Newly crowned Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov cruised to victory Saturday in a very one-sided fight against Al Iaquinta.
Some fans were critical of Nurmagomedov’s performance, specifically his decision to stand and box with Iaquinta, who is known for his powerful hands. It’s unlike Nurmagomedov to do this in a fight. The game plan is usually to hunt down his opponent and use his wrestling to smother his opponent, take them down and beat the life out of them. He makes high level wrestlers look ordinary, which makes the decision the stand with Iaquinta in the third and fourth rounds more unusual considering his dominance in the opening rounds.
The decision to stand up drew plenty of criticism, and none were more vocal than UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. Nurmagomedov’s head coach, Javier Mendez, was quick to address the comments from the veteran broadcaster. Mendez was guest on the recent episode of “The MMA Hour” and told host Ariel Helwani what he made of Rogan’s comments (transcript courtesy of MMAFighting.com):
“I saw the fight last night with Joe Rogan [commentating] and he totally didn’t understand what the hell’s going on,” Mendez said Monday on The MMA Hour. “Because he totally based that thing completely wrong. ‘Oh, he exposed Khabib. There’s a lot of holes in his game.’ There’s no holes in his game. He’s never been a stand-up guy, yet he’s gotten better, and if you don’t acknowledge how much better he’s gotten compared to the last time, then you’re not really doing your research. Because he switched southpaw on this guy, he even did a [expletive] back kick, for [expletive]’s sake.
“He’s improving all the time and you need to acknowledge that. Don’t act like he’s got these holes in his game. [Expletive], do you think if he’s going to fight Nate Diaz, we’re going to stand with Nate Diaz? Do you think we have a chance [standing] against Nate Diaz? Do you think I think that? For [expletive]’s sake, no way. No way in hell are we going to fight with Conor [McGregor]’s stand-up too. Everybody’s got a different gameplan, and if you don’t change the gameplan according to what’s going on, you’re going to get checkmated.”
While it’s easy to pick out potential weaknesses in Nurmagomedov’s game, the fact of the matter is that no fighter has ever taken advantage of these so called “weaknesses.” Fresh off fighting the Dagestani, Iaquinta spoke about how “The Eagle” is not the easiest opponent to hit due to his awkward style. The fact that he keeps his chin up in a fight doesn’t equate to him leaving himself exposed.
Nurmagomedov’s coaches were not happy with his third and fourth rounds, but the champion was never in trouble during the fight. One reporter even asked Nurmagomedov in the post-fight interview if he was trying new things inside the Octagon. The champ laughed off the question, suggesting he was probably watching too many Muhammad Ali fights in the lead up to the event.
Rogan questioned how Nurmagomedov would fair against a striker of the calibre of Conor McGregor or Tony Ferguson, and while Mendez understands why he brought up the question, he believes the veteran commentator is missing the bigger picture.
“I think they’re 100-percent correct in the way they’re thinking, but let’s see how the gameplan plays out,” Mendez said. “Let’s see if we’re foolish enough to stand with Conor like that, or let’s see how much we’ve improved since then. That’s the one thing you saw from Khabib, let’s face it -- when he was punching, he was punching one-two; he was dropping his hands; his chin was up high; he leaned back. So if Al would’ve been smart enough to come at him with threes and fours, then he could’ve potentially clipped us. But Al was doing ones and twos himself, he wasn’t doing too many combinations.
“That’s not something Conor’s going to do. If that ever happened, Conor’s going to throw combinations because he’s schooled enough in the art of boxing that he’s going to come out, he knows one-twos are aren’t enough. So it’ll be a completely different gameplan. Like I said, Joe Rogan -- Joe Rogan’s saying he’s been exposed, this and that. I’m going, man, is he crazy? When has Khabib ever been known to be some great striker? It’s like all of a sudden Khabib’s some great striker? We always knew he had holes in his stand-up. I always say it. When have I ever told you that Khabib is a great stand-up fighter? I’ve never said that. I said he improves all the time, and he’s improved.”
Rogan made the decision to apologize about his criticism of Nurmagomedov after the fight through his Instagram account after receiving his own critique through social media.
While Mendez didn’t agree with Rogan’s commentary, it’s all water under the bridge as far as he’s concerned.
“I love Rogan, but yeah, if he’s apologized, he shouldn’t,” Mendez said. “He doesn’t need to apologize. Hey, that guy’s fantastic in my eyes. He says something, it causes controversy.
“So for me, he doesn’t need to apologize. But I’m sure he’s probably getting a lot of hate mail, because, I mean, when you think about it -- right? -- you call [a fight for] this guy [and say] he’s open [to getting hit], open... but yet he out-struck a guy that, before this, you would’ve thought he’d never out-strike.”
It is insanely rare to have a fighter as dominant as @khabib_nurmagomedov. In one of the most talent stacked divisions to go 25 and 0 is incredible, but to do it without even having a rough moment in a fight is completely unheard of. The closest thing to adversity he’s had to face in the Octagon before Saturday was one solid punch that was landed by Michael Johnson in a fight that was otherwise a horrifically one-sided mauling. When I’m commentating on someone that dominant I am constantly looking for cracks in their armor, and on Saturday night we saw the first of those cracks exposed by an incredibly game Al Iaquinta. Most people, myself included, expected the highly favored Khabib to rag doll his last minute opponent the way he’s done to everyone else he faced in the Octagon, and that was the case in the early going, but as the fight got into the later rounds Al was able to keep the fight standing and we saw some possible flaws in Khabib’s defense. Make no mistake about it, Khabib won that fight by a landslide, but it went to a decision, and that in and of itself was an upset. When I’m looking at a fighter as spectacularly talented as Khabib fighting a guy like Al who is an almost impossible underdog I’m not just looking at this fight, but I’m looking at openings that can possibly be exploited by the best fighters in the division. I saw some of those openings Saturday night, and I certainly found them interesting. In no way am I biased against Khabib, in fact I’m a massive fan of his and he’s one of my all time favorite fighters. If any of you were annoyed by my concentrating on that aspect of an incredibly dominant performance by one of the most impressive guys in the history of the division, please accept my sincere apology. When I commentate on fights my goal is to highlight the action and make it more exciting for the fans at home. Obviously all this is done live in real time, and if I had to go back and do it again I would often be able to do a better job. Even after all the years I’ve been commentating I still learn something new about the position with each and every event, and when that stops happening that will most likely be when I quit.