Into the fourth week of his Dubai camp, and not long now until that eagerly-awaited return in Abu Dhabi, and coach Javier Mendez is pleased with what he sees in Khabib Nurmagomedov.
His star pupil is relaxed but revelling in his work, focus firmly on Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, a unification bout that marks the lightweight champion’s first competitive appearance in 13 months.
The headline confrontation of another headline Fight Island series in the capital, Nurmagomedov has been preparing for his latest challenge under Mendez’s tutelage at the Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex, a facility that he has grown well accustomed to.
Not just accustomed to, but extremely comfortable in.
"Things are going great, we're almost ready to go," Mendez tells The National, between another day of morning and afternoon sessions. "The game face is still some time away right now.
“It's just getting geared up to doing five hard, good rounds and staying healthy, staying strong, and making sure weight's on point. Right now, that's what we're focusing on, and working on the game-plan execution and making sure he's healthy.
“Shape-wise, Khabib’s where he's always been. It's just like clockwork. We're right on point on this fight, like we were last time.”
Last time feels some time ago. The pandemic has prevented Nurmagomedov, 32 last month, from defending his lightweight crown since he submitted then-interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in September last year. It was another pressurised unification bout, another clash that played out in Abu Dhabi.
The emirate and neighbouring Dubai have featured squarely in the Nurmagomedov story these past few years. The Dagestan native, whose professional record reads 28-0, has become a frequent visitor to the UAE, meeting and interacting with the royal family and growing close to a number of people in the Emirates.
“It’s like family here,” Mendez says. “It’s why Khabib’s so comfortable here. The hospitality of how they take care of him, in Abu Dhabi and here, is second to none. And it’s like a second home to me.”
The facilities at the NAS Complex help, too.
“It's the greatest place to have a training camp, especially if you have all your people with you,” Mendez says. “They provide everything for you; to me, that Dubai gym is the best gym I've ever seen in the whole entire world. I don't think there's any better.
“NAS is the greatest facility in the world, and we’re given the greatest treatment. So many people have done a great job for us. So many.”
Khabib at UFC 242
Chief among those are Emirati Ahmad Jaber Al Harbi – “he's the one that took care of us with everything. He’s become a really great friend, I love that guy” – and Umidjon Mavlyanov, the well-connected Uzbek known affectionately as “Omar”. Mendez has plans to put together a documentary with Mavlyanov to showcase Dubai.
Downtime has been spent either resting or taking in the sights, be it on bicycle, horseback or a six-hour boat ride around the Dubai coast. It all lends itself to Nurmagomedov feeling refreshed and reenergised, which, Mendez says, serves him well in the lead-up to UFC 254 on October 24. For the American Kickboxing Academy founder, who began working with Nurmagomedov in 2012, a content Khabib makes for a hugely constructive camp.
“Khabib's had his best fights when he's laughing and goofing around in the back and being relaxed,” Mendez says. “One time I was so concerned with him, I said, 'Khabib, get serious'. He goes, 'Coach, I am serious', and he goes out there and destroys.
“And so now it's like every time that I see him smiling and having a good time, man, it's performance time. When I see him stressed, it could be bad because he's too worried. But him being happy is great.”
Nurmagomedov first held camp in Dubai ahead of UFC 242, but the current will extend longer, this time to around five-and-a-bit weeks. Mendez views it as offering a slight advantage on Gaethje, the American still training Stateside before he heads to Abu Dhabi later this month. Nurmagomedov has no jetlag to overcome, no period of acclimatisation during fight week required.
Having his sizeable team with him – some of whom have and are still to compete on Fight Island – represents another obvious benefit.
“It's extremely important to have them here because they're some of the best fighters in the world,” Mendez says. “So Khabib’s getting some of the best sparring partners in the world and guys are here to improve themselves and to help him improve himself.
“These guys really are like brothers, and they're here to help each other. In the cage, though, they try to beat the hell out of each other, but that's what it's about, right? They're not playing. They're trying to hurt each other.
“But when it comes outside of that, it's all about respect and loyalty. And every one of them has that respect and loyalty towards Khabib.”
Undoubtedly, Nurmagomedov and his team respect the threat posed by Gaethje (22-2, 5-2 UFC). The dominant display against Tony Ferguson to claim the interim belt at UFC 249 in May underlined his skillset, "The Highlight" producing another performance for the reel to set up the Abu Dhabi tussle with Nurmagomedov.
“Justin Gaethje is an extremely tough opponent,” Mendez says. “He's dangerous, and so dangerous with the low kick. He's one of the best low-kickers I've probably ever seen in the lightweight division, probably out of all the UFC.
“He's got power in both hands, great cardio, Division-1 wrestling skills. He rarely goes to the ground because he's so good. And if he does go to the ground, he gets up right away. And he likes to brawl.
“He's not a precision striker, like a Conor [McGregor], who was very precision-based. I found Conor to be the most dangerous we've ever faced because the skillset Conor had is unbelievable, but Gaethje might prove me wrong. He might just go ahead and surpass that.
“I have to prepare Khabib as if Justin is the toughest, because if I don't, then I'm not doing my job. So we are preparing for the toughest competition ever. It's not going to be an easy fight, or it could be. Either way, we're prepared for a battle.”
So, too, it seems, is Gaethje, who last week labelled the bout the biggest of his life. Clearly motivation isn't lacking, on either side of the octagon.
“I think it does make him more dangerous because he realises what's at stake, definitely,” Mendez says. “For sure, he wants it, and this is a kid that wants to entertain. He wants to entertain more than he wants to win. That's my feeling from everything I saw of him."
Yet Mendez believes Nurmagomedov has more for everyone to see, even as an incredibly dominant fighter already, even at 28-0 (12-0 UFC), even as the No 2-ranked pound-for-pound athlete in the sport – behind only Jon Jones – and as someone many believe with victory will creep ever closer to greatest-of-all-time status.
“He's better,” Mendez says. “Believe me, he's better. I always tell people, ‘Go ahead and watch the video of his last fight, because the guy you're getting, it's not that guy’.
“Watch his videos. There are certain things that are the same, but there's always improvements to his game. There's things people don't see, and you could see some more improvements on this guy. He's improved. He improves all the time.”
UFC 254 marks Nurmagomedov’s first competitive appearance since the death of his father, Abdulmanap, earlier this summer from heart complications having contracted Covid-19. Not only a parent, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov was a lifelong coach to his son also, a significant and sturdy influence both personally and professionally.
“I hope that it impacts him in the positive way, and he goes out there, and he follows father's plan,” says Mendez, who considered Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov family as well. “I hope it works that way instead of the opposite where he doesn't follow what his father wished of him to fight and how he should be fighting.
“I've always pushed father's plan. I call it ‘father's plan’ because his training is from his father. I don't say ‘Javier's plan’ because mine is the stand-up game. The father's plan is the ground game and controlling the ground and top dominance and everything. And that's what Khabib does best of anybody in the world.”
Patently, Nurmagomedov is intent on reinforcing that reputation on October 24. It’s evident there, throughout his Dubai camp.
“He’s zoned in, fired and ready, and he's prepared to live on with his father's legacy,” Mendez says. “And if anybody is going to help propel him, it's not me: it's his father and his father's will for him to continue the legacy. So, yes, he's ready.”