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‘Father’s Plan’: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fight strategy is an homage to his father’s memory



Javier Mendez didn’t know what to expect when he flew out of San Jose, California, on Sept. 10, bound for Dubai. A five-hour flight from California to New York, then a layover in JFK Airport. Thirteen more hours in a plane would take him to the United Arab Emirates. And all the while, he didn’t really know what awaited him.

Mendez has been the head coach of undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov since 2012. Over the past eight years, they have won 12 consecutive bouts, claimed the UFC’s 155-pound championship and grown into one of the most recognized and celebrated teams in the sport.

But in the weeks prior to Mendez’s departure for Dubai in September — to start camp for Nurmagomedov’s title defense against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi — the two had barely spoken. When they did, it was all business. When would camp start? Where would it be held? Who would attend?

They didn’t discuss a topic that had reverberated throughout the MMA world: the loss of Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, who died in July from heart complications made worse by the coronavirus.

“I didn’t know what to expect from him,” Mendez said. “I thought there might have been enough time for him to grieve before camp, and I was thinking we’d have a big hug and just resume work as normal, but I really didn’t know.

“What I told you, though, is exactly what happened. We hugged each other, and we didn’t talk about nothing. It was just, ‘Let’s get started.'”

The entire MMA community mourned the loss of Abdulmanap. Not only was he responsible for his son’s 28-0 record, but he also was the reason so many others fighting out of Dagestan made it to the UFC, including Islam Makhachev, Tagir Ulanbekov, Rustam Khabilov, Umar Nurmagomedov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov.

But the bond between Nurmagomedov and his father went well beyond sports. He consistently referred to his father as his best friend. After Nurmagomedov defended his title at UFC 242 last year, a reporter asked what advice he would extend to his millions of young fans around the world. He responded, ”Respect your parents.”

“The relationship between them was something I’ve never seen,” said Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz. “It made me think, ‘Wow, this is the relationship I need to have with my own sons.”

Many of those closest to Nurmagomedov have echoed Mendez’s account of how the undefeated champion has dealt with such a personal loss. He has done so privately.

Abdelaziz can’t remember exactly who called him in July to deliver the news, but he is certain it wasn’t Nurmagomedov. He knows this because he distinctly recalls not talking to Nurmagomedov for days. It was the longest the two had gone without speaking since Abdelaziz began managing him in 2016.

“We talk more than once every day,” Abdelaziz said. “That was the first time we didn’t. It was four or five days before we talked. I gave him space. I didn’t know what state of mind he was in.”

Nurmagomedov did not make any immediate public comment in the wake of his father’s death, and he didn’t post anything to social media for several weeks. When he did resurface, it was in the form of a tribute to his father on Instagram. He ended the post with these words from Islamic scripture: “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.”

Less than one week later, Nurmagomedov made a second post on Instagram. It began, “Training continues.” His title fight against Gaethje was announced later that day.

“I never asked him about fighting during that time, and the UFC never asked when he would be back,” Abdelaziz said. “They were very respectful, and I just wanted to be there for him emotionally. I think day by day, he understood this is something he wants to do. He has a family name to carry, and his legacy is attached to his father’s legacy.

“One day, he called and said, ‘I’m going to fight.’ And that was it.”

One of the most important wins of Nurmagomedov’s career occurred 13 months ago in Abu Dhabi, when he submitted interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 242.

It was significant in that it unified the UFC’s lightweight title, and it happened in the Middle East, where Nurmagomedov’s Muslim faith resonates with a huge fan base. The significance was magnified by the fact that his father was able to corner his son for the first time in Khabib’s UFC career. Abdulmanap had been unable to do so previously, due to visa issues.

When Nurmagomedov visualizes walking to the Octagon without his father in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, he acknowledges he doesn’t know how he will feel.

“Who knows how I’m going to be, how I’m going to feel inside the cage. Nobody knows,” Nurmagomedov said. “Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I feel great too. But this is first time I’m going to have a hard situation when I go to cage. Nobody knows.”

One thing Nurmagomedov will have, however, is what he and Mendez refer to as “Father’s Plan,” which is essentially everything his father taught him about fighting — on the ground.

Mendez chuckles when discussing it, because it is ironic in a way. Mendez is a former kickboxing champion with more than 30 years of experience tied into striking. But if it were up to him, Nurmagomedov would never throw a single punch. During Nurmagomedov’s sparring sessions, Mendez’s advice essentially consists of, ”Take him down! Father’s Plan!”

Sometimes Nurmagomedov listens. Other times — whether to prove a point or simply because he is enjoying himself — he resists.

“The only time he’s truly fought the way I wanted him to was when his father was present,” Mendez said. “Every other fight, every other practice, it’s part of what I want and part of what he wants.

“It’s pretty simple; it’s black and white. He’s the best fighter on the ground, probably ever. Why would I want him to do anything else? You can’t equate the amount of time he’s spent working on stand-up with me to the amount of time he spent with his father. There’s no comparison. And that’s the only thing we really talk about that concerns his father — following Father’s Plan. Because 95 percent of what Khabib does is knowledge he got from his father.”

In 2019, Nurmagomedov split his camp for UFC 242 between San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy and Dubai. This time, due to concerns surrounding COVID-19 in the United States, he has not trained at AKA for the first time in his UFC career and has held all of his preparations in Dubai.

Some of the camp’s most crucial work has taken place in a large gymnasium in the sprawling Nas Sports Complex, which outfitted the gym with a full-size Octagon. This is where Nurmagomedov sparred as his coaches looked on from chairs arranged cageside. This is where his father primarily ran practice in 2019.

“His father wasn’t too vocal — I’m probably more vocal than his father — but he was very, very attentive,” Mendez said. “He made sure everyone was disciplined. If someone got out of line, his father would be chewing them out. Don’t waste the time of anyone who is here to work — that was his thing.”

Although Nurmagomedov’s title fight against Gaethje is his team’s biggest matchup this month, four of his teammates were scheduled to compete during the UFC’s current five-week stretch on ”Fight Island,” a nickname coined for Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.

“Why I need this fight? I’m already one of the greatest. I have money. I have name. I have business. I have family, kids. Why I need this fight? One thing. I love competition. I love this. That’s why I’m here.”

Khabib Nurmagomedov

“My father take young guys, like seven fighters, when they were very young and make them UFC fighters,” Nurmagomedov said. “He worked with them for 14 years. This is not like someone with 10 years in wrestling and goes to [an MMA gym] and they make him UFC fighter. My father, when he have student, they come to him with nothing.”

To Nurmagomedov, this team of Dagestani fighters is his father’s legacy. Prior to Abdulmanap’s group, there had never been a UFC fighter from this war-torn region of the world. And in a way, Abdulmanap’s legacy is still being written, as a number of his Dagestani fighters have only just begun their UFC careers.

“Khabib has taken his father’s role in that,” Mendez said. “Every day, he addresses the team on the mats just like his father did. Everyone lines up and he talks to them, and then they go through their routine. That’s Khabib, and that was his father too.

“Exactly what his father did, now Khabib does.”

Mendez has heard Nurmagomedov discuss a blueprint for the end of his career only once. It was in April 2019, when Mendez visited Nurmagomedov and his father in Dagestan. Nurmagomedov was 27-0 at the time, and his father wanted him to retire 30-0, with one of the final matchups taking place against former two-weight champion Georges St-Pierre.

“I had never heard them discuss anything like that, and that was the only time I’ve ever seen him talk about it,” Mendez said. “We were in the car driving to the gym. We didn’t have an intimate talk about it or anything, but they were discussing it.”

Over the past 18 months, that narrative has spilled into the public — in part, because Nurmagomedov’s father told a Russian news outlet, “For Khabib, 30-0 is enough.”

On one hand, it’s easy to assume that must be the plan for the end of Nurmagomedov’s career. But if you ask him, he’ll say he doesn’t know. He is intrigued by the idea of 30-0 — “The Floyd Mayweather of MMA,” as he calls it — and does like the idea of fighting St-Pierre. But overall, he is noncommittal about both. He is open to following the path his father laid out for him in the car in 2019 — or finding his own.

For now, in the midst of an incredibly difficult year, it seems what Nurmagomedov wants most is the competition he has sought and known his entire life. It probably explains why the first words Nurmagomedov offered to the public this summer, after the tribute to his father, were centered around training.

“I have only one thing why I’m here,” Nurmagomedov said. “Why I need this fight? I’m already one of the greatest. I have money. I have name. I have business. I have family, kids. Why I need this fight? One thing. I love competition. I love this. That’s why I’m here.”

Having been an MMA coach since 1996, Mendez has seen fighters compete under every situation imaginable. UFC 254 will not be his first experience cornering an athlete who is dealing with personal loss.

“I find these guys give it more,” Mendez said. “They do more. They want more. They lost a loved one and they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They try to honor their loved ones by going out and being something more than they were before. It’s not always the case, but usually I find my guys have been stronger.

“And I’m expecting the same from Khabib.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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