American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) head Javier Mendez knows Khabib Nurmagomedov has a tough fight on his hands at UFC 254, but is Justin Gaethje the toughest opponent of ‘The Eagle’s’ career?
Mendez believes that title firmly belongs to Conor McGregor but the former kickboxing world champion understands that Nurmagomedov will have to dig deep if he can’t take Gaethje down early on and utilize his wrestling.
“Right now I rank him second, but he could very well be number one, easily,” Mendez said of Gaethje in a recent interview with Submission Radio. “I rank him second behind Conor but I could be wrong on that. He could be more dangerous than Conor. We’ll see. If we’re not able to take him to the ground, we’re gonna have a fight on our hands. I’m anticipating we’re gonna have a fight on our hands because if I don’t anticipate that and it does happen, we’re gonna be caught not thinking properly. So I’m assuming we can’t take him down and we have to stand with him. That’s, in my mind, what I’m assuming. I’m hoping that’s not the case. I’m hoping we can take him down but we have to be prepared for times when we can’t.
“Conor’s just the best striker ever in the lightweight division, I think. Gaethje, with his wrestling, he creates a big problem. He really does. His power and his guts, the guy is coming to fight. He’s not gonna run from you, he’s coming to you, and if you’re not fighting him, you’re not beating him. You have to fight him and we’re prepared for that.”
Mendez is keenly aware of Gaethje’s background as a NCAA Division I wrestler but this is not NCAA Division I wrestling — it’s MMA.
“From a wrestling standpoint, I’m sure it’s not Division- level at the present time, but from an MMA standpoint I’m sure it’s as best as it can be,” he said. “He may very well have the best takedown defense out of anybody because he has that wrestling background. But remember, this is MMA, so there’s a lot of variables to takedowns... If it was a pure wrestling match, I don’t know how we’d fare but this isn’t wrestling. This is MMA and there’s a lot of things you can do in MMA that you can’t do in wrestling.”
UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje takes place on Oct. 24 at the UFC Fight Island facility on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.