The glamour, the glory and ultimately the title will only be bestowed on one man next weekend but those in the background will deserve enormous credit too.
The death of Khabib’s father earlier this year was a tragic personal blow but also professional one as Abdulmanap divided coaching duties with Javier Mendez.
Javier Mendez (left) is now the sole head coach for Khabib after Abdulmanap’s death
Justin Gaethje’s head coach is Trevor Wittman, regarded as one of the best in MMA
It remains to be seen what kind of impact that will have on the champion, but he has a loyal hoard of sparring partners and team-mates to lean on.
Justin Gaethje has a settled group around him, led by the highly-regarded Trevor Wittman, who now only works with a select handful of fighters.
Here’s a closer look at the key players helping Khabib and Gaethje prepare for the huge October 24 showdown.
Head coach: Javier Mendez
Gym: American Kickboxing Academy
Khabib divides his time between his home in Dagestan in Russia and American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.
While in Russia, he used to work under the watchful gaze of his father Abdulmanap, a vastly experienced coach and someone completely familiar with his son’s technical ability and needs.
Abdulmanap died earlier this year aged 57 following complications that arose after he contracted coronavirus.
He is clearly irreplaceable as Khabib’s father but also in many ways as a trainer and Javier Mendez is now the sole head coach for the undefeated champion.
The balance between Abdulmanap and Mendez was always well executed for the champion
In an August interview with ESPN, Mendez revealed: ‘I spoke to him for the first time since the passing two weeks ago. He is still going through missing his father, the way they were connected together, his father was pretty much his everything.
‘Having his father’s blessing gave him that power he needed to go out and do what he needed to do. He’d been training with his father since he was a child. Everything that his father wanted him to do, Khabib went out and accomplished. Now he doesn’t have that.
‘He has to focus on the legacy that his father wanted for him and live through that. I’m hoping that is what will make him better for this fight.
‘If I’m not mistaken, he’s asked people in Dagestan to come in and help him improve what his father was doing.’
Now it is just the American Kickboxing Academy head honcho who leads the training
Mendez is among those to have gone to Dagestan to train Khabib in the lead-up to the Gaethje fight as the 32-year-old is uncomfortable visiting the US amid the coronavirus crisis.
Having founded AKA in 1985, Mendez is one of the most established and well respected coaches in MMA.
He has trained the likes of Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Cain Velasquez along with a host of Dagestani fighters who make the pilgrimage with Khabib wherever he goes.
Mendez wants Khabib to utilise his remarkable grappling ability in every fight as it minimises the risk of a flash knockout.
But he has also spoken in the past about how much AKA has developed the champion’s striking and believes it is a hugely underrated tool in the arsenal.
There is an array of top athletes training out of American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose
Regular sparring partners – Abubakar Nurmagomedov, Islam Makhachev, Zubaira Tukhugov, Islam Mamedov
While Khabib does not have an army of regular coaches behind him, there is a tight knit group of fellow Dagestani fighters who he spars with on a regular basis.
His cousin, Abubakar, a UFC welterweight regularly posts pictures online of both men drenched in sweat grappling each other as they have done since childhood.
Fellow UFC lightweight Islam Makhachev, 7-1 in the organisation is also joined at the hip with Khabib, as is featherweight Zubaira Tukhugov and PFL athlete Islam Mamedov.
Khabib regularly works with Zubaira Tukhugov (third from top right), his cousins Usman (top right) and Abubakar (bottom right), Islam Makachev (third from left, centre) and Islam Mamedov (fourth from right, top)
Head coach: Trevor Wittman
Wittman is known to be one of the most forward-thinking coaches and has a wealth of experience in combat sports.
He retired from boxing after suffering with a hyperinflated lung before beginning to train fighters in the sweet science.
Wittman founded Grudge gym in Denver 11 years ago but his attention turned to his other business ONX Sports, a company that developed equipment for fighters. He closed down Grudge four years ago to focus on ONX but still trains a select number of fighters, Gaethje being one of them.
With 20 years as a coach behind him and 18 world champions across boxing, MMA and kickboxing, his pedigree is clear.
Wittman only coaches a handful of top fighters so he can give them 100 per cent focus
Gaethje’s background was entirely in wrestling and he has been transformed into one of the most fearsome strikers in the UFC. Much of the credit for that must go to Wittman.
‘I’d never thrown a punch, never been punched and then I got hit hard in my fifth fight and thought, ‘man I need to find a coach’,’ Gaethje told the Joe Rogan podcast.
‘He is at every single one of my training sessions. The one-on-one thing is so big. He talks to me like he talks to me in my fights, the same as sparring. When he needs to throw the towel in or call a fight, he knows. He watches me every day and the one-on-one thing is so important when it comes to fighting at a high level.
Wittman added: ‘It took me a week or two to know what this guy was about. Then I just thought he is super unique.
‘It is all about purpose for the athletes, what they want to be and I work around that. Justin changed four fights ago when he said he wants to be a world champion. Before that he wanted to be the most exciting fighter in the world.
(Left to right) Wrestling coach Ben Cherrington, head coach Trevor Wittman, Gaethje, striking coach Luke Caudillo and Gaethje’s brother Marcus
‘The whole thing is, I’m there to assist. I’m the co-pilot, there to draw the map and you’ve got to trust me around these corners. To be able to be coachable, if not I’m just a waterboy. That’s why I only coach a few now and we have to be in it together.’
The fact that Gaethje is working at such close quarters with one of the world’s best coaches gives him huge belief.
He recently told MMA Junkie: ‘My confidence is probably my biggest factor right now, paired with the power that I possess, paired with the coach that I have.
Gaethje, posing here with Wittman and Caudillo, is said to be a very coachable athlete
‘That’s a dangerous combination I don’t care if I win or lose, at the end of the day, as long as I make my family happy, as long as I’m proud of my performance, then it doesn’t matter. That’s what makes me most dangerous. I don’t know if he’s ever fought someone like that – he probably has.’
The location of the gym in Denver is also an underrated aspect of Gaethje’s environment as he can train at altitude, meaning the cardiovascular stress he goes through on Fight Night is less severe.
If he manages to fulfil his ambition of becoming champion, Wittman’s role cannot be overstated.
Wrestling coach: Ben Cherrington
Gaethje was an All-American collegiate wrestler and still works hard on that area of his game with Cherrington, even though he rarely uses it in fights.
Cherrington rarely gives interviews but a long caption on his Instagram feed revealed that, like Wittman, trust is at the heart of his relationship with Gaethje.
Referring to the images below, he wrote: ‘The first picture is following the NCAA Tourney in Omaha when he came through an incredible bracket unseeded and earned a spot on the podium.
Ben Cherrington has been friends with Gaethje since his college wrestling days
Gaethje works with Cherrington on his wrestling but does not often use it in fights
‘The second from this weekend when he shocked the world and dismantled one of the toughest individuals to walk the planet. The joy I had in these two moments far exceeds any joy I felt from my own accomplishments.
‘When an athlete trusts a coach unconditionally it creates an incredible foundation and a very coachable athlete.
‘Justin is the most coachable athlete in the world because he trusts his coaches, he doesn’t question the methods, and he puts the effort in day in and day out.
‘Seeing him accomplish his goals brings me joy, but my true joy comes through the trust I know he has in me and the rest of our team to walk along side him on this journey.’
Striking coach: Luke Caudillo
Caudillo is a former MMA fighter himself and now divides his time between coaching, running a business and hosting a podcast.
He helps corner Gaethje and is an integral part of the team, helping the title challenger work on his striking.
Caudillo and Wittman are expected to be the ones giving their man advice in between rounds during the heat of battle next Saturday night.
Caudillo is a key member of Gaethje’s team and helps out with the champion’s striking
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