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Javier Mendez: I don't consider Poirier the most dangerous rival for Khabib

Javier Mendez and Khabib Nurmagomedov
Фото: AP

The American coach of the only UFC champion from Russia gave an exclusive interview about the Nurmagomedovs’ family, the culture of Dagestan and the Russian way

Javier Mendez, the legendary MMA coach and founder of the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) in San Jose, California, finally visited Dagestan, the birthplace of his most famous Russian student Khabib Nurmagomedov. A week after being inducted into the Guild of Highlanders, the 48-year-old American went to Penza on an invitation from Khabib and his father as a special guest of the GFC tournament. But first there was St. Petersburg and the UFC Fight Night 149, where he was one of the seconds in Islam Makhachev's corner. The Sportsdaily met with the champions’ coach at the hotel on Vasilyevsky Island and spoke as they strolled to one of the main attractions of the city – St Petersburg State University.

Money talks

– I think MMA is bigger here than it is in the US, – Javier says. – Even though it started in the US. There are more fans here. They are the real fans.

– I don’t think so, coach.
– You don’t think so?

– Look, the UFC is a huge brand.
– Yes, it’s huge brand.

– But fans here they don’t pay for this quality. They do not give their money to develop this sport.
– Right.

– In the US…
– …they pay.

– You definitely have more people who are able to pay.
– Yea.

– You saw the real Khabib fans who came to yesterday's Q & A. Let's be honest, most of them cannot afford to buy a ticket for the regular UFC event.
– Right.

– At the same time, they are really huge fans of this sport. This is a big problem here in Russia. Fans love this sport but can't afford it.
– Ok, that makes sense. I guess, the reason why I’m thinking that because the warmth from the fans is bigger here than there. You understand? Like there is no coach in the US that gets treated the way I just got treated here. None. And I don’t get treated that way in the US – not like this. Maybe five percent of this in the US. Five percent. That’s why I feel that way. But you’re right. When we’re talking about it from…

– We've got some great background here, but not the financial backup to make it successful.
– Right.

– That's why this is a great combination: talented athletes from Dagestan placed into American sports industry. They found each other.
– You know what? When you look at the UFC, Khabib is from Dagestan. But he’s not known as a Dagestan UFC champion. He’s known as the Russian UFC champion. So, it’s like in the US, if you are the champion from the US you’re known as the US world champion. Not known as a Californian champion. Because that’s where you’re from.

– I know. But in our country, they always indicate the nationality of a citizen if that person gets into the news. Because we also have a universal word that applies to all citizens of Russia, regardless of nationality. It is difficult to understand if you are not familiar with our history.

On the history of St. Petersburg, floods and other natural disasters

– And here we, finally, are.
– The college! (Making a video on the phone.)

– Yea, Saint Petersburg State University.

In a moment we are already inside.

– How old is it now?

– That is one of the oldest buildings in our city. I'd rather google it first not to be mistaken. I'm already looking for the year of foundation ... Got it, 1724.
– Almost 300 years old! Amazing. Can you imagine 300 years ago people were walking here.

– Yes, like we do now. And they were spending a lot of time here studying the most important sciences. In those days it was available only to the chosen ones.
– There have never been earthquakes here, right? Everything is preserved in its original form.

– Thank God, we've never had this problem in St Petersburg. But we suffer from floods here. Once the water in the river rose by as much as four meters. Although that has been a long time ago, in the 19th century.
– Wow. That’s not good. In the US we’ve had floods too, and that destroyed the whole city. Years ago, the hurricane came and destroyed New Orleans. And they had to rebuild it. Billions and billions of dollars and many lives lost.

– That’s terrible.
– I mean… I live in California. And last two years we had the whole city’s, town’s birth. Burned to the ground from the forest fires. It took them like two weeks to put out the fires. The whole city burned up. All of it. They couldn’t stop it. It’s called the city of Paradise.

– I guess I saw the footage of that disaster on TV.
– How many square miles is St. Petersburg from one end to the other? It’s like what: thirty by thirty square miles may be?

– You just put me in a deadlock. I cannot say the exact figure, especially in miles. We measure the distance in kilometers.
– It’s pretty big, right? Five million people.

– As far as I remember from the elementary school, St. Petersburg is larger than Paris. It’s close to the size of London.
– Wow. For that big city the traffic is great.

– Traffic is not bad at all! One day you will come to Moscow and see the difference.
– Yeah, traffic there is probably like in New York. In New York you can walk faster than you can get into the car. It's so bad. In LA, too.

A strange red tower and Khabib fans

Passing through the main building, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the philological faculty.

– It’s unbelievable. Crazy-crazy. Oh, look at that nice building.

– Actually, I don’t even know what it is («The Tower of Babel technogenic era» which is made entirely from metal objects and symbolizes the creative initiative of human-creator).
– Hey, take a look! There is a bicycle. (Takes out his phone again and starts taking pictures). And it’s a wheel. Shock absorbers. Hubcaps. Mix of everything. Crazy, huh? That’s beautiful!

At this very moment, a young couple approaches Javier to take a picture with him.

– You can see how famous you are.
– Yeah. It was so respectful… You say this is your alma mater?

– Yep.
– That’s amazing. So how many... Usually this is not a 4-year college, right? It depends what you want, right? I'm sure people to come here to be a doctor? So that means more than 4 years.

– Of course, you can start with a bachelor's degree. Then go for a master's and so on until the doctor of sciences. They award scientific degrees of candidates and doctors of science here.

This time we were interrupted by two male students to take a selfie with Javier Mendez. The coach agrees with pleasure.

– Okay, back to our main topics. What are your impressions of meeting with Khabib’s fans?
– Just… I was overwhelmed by the love that they have for him, the sincerity and the real affection is like they really-really care for him and love him. And it wasn't just 'cause he's famous 'cause, I think they feel connected to him, they can identify with him 'cause… OK like give you an example. I'm staying in his suite right now. I'm in this suite. You know where he's sleeping? He's sleeping in the room with Islam and there's two rollaway beds in there and he was in there sleeping. He didn't sleep in the room last night at all, he slept in that room. What does that tell you about a person? He's real. The person that he acts and… I posted a video of him showings Zubaira in a five-star hotel and he's… but that's really him. You know he's become very popular now he has money so sure he's enjoying some of that money but he's not lavishly going out there and buying expensive cars. He is still a family man. He still loves who he is and doesn't want to change his humbleness and that was amazing about this. His fans are real.

– You always say he is different. You mean you know some other fighters who are faking?
– I've known fighters that when the fame gets to them they are a little bit different. He didn't change. He got more generous, the more famous he got the more compassionate he became. He's like my other champion Daniel Cormier too. He is very compassionate. He's funny, he's different, he makes jokes, but he's a very good caring person, too. A lot of people have good traits. Most champions are good inside but very few are special like Khabib. Very-very few, not many at all.

On his celebrity status in Russia

– Did you feel celebrity yesterday at the meeting with Khabib’s fans? Because when you appeared on the stage the crowd went crazy.
– Yeah, I don't know what to make of that. I don't know, they were just cheering because it was just so then…

– Oh, come on.
– I didn't know! I mean there was a big cheer, yes. I was like OK… Khabib has always told me I need to come to Russia that I'm very famous here. I go, “I’m not famous there,” and he goes, “No, you are.”

– I guess, you are. Because of Khabib, because of Khabib’s Instagram. He always tells some interesting stories about you, trying to promote you.
– Yeah, so he made me very famous here. So, I believe it now but I didn't believe it then. Some of my other students are from Tajikistan and they said Oh when you come to Russia you will be treated really warm and welcome by the people. And I go What do you say that? Because you're very famous there, coach. And I’m like, “They don't know me I’ve never been there.” They go, “No but because of Khabib.” I said, “OK” but… I did expect a little bit because people were telling me but not like what I got, no I didn't expect that. It just humbles me and if someone's gonna make an effort to want to come talk to you then I want to make an effort to greet them back too. I don't want to say I don't have time for you. No, I want to make the time. Because, you know, it takes a lot for someone to approach somebody take a picture this… I never wanted to be rude to anybody. We sometimes don't choose to be in this position but when we're in this position we have responsibilities to be nice and kind to people… I felt the real sincerity, real care and respect. This respect like never I've never felt like this. I’m not saying I don't get approaches I do everything I go to but not like this, not like this.

On Khabib's father

– Half an hour before the Khabib's Q & A there was a press conference of his father Abdulmanap where he said that you are about to start some big deal, some kind of collaboration between the teams Eagles MMA and AKA. He stated that he’s already got some fresh blood of about 10 prospects at the age of 20 and they are very strong wrestlers without a good stand up game. So, they need you to be closer to Dagestan, probably to visit Dagestan more often. What can you say about this?
– You know, I think Khabib’s father is a great man. He’s a great teacher and he's got a great heart. And the reason why I say that because I look at his son. His son is that reason ‘cause of his dad. So, he’s taught Khabib the right principles, the right education. He's raised him correctly. And anything that man wants I’m in. If he wants to collaborate I'm in. You know. He wants my help I'm in. I'm not going to ask what it is I’m in. Because that's how I feel about him as a person. So, anything he's going to ask of me I’m in. «I want you to do this». OK I'm in. I don't even have to hear what it is I'm gonna do it. Because I know that his intentions are pure and his intentions is to help each other. So, I don't need to ask, “Whoa wait a minute What would you want first.” No. I’m in. I’m in whatever that man wants, I mean. You gotta understand: for me I look at him as being a great man and a great leader and I'll tell you why. He could have stopped Khabib from training with me since 2012. He could have just said no you stay here I want to train you here. Khabib would've stayed. His father let him come to America to train with me for all these years and never stopped him. And still to this day he would never stopped him. That's a great man. Because he's letting somebody else share something great with his son that his son wants to do. He's not stopping his son and he can easily just go snap his fingers and it's just done it's over. And he won't do that it is never you never indicated ever wanted to do that. I know a lot of coaches who would want that all the attention to themselves and he doesn't. So, to me, when you're able to let others grow around you, that means you are secure with yourself. He is secure with himself. He knows what he's all about, he knows what he can do. He doesn't need to control people, he controls a no one. And that's why I have the most respect for him. He’s never ever once told me what he wants me to do with his son, how he wants me to teach his son. He knows that I know exactly what he wants. He knows I'm going to train his son exactly the way he would want it to be done. He’s never once talked to me about how I want you to train my son. Never, no once.

– You say that you haven’t had this talk about collaboration yet, right?
– No. Khabib mentioned that collaboration was going to happen. I guess we’re going to discuss. But yeah, there was some talk about this going to happen. But I'm already in so it’s like, they could just say, “Coach, we're doing this.” “OK let’s go!” So, it's already done. To me anything they're going to want I'm going to be YES. And he did: his father did mentioned to me that he has some form or ones that he wants me to work with – YES. So, I guess, yes, the collaboration did happen. Because I'm just going to say, yes, so, it's because, like, I know it's anything to do with them to me is like family and I'm going to do it.

On the real champions and the Russian way

– People say that the phenomenon of Khabib is not so much about his excellent wrestling skills or the dominant style in the octagon, as his great personality. There have always been many strong athletes in Dagestan, because martial arts are an important part of their traditions. That region has given Russia a lot of champions of the world, Europe and the Olympic Games. But none of them was such a big star as Khabib.
– You know the thing about Khabib is when he first started coming to me I used to have talks with him. I used to talk to him all the time. I go, “Being a champion and being a great champion is not just in the ring, it’s out of the ring. It’s what you do outside that makes you great. Not what you do inside the ring, it’s what you do outside. How you help people, what you do with people, how you treat people. That's what makes you great.” Mohammed Ali to me was the greatest of all time because he didn't just use his fame to say, “Y'all come worship me.” No, Mohammed Ali when in help people. He when out there did humanitarian things. And I told Khabib for years I've been telling him, “You want to be great when you have a great responsibility then. But that great responsibility you have to go and show compassion, you have to go and show the people that you're more than a champion inside the cage. You gotta be a champion outside the cage.” And I know by having these talks with him, I know his father already had these talks with, 'cause Khabib would say, “Yes, I know: my father says the same thing. You and father think alike.” So, I know his father has been training him as a boy how to be a champion inside and outside of life.

– How many Russian cities have you visited already?
– St Petersburg is the only one. This is the first time I’ve ever been here.

– You probably think that all of Russia is similar to St. Petersburg.
– No. I know it’s not because everybody says every place is different. They said for the beauty of newer things they say Moscow. Moscow is very beautiful. They have many historic like here. But this is the only place I have to judge from. I can tell you just from coming through the airport, going through the immigration was the best experience I've ever had. Yeah, it’s so easy! Going back to the US I'm going to have more problems going back home then I was coming here. You know. It's so funny how here… they have the system down. There's no headaches there's no this. And I was very nice, I was expecting, “Why you here?” – OK – “Where you staying?” – OK. Nothing! They just looked that my visa was intact, It was good, “OK, go.” It was amazing. I've never had that experience ever in all the countries I've been to. Never been that easy, never been that easy.

– You saw how we got in here? There is no entry to the university without a special permission. But I've talked to the security, explained to him the purpose of our visit, and he let us in. He just wrote down my ID in his notebook and allowed us to walk around the university. It's Russian way: if it is forbidden but you really want it, you can get it.
– Why not? If you are respectful and kind. I like it.

On the difference of cultures and the next champion of the UFC lightweight division

– It follows from your Instagram that you’ve already managed to see some of the city’s landmarks such as Palace Square and the Bronze Horseman. Then you visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, a sacred place for all Orthodox Russians. There are a lot of people from the North Caucasus among your students, and you couldn't help but notice the difference between the cultures of the people from Dagestan or Chechnya and the locals. We live in a multinational country where each republic has its own language and its own manners. Does it surprise you how we all get along here?
– Honestly, I never thought about it and you just mentioned right now. So, yeah, if you think about it everybody so different. Yeah, I’m surprised: like I said, when I was taking a picture with Khabib’s father I almost touched the girl and next «Don’t touch the girl!» and I’m like «Oh!» so… but I didn't know. But it was like no big deal. And then I talked to her – I'm not allowed to touch you because – No it’s ok – and I go, “OK.” So, I was a little confused but, I guess, this is the culture, they stick to their culture, but they blend in really well, they are not fighting. They blend in really well. They are very respectful. You give someone respect, they give you respect back. You don’t give someone respect thus you will have problems. The respect factor I think is a major part of why it works here because they respect each other they give mutual respect. If you don't respect me I don't respect you so I cause the problems for you – you cause the problems for me. But if I show you respect, you show me respect back. So, I don't give you no problems you don't give me no problems. So, I think the fact that everybody respects each other and their beliefs and their cultures and they can work with each other if you don't respect the beliefs and the cultures of other people that how can you work with them. You have to be able to respect their beliefs and their way of life, you know. If you can’t accept it then there's gonna be problems. So, I think that here I see that people accept, accept more than not.

– Let's talk a little about Islam Makhachev. We have not seen him in action for a long time. But many experts still believe that he has a great future.
– Well for me Islam is the next heir to the throne with Khabib. I think once Khabib retires and… who knows when that will be maybe 2-3-4 fights, who knows. I mean only the fighter really knows. But I think Islam’s next in line. I think he’s that good. He’s been coming with Khabib for 5 years. Khabib first was came to me about 2012 then Islam that started coming a little later. And now he's got a whole bunch of them to come like Umar, Zubaira, Abubakar. And then Sergei, he came too one time. And Ruslan Magomedov, too. I guess he just got suspended for life from the UFC for some violations I guess. I don’t really know exactly what happened.

What the Nevada State Athletic Commission should be ashamed of

– Do you think it's possible that Khabib, Zubaira and Abubakar will fight in one card in Abu Dhabi? Despite the fact that the period of suspension of the last two expires month later.
– Yes-yes, very possible.

– Legally?
– Yes, legally, I think so. I think we may see Khabib, hopefully may be Islam, maybe Abubakar and Zubaira. I think you will see that.

– I already had the dialogue with Rizvan, their manager, and I asked him if it is possible or not and he said that legally they have some ways to solve that issue but nobody wants to mess with the State Athletic Commission of Nevada. Because even if you're not in the US if you break their rules…
– …they ban you anywhere. And so all the other countries… You’re never be ordered to fight in the US again. So, they would have to work out when that the expiration of their fines are suspended until I believe it's October 6. So, they'd have to work it out with the commission. If they were to fight they have to work out something with the commission where they would have to do something in exchange it. And you know the State Athletic Commission of Nevada should be ashamed of themselves for what they did to Khabib. They should be ashamed of themselves. They go out and talk about how they want to stop fighters trash talking about religion and family and this and that. So, they talk like that but yet they use suspend the man that defends his family, his honor, his country. You fine him a half a million dollars and you put him on a 6-month suspension plus you say to him if you do anti bullying program will let you out. Who's been the bully here? The State Athletic Commission of Nevada has been the bully here ‘cause now they’re trying to bully Khabib into saying, “You're a bully, join this and we’ll let you 3 months fight early.” No: Khabib was correct. He was correct in what he did and I applaud him for that, for standing on his right. And, thus, what makes you a great man. Things like that. He stands up for his guys. He says, “You guys suspend my guys I'm not fighting until they are fighting.” And so if the State Athletic Commission cannot work out some kind of deal which I think they can…

– You think they can?
– I think they can because lawyers can work magic and they can work deals: OK, I do this I do that OK we’ll let you do it. I mean if you come in peace to work with them – yes, if you come with fire – they come back with fire. So, I think Rizvan is a great manager along with Ali and I think they'll do the right things and they won't jeopardize any other fighters’ careers because if they're going to fight in Abu Dhabi it’s because the managers got it cleared and it's done the right way.

On Pavlovich’s strategic mistake and the most dangerous opponent for Khabib

– What can you say about Sergei Pavlovich, the heavyweight? His debut in the UFC wasn't that good.
– I think Sergei when he came to us, he came to us one time and he needs more maturing. He needs more work, more maturing. He is a great prospect. He needs to be mentally apt. His physical too but he needs that work. He needs to do more work on the ground. His stand up is pretty good but he needs more experience at high level too. ‘Cause when you come into the UFC, his first fight in the UFC, and he fights some monster of a fighter. It’s really hard. It was really not that fair.

– You think it was a mistake?
– Personally, I would not have wanted him to fight someone so tough his first fight. They did this to another fighter of mine. Blagoy Ivanov, the former WSOF heavyweight champion. He’s my fighter, too. And they put him in against Junior dos Santos for his first fight. And I’m like – It’s too much, right? – Oh no, we think they can – and I go This is not a good match for him. It’s about the experience. To be at that level is hard so I think Sergei got put in the same situation, got put into lions, you know. He’s still not a lion. He is going to be a lion but he still wasn't a lion. He was the unfamiliar with the territory. That's why if you notice in boxing, if you watch boxing from the pure boxing standpoint if a fighter hasn't fought in years they don't let him fight somebody tough right away, they give him tune up to get the timing right.

– Sure.
– Well that's what I'm saying here. Sergei needed an easier opponent to start. Maybe now would be the time to fight him, not then.

– But that fight against Overeem was a great chance for him to start with a big win against a big name.
– Yeah. But the UFC is known for doing that. They don't protect anybody. They just go BOOM. (Laughing.) You think you are the best? You think you are the best too? Ok fight. So, the protection: the UFC is protecting the UFC. They’re no protecting the fighters. They’re protecting their brand. The UFC is the brand. And they have the right mentality for protecting their brand. Because if they put all their eggs in one basket and focus on the fighters and not the brand and that fighters gone you’d lost because you didn't focus on the brand. So, the UFC is doing their correct thing for the UFC. Khabib, his manager, his father and myself all included were thinking Khabib because that's our responsibility to protect his brand. And the UFC is protecting their brand. So they are all correct. It is just how do we work together.

– Yeah, that's true. When should we wait for Cain Velasquez back in the octagon?
– He recently signed with the Mexican WWE. There is no talk about his returning to MMA so far.

– People constantly ask you about who’s the most dangerous opponent for Khabib in the lightweight division. Now he gotta fight the interim champ Dustin Poirier. You think it's going to be tough defending the belt or not.
– Talking about four potential rivals for Khabib I can give my assessment from the less dangerous to the most dangerous. Max Holloway to be the easiest for Khabib. Max has good boxing but it lacks the power to the lightweight division. Next on the list is Dustin Poirier. He’s got stamina and versatility. Tony Ferguson is my second choice. His elbows are very dangerous. And finally number one contender for me is still Conor. His boxing is special, that’s his chance.

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