
Wittman agreed with his rival coach: ‘If we throw it, we’ve got to make sure we throw it at the right times because you run a huge risk of being taken down off a low kick, and that’s exactly what Khabib wants.’
And while Nurmagomedov has previously dominated one of the best kickers in the UFC, Edson Barboza, Mendez underlined that Gaethje’s grappling ability makes him a far different prospect.
‘The Barboza fight was different because Gaethje also has elite wrestling in his locker. I think that means he’s going to be able to withstand the takedown attempts a little more. Gaethje and Edson are similar in that they’re both great strikers, but Edson doesn’t have the great Division 1 wrestling background that Justin has.’
Gaethje’s coach Trevor Wittman believes his man can cause the champion real problems
Mendez has coached a plethora of MMA champions across a number of different major promotions, but the legendary trainer claims he has never been more confidence in a fighter as he is when it comes to Nurmagomedov.
‘I base my confidence off what happens in sparring and he’s had the most brilliant career ever in terms of sparring,’ said Mendez. ‘Since 2012, there’s no one that even comes close to him.’
Wittman, who also boasts several UFC champions on his books, revealed that Gaethje is willing to die in the Octagon on Saturday. He believes it is that mentality that could see ‘The Highlight’ claim the undisputed title on Fight Island.
‘When you have a will to go out there and be kamikaze like that, it says a lot about how much he’s willing to do to get this title,’ he said. ‘He’s willing to do anything for victory. He loves that chaos and he seeks it out.’