Forged by his father, Khabib Nurmagomedov's champion mentality endures

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4-min read

There have been many great fighters through the years who were trained by their fathers. The father would take the fighter as a young boy and develop him into a dominant force.

A lot of times, though, it would take someone else to take the fighter from the precipice of greatness to that next level.

It happened with Roy Jones Jr. and his father, Roy Jones Sr. Shane Mosley split with his father, Jack Mosley. Floyd Mayweather Jr. had his moments with his father, Floyd Sr.

It’s difficult for the father because when the fighter hits a certain level of success, the dynamic in their relationship changes. The fighter gets rich and famous, is usually more emotionally mature, and naturally wants to plot his own course.

It’s hard for a lot of fathers to accept being the second fiddle and stepping aside after they moved their sons so far.

That never was the case between Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s lightweight champion, and his father/trainer, Abdulmanap. No matter how successful Khabib became, he looked to his father for leadership, guidance and advice.

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov died in Russia on July 3 from complications resulting from COVID-19. Khabib was extraordinarily close with his father and his death left a void that will never be filled.

But there was also a hole in his professional life because of what his father had meant to him as a fighter. And when he began his training camp for his bout against Justin Gaethje on Saturday at UFC 254, he was at times lost and confused.

His American coach, Javier Mendez, would eventually join him in Russia for camp and then travel with him to Abu Dhabi. But as Nurmagomedov, who is 28-0 overall in MMA and 12-0 in the UFC, began his workouts, he had to do so on his own, without the man who had set up every camp he’d ever had.

It was far from an easy task.

“It was very hard,” Nurmagomedov told Yahoo Sports. “It was very hard in my training camp. I stayed in my village at home [in Russia] and I trained twice a day. Sometimes, I didn’t understand what I needed to be doing. It was very hard for me. Half my training camp, the beginning of my training camp, all of August and a little bit in July, it was very hard. It was a very tough time. Even now [it is difficult].”

Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov and and his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov give a press conference in Moscow on November 26, 2018. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov's legacy lives on in his UFC champion son. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Mendez has worked with Nurmagomedov for eight years, but he was not certain what to expect when he finally got to Russia to coordinate the training camp. That was a role that Abdulmanap would fill until Khabib would fly to the U.S. to train under Mendez at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.

Mendez and Abdulmanap shared a philosophy on MMA that was similar, so that made it easier on Khabib, but Mendez was aware of how close father and son were. It was a tough moment for him, because of that.

What he found when he arrived was a champion who was determined to uphold his father’s legacy and honor him by putting on a memorable performance in the biggest fight of his life.

“Anyone who knows Khabib knows he’s very strong mentally and that mentality that he has is as strong as it’s ever been,” Mendez told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a competitor and those kinds of guys, they want to win no matter what and no matter what they’re doing. But he very much sees this as a way to honor his father’s legacy by going out there and proving himself yet again.”

Nurmagomedov has made things easy for himself during his career by working diligently and never assuming anything. Even when he disagreed with his father or with Mendez, he sucked it up and did what he was told.

It’s an attitude that is increasingly rare, but it’s one that has led him to the pinnacle of his sport.

“They have very similar thinking about MMA,” Nurmagomedov said. “They were almost the same age and both of them were old-school style. All the time, they’d say to me, ‘You have to do this. You have to do this.’ Even my father, even Coach Jav would say that. Sometimes I’d say ‘OK,’ but sometimes, I didn’t agree with them.

“I’d say, ‘OK, I’m going to follow this. I’m going to do this. If you guys think it’s going to help me, let’s go.’ I always believe in those guys, but even if I don’t, I do what they say. That’s why I’m here, why I’m undefeated and why I’m the champion. … Sometimes you don’t like something, but you have to do it.”

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