Khabib Nurmagomedov has been reflecting on his most recent title defense, a one-sided victory against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 last year, and he spared no prisoners in his assessment of his opponent’s performance on the night.
“He gave up,” Khabib said of Gaethje’s second round triangle choke submission loss. “I mean, his will was broken. He gave up mentally,. I don’t think that I won this fight physically, but rather mentally.”
Khabib went on to describe how he believes he systematically broke Gaethje’s will as the fight progressed.
“I remember when he hit me with the uppercut and left hook, this one was very good,” Khabib recalls . “So I’m like asking him, ‘Is that all?’ To be honest, we had a big talk in this fight. So I’m asking him, ‘Is that all?’ I saw his eyes, he got lost.
“And after this moment, the fight is going on and I went for a middle kick. It was my right foot. I kicked him under the ribs. You know that we’re not good at fighting with legs. And look what he says to me when I kicked him. He starts breathing heavily.”
Nurmagomedov also reveals that he was actually playing mind games with Gaethje regarding his failure to take time to acclimatize to the desert-style environment at Fight Island in the days and weeks lead-up to the bout.
“When I fought Dustin Poirier, my acclimation started after one week,” Khabib said. “And it was at the peak. Even after one week, I still had it. That’s two weeks in a row. Even though we arrived in Abu Dhabi three weeks (prior), only after three weeks, it became better. And that’s because of the desert acclimation.
“Now, I know that Justin arrived on Saturday, and he fights on the next Saturday. So I could know that it will be the peak of acclimation for him. Now, I’m asking him, ‘has acclimation started?’ He replies, ‘No, no, no, no acclimation.’ And that’s while we were fighting.
“So I’m thinking in my mind, ‘Why are you answering to me, Justin? We are fighting.’ Do you understand the psychology level? It’s like the prosecutor is scolding you. So I knew he gave up at this moment.”
All of this gave Khabib even more confidence as he began to take the fight to the challenger.
“After (that), I just started walking him down. He was throwing some punches and losing power. I could feel that when he tried to kick me. I was purposely walking him down and catching his punches.
“And if I wanted to escape his kicks, then I don’t think that he’d hit me that much. These steps with walking him down and so on, they were about to break his will. And when I took him down, he didn’t even try to do something. You may not see this, but I felt it.”
It was surprising to see the lack of fearlessness that had been so prevalent in Gaethje’s previous fights suddenly appear to evaporate, and Khabib was there to witness it first-hand.
“He never did that before. Before me, he fought 24 times. And for our fight, it was the 25th time. But before our fight, he’d never back down. Not a single fight. Amateurs, pro fights in PFL, in the UFC, he would never back down. He’d always go forward.
“That’s why I believe it was the key. I (beat) him mentally.”