Javier Mendez says UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi represents the “perfect time to shine” for Islam Makhachev, with his highly rated pupil backed to secure the lightweight title against Charles Oliveira and then primed to dominate the division.
Makhachev, the No 4-ranked contender at 155 lbs, takes on recent champion Oliveira for the vacant lightweight belt in the headline bout at Etihad Arena on Saturday night.
Mendez, Makhachev’s long-time coach, has spent the past month in Dubai with the Dagestani athlete, retired former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and team, and says that preparations for the biggest bout of Makhachev’s career are going “fantastic”.
“He’s on track; mentally, physically, body’s healthy,” Mendez told The National. “Everything’s going great, sparring’s going good for him. Morale, everything. It’s perfect time for Islam to shine and take over Khabib’s legacy as UFC lightweight champion.
"Islam is 100 per cent focused and he’s ready for this challenge because he hasn’t gotten the belt yet and he still needs to get it. Once he gets it more improvements are going to come; he’s going to get sharper, tighter in his game. The more you fight at a high level - five-round, championship-calibre type of performance - the better you’re going to get.
“As long as you don’t take damage and you keep improving step-by-step. I’ve never seen a champion get worst once they win the title; I’ve seen them get better. And that’ll be the case with Islam also.”
Makhachev, 31, has been beaten once in 23 professional MMA fights, and comes into Saturday’s contest having won his past 10.
Still, Makhachev is considered the favourite heading into Saturday’s clash.
“It’s a step up in challenge, for sure, because Charles is the champion,” Mendez said. “We consider him the true champion.
“But I don’t see it as a huge step up in reference to who Islam was going to fight: Beneil [Dariush], [Dustin] Poirier, Justin Gaethje. Those three are the same to me. They’re interchangeable.
“And Charles has beaten two of those. At the same time, Charles had to get up from the ground to do it too. So he took some damage in the process of beating those individuals.
“But I don’t think it’s taken its toll on Charles. Charles is in his prime and he’s out to prove that he’s the best. When the champion is being talked about as high as he has - they’re regarding him in the pound-for-pound ranking - and yet Islam is the favourite, it doesn’t sit well with the champion... ‘I’m the champion and I'm being made me the underdog?’ He has something to prove.”
Mendez, however, said he is not surprised Makhachev has been installed as favourite for what is his first UFC title bout.
“Because outside of a couple fights, mishaps - one he was really sick but still got the decision, and the other one [in 2015] he got knocked out when he made the wrong judgement - he's been flawless,” Mendez said. “That's why people were making him their favourite, because they watch what he's done.
“Charles hasn't been flawless. He's been fantastic the way he gets back up from adversity. You got to give it to the man: most people would be done, but not this guy.
“He’s resilient, he comes back from struggling, takes care of them. He's an incredible fighter. No ifs or buts about that.”
Mendez, founder of American Kickboxing Academy, was integral to Nurmagomedov’s Hall of Fame career, and was in his corner as the Dagestan native claimed UFC gold and climbed to 13-0 in the promotion before retiring undefeated, at 29-0, in Abu Dhabi in late 2020.
Understandably, Mendez says the confidence in Makhachev stems from having watched him grow as a fighter since he began working with Team Khabib.
“It’s well placed because of how well I know him,” Mendez said. “I said recently and I back my statement: Islam’s the most well-rounded lightweight fighter in the history of the UFC.
“Someone can tell me who's better. Who's better on the ground? Who’s better in stand-up? Who’s better at submissions? Who's better at throws? If you can give me somebody, give it.
“Because he's the best I've ever seen as far as arsenal. He’s got the best arsenal out of anybody I've ever seen in the lightweight division.”
On Saturday, Makhachev is sure to enjoy the majority of support inside Etihad Arena. A regular visitor to the UAE, he has described the Emirates as his second home, while he has fought, and won, twice already in the capital.
Mendez said the “home” crowd can provide extra motivation, but that Makhachev must not be distracted by it.
Asked how Makhachev, who will also have Nurmagomedov in his corner, would cope with the pressure to perform, Mendez said: “By relaxing, stay focused on the fight at hand. That's how he handles it. Just stay relaxed. You have a fight to win - go out and get it done.
“And he’s got his training partner, his mentor, his brother, in Khabib who's been with him for ever. Islam has been there for Khabib all the way through all those championship fights, been his main sparring partner. And Khabib’s doing the same to him.
“So having that connection and Khabib being exactly like his father [Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov] in the coaching. It's a great thing for him to go into this fight having Khabib there in his corner. Khabib plays a huge role in this fight and will be a big influence on Islam."
Mendez says he has prepared Makhachev for a five-round encounter - as he would usually for any of his fighters - but expects him to secure the crown on Saturday and then go plough through the lightweight division.
“You never know what's going to happen, how many times he’s going to want to defend it,” Mendez said. “He may do three, four, five times and move into business like Khabib.
“It's hard to say. I see Islam winning the title, him getting better, him defending the title, and I see him go through the division, which is what he’s going to need to do. That's what all champions do: they go through the division.”