Khabib training in closed gym for UFC 249


American Kickboxing Academy, one of the premier MMA gyms in the country located in San Jose, California, is closed indefinitely for about 22 hours per day. During those other two hours, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has been training with a skeleton crew of sparring partners and coaches.

“Just Khabib,” AKA head coach Javier Mendez told ESPN. “That’s it. Nobody else is allowed. No one is coming. Just Khabib. … We’ve gotta keep it safe for him.”

Though most sports are suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UFC is still moving forward with its UFC 249 pay-per-view card on April 18. Nurmagomedov is expected to headline that event in a title defense against Tony Ferguson.

The promotion does not know where the fight will be — it can no longer be held in Brooklyn, as originally planned — but Nurmagomedov is plowing forward with his training camp with the mentality that he will definitely be fighting, Mendez said.

Even if Ferguson cannot compete on that date, Nurmagomedov will be ready to go if there is a card.

“Khabib expects to fight somebody if something happens to Tony,” Mendez said. “He expects to fight somebody. One top guy. Whatever. And then he’ll go back after Tony. That’s the way he looks at it. He’s expecting to fight.

“It’s not like, ‘Tony is out; forget it I’m not fighting.’ He’s training to fight somebody. It’s not like he has it in for Tony. He doesn’t have it in for Tony. [Ferguson is] a top guy. He’s the very best right now that he could face. So that’s why [Khabib] wants to face him.”

Nurmagomedov is ESPN’s top-ranked pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world; Ferguson is No. 6.

Mendez said Nurmagomedov is following a similar schedule to the one he had prior to the coronavirus outbreak, except with much fewer people around. He is sparring every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The other days will be regular practice with grappling, wrestling and striking included. Mendez said he was the only coach in the gym Tuesday. Nurmagomedov also runs outside almost every day.

Nurmagomedov has a tight-knit team around him of fellow Dagestan natives. UFC lightweight Islam Makhachev and PFL lightweight Islam Mamedov are his main sparring partners. He also has Saygid Izagakhmaev and Tagir Ulanbekov working with him. Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA Management, will arrive in San Jose later in the week for further support, he said Tuesday on Instagram.

“It’s affected him a little bit,” Mendez said. “But he has to fight. His attitude is, ‘I’ve got to fight. I’m here to fight and, until they tell me otherwise, I’m training to fight.’ So until [UFC president] Dana [White] says, ‘Get the foot off the pedal, we can’t make it happen,’ Khabib is going to stick to that mindset.”

The San Francisco Bay Area has been under a “shelter-in-place” order since 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, residents are being told to stay in their homes and away from other people as much as possible for three weeks — aside from “essential” reasons to be out. It is not a full lockdown, though it was the strictest measure taken anywhere in the country as of Wednesday.

Mendez said he believes Nurmagomedov and his team are being compliant with that directive, because the gym remains closed and Nurmagomedov is training only with the same people he is always around otherwise.

“It’s private,” Mendez said. “We’re not open to the public. We’re just doing our thing and there’s not many of us. So, we’re good.”

White has been adamant that the fight will go on April 18, even if it means having to do it outside the United States. The New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) confirmed in a statement Wednesday to ESPN, via the state’s Department of State, that the bout cannot happen at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center “out of an abundance of caution and in line with recent guidance issued by the Center for Disease Control and New York State.”

Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, a huge fight for the division and for the UFC overall, has been put together four times previously and it fell apart every single time due to either injury or illness. Mendez has a fair share of skepticism that the fifth time will happen now, too, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t know,” Mendez said. “I know Dana will do everything in his power to make it happen, but I don’t know if he will make it happen. I can’t say for sure he will. I’m not sure if they can pull it off, because [White] can’t control governments. … I want it to happen, obviously. Nobody gets paid if nobody goes to work.”

Nurmagomedov is not sharing any of that skepticism, Mendez said. He is moving ahead, confident that he’ll be competing in four weeks.

“His attitude is the fight is happening,” Mendez said of Nurmagomedov. “His sparring was fantastic on Monday, trust me. He’s training like the fight is gonna happen and I’m teaching him like the fight is gonna happen and telling him the fight is gonna happen.”

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