Khabib Nurmagomedov did not inform even coach Javier Mendez of his decision to retire before he announced it inside the octagon in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, with the latter convinced the undefeated lightweight champion will stay true to his word.
An emotional Nurmagomedov, 32, made the shock declaration immediately following his victory against Justin Gaethje in the headline bout at UFC 254.
The Dagestan native, who with the win moved to 29-0 in professional mixed martial arts, broke down in tears upon getting the submission victory in the second round.
Nurmagomedov was competing for the first time since his father, Abdulmanap, died in July from a heart condition made worse by Covid-19.
Speaking to commentator Jon Anik inside the octagon at Flash Forum, Nurmagomedov said he had promised his mother in the days after accepting the Gaethje clash that it would be his last. His mother, he said, did not want him to continue without his father, who was his lifelong coach and mentor, too.
This week, in an interview with Submission Radio, Mendez said Nurmagomedov “played the best poker face on the planet”, adding that he chose not to discuss the personal loss with his star pupil in the build-up to UFC 254.
“I didn’t want to get him sad, because I never really got to talk to him about his father about how he felt, because it was passed and I figured that’s in the past, I’m not bringing any of that up,” the American Kickboxing Academy founder said.
“So all of this was a total shock to me. I’m listening to him going, ‘Oh man, father’s plan, great’. But mother’s plan works in the end.”
Mendez described the training camp for the fight as “the worst for us”, confirming that Nurmagomedov was hospitalised last month for three days after contracting the mumps. Forced out of training for two weeks, he then suffered a broken toe in the second sparring session after his return.
Mendez said, given the build-up and his father’s death, he was concerned about Nurmagomedov’s mentality right up until the final moments before he walked out for what proved to be his last appearance in the UFC.
“My mind was going, ‘is he going to hold it together? Yes’,” Mendez said. “Then I was going, ‘Doubtful’. So in my mind, I was teeter-tottering. ‘Am I going to get him the way I need him?’ I say, ‘Yes’, and then at the very end, I felt very confident.
“As a coach, you notice your fighter’s antics and what they do and don’t do. But I understood why. I knew why: his father. His father was the one thing that was missing. Even though his father wasn’t there for the vast majority of UFC events, doesn’t matter, his father was still there within a phone call. And this time he wasn’t.”
Mendez said he doesn’t expect Nurmagomedov will reconsider his decision to retire. His coach since 2012, Mendez hopes to begin training the next generation of stars alongside Nurmagomedov.
“This sport is not a longevity sport,” he said. “It’s come in, come out. And he’s coming out at the time he feels is the right time for himself and his family.
“Myself, I would have liked to have seen him go 30-0, like his father wished. But he loves his mother so much and his family [that] he decided, no, it’s fine. And financially, he’s set. He’s not a greedy man.
“If he hung out for one more fight, it would have been a monster payday. But obviously, family means more to him than money. That’s why people love him so much. That’s why the Middle East has gotten so huge in popularity in MMA. There’s other factors, but [Khabib's] the No 1 reason.
“He’s never been somebody that said something and not meant it. For me, I’d have to say that part’s done. Sure, anything’s possible. But as much the fans and myself as a coach would love to have him back, no, I think he’s done. And you’re not going to get me to convince him otherwise.”