The new UFC lightweight champion dominated his short-notice foe from pillar to post to defeat Iaquinta and capture the 155-pound title with ease in the main event of UFC 223. The most surprising part of the fight, though, was that Nurmagomedov didn’t just rely on his vaunted wrestling arsenal to do so. After suffocating Iaquinta on the mat for the opening 10 minutes, “The Eagle” switched his game to a more stand-up oriented attack for rounds three and four. And although Nurmagomedov ultimately won the striking battle by a wide margin of 134-41, his stand-up skills drew plenty of criticism from UFC color commentator Joe Rogan — and that fact wasn’t lost on Nurmagomedov’s head coach, Javier Mendez.
“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 goddamn back kick, for God’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. Jesus Christ, 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 God’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.”
Nurmagomedov (26-0) is one of the most feared wrestlers in the sport, but has never been known for his stand-up abilities.
Matched against a power puncher like Iaquinta, Mendez said that Nurmagomedov followed his gameplan of wrestling the New Yorker to a tee for the opening two rounds, but then went rogue and chose to work on his striking instead for rounds three and four. Mendez said he was able to convince Nurmagomedov to split the difference and somewhat return to his wrestling roots in the fifth frame, but by then it didn’t much matter: Nurmagomedov swept the judges’ scorecards to win an easy decision.
Nonetheless, Nurmagomedov’s decision to try something new in a fight he was handily winning led to renewed waves of critics voicing doubt as to how Nurmagomedov would fare against a striker at the level of McGregor or Tony Ferguson — Rogan included.
And while Mendez understands where that talk is coming from, he thinks some people may be 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’s commentary was noticeable enough to be a minor talking point coming out of UFC 223. The longtime color analyst ultimately posted an explanation of his thought process on Instagram that included an apology aimed at anyone annoyed by his choice of words.
Yet while Mendez couldn’t help but notice Rogan’s commentary, he also isn’t worried about it either. He still considers himself a fan.
“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.”