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Coach: Islam Makhachev ‘never wanted to be’ Khabib Nurmagomedov, was never following in his footsteps

Islam Makhachev has been called the second coming of Khabib Nurmagomedov, and for good reason given their close relationship and style of fighting.

Beyond Nurmagomedov serving as Makhachev’s mentor and coach, the two Dagestani lightweights have both employed a similar approach in the cage, with a physically imposing, grappling-heavy style that often results in them mauling opponents on the ground. To add to that, Nurmagomedov is widely considered the greatest lightweight in UFC history, and Makhachev will have a chance to start his own championship reign when he faces Charles Oliveira in the UFC 280 main event on Saturday.

Despite those close comparisons, American Kickboxing Academy head coach Javier Mendez says Makhachev has never felt like he had to live up to some kind of legacy left behind by Nurmagomedov, much less that he was some sort of clone.

“[Makhachev] never copied [Nurmagomedov] from the beginning and he never felt pressure from the beginning,” Mendez said on The MMA Hour. “Islam was Islam right from the get go. He knew what he was going to do.

“He knew his path and he had an example in Khabib to follow, but he wasn’t following in Khabib’s footsteps. It was Islam’s footsteps. It was his own identity.”

According to Mendez, Makhachev and Nurmagomedov may be as close as brothers without actually being blood related, but they have completely different personalities.

There’s no better proof than how Makhachev promotes himself, not to mention his interests outside the cage when he’s not fighting.

“For instance, Islam doesn’t have tag lines,” Mendez explained. “He doesn’t have great lines that he says. Islam is not out there doing what Khabib does. They’re complete opposites. Islam is an adventure type guy. He’s more of a [Donald] ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone in regards to activity outside of fighting. He loves horse riding, dirt riding, and things of that nature.

“They’re completely different and Islam has been 100-percent comfortable in his role, and he’s never wanted to be Khabib and always felt he was Islam. Also, keep in mind, he doesn’t have a nickname and he never wanted a nickname. I tried to nickname him one time and Islam said, ‘No, coach, my name is Islam,’ and I said OK.”

If there’s one thing that Makhachev and Nurmagomedov definitely share, it’s the attention they’ve attracted while rising up the lightweight ranks.

Currently riding a 10-fight win streak, Makhachev has already been anointed as a future champion even before he clashes with Oliveira on Saturday, and that’s something Mendez saw in him from the first day he set foot in his gym in San Jose, Calf.

“You knew right away he had championship DNA,” Mendez said. “One-hundred percent. He showed it right away. He was extremely gifted back then, also. He just needed more time and more work, but he had it all.

“Islam is the perfect student. He knows what he’s doing, he knows what he wants and he puts in the work. Doesn’t complain. He’s perfect. I can’t say anything other than that, because that’s what he is. Very thoughtful about other people.”

As far as how Makhachev matches up with Oliveira, Mendez obviously isn’t going to get into strategy, but he definitely appears to like the matchup. While Makhachev has often been defined by his suffocating wrestling and potent grappling attacks, Mendez promises there are a lot more weapons in his arsenal should they choose to unleash them at UFC 280.

“I feel good about the matchup, and honestly, I feel good about him with anybody because he’s so well-rounded,” Mendez said. “We can play any way we want to play with him.

“He’s going to do anything we ask him to do and he’s able to do it. We’ll see come fight time. Just one thing to keep note, one fight in Las Vegas we had a game plan in place and right as we’re coming out of the gate, I tell Khabib I think we’re probably stronger on the grappling, let’s just go with [his] father’s plan [Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov], and we did just as we were walking out. We changed to father’s plan and it worked out perfect.”

Mendez expects the same on Saturday whether Makhachev is facing Oliveira or any other lightweight in the world that the UFC throws at him.

“This fight isn’t about Charles, it’s about the title,” Mendez said. “If come Oct. 22 and Charles is not facing him across the octagon, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s going to be facing him and that’s who he has to beat.”

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