Iaquinta is poised to earn his second win over Kevin Lee at UFC Milwaukee on Saturday (Photo Credit: UFC Twitter)
Just eight months ago, veteran lightweight Al Iaquinta was given the unexpected opportunity of a lifetime. On less than 24 hours notice, he was offered the chance to face Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title at April’s UFC 223 when Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis and Paul Felder were all unable to meet the Russian for various reasons after Tony Ferguson was forced to withdraw from the event’s highly-anticipated headliner.
Obviously, it’s not often a fighter in Iaquinta’s position receives an opportunity like that, especially under such odd circumstances. But Iaquinta’s UFC career has been far from typical. And in the main event of this Saturday’s UFC Milwaukee, he’ll face fourth-ranked Kevin Lee–an opponent he once dominated who now believes that Father Time and outside obligations have robbed the proud Long Islander of his ability to defeat the “Motown Phenom” for a second time.
Not surprisingly, Iaquinta took advantage of his platform at Wednesday’s open workouts to explain how Lee has improved since their first meeting, and why it won’t be enough to produce a different outcome in the main event of Saturday’s UFC On Fox 31.
“As a fighter physically he’s totally different, mentally he’s improved a lot, [but] I think there’s only so much you can improve on that end,” said Iaquinta via MMA Junkie. “He saw what I was made of back then, I’m still made of the same [expletive]. I’m just way smarter, way more mature, way more of a veteran. I’ve been in there with tougher guys.”
To be fair, Iaquinta’s first win over Lee, a unanimous-decision in 2014, came in the “Motown Phenom’s” UFC debut. A lot has changed for both fighters since then, and Lee’s current status as a top-five lightweight contender is evidence of just how much he’s improved over the past four-plus years.
Despite Iaquinta’s recent inactivity that’s led to just two fights since he defeated Jorge Masvidal via split-decision in April 2015, he’s earned a reputation for taking-on some very tough opponents. Along with that victory over Masvidal, and last April’s loss to Nurmagomedov, Iaquinta has also shared the Octagon with veteran brawler Diego Sanchez and the always-dangerous Joe Lauzon to name just a few. By comparison, while Lee has been far more active than Iaquinta during the past few years, he’s only recently tangled with the division’s toughest in 2017 bouts against Michael Chiesa and Tony Ferguson, and a 2018 matchup with Edson Barboza.
Ultimately, losing to Nurmagomedov didn’t hurt Iaquinta’s standing in the UFC’s lightweight division or his reputation as a top-10 talent. Much like the results of Derrick Lewis’ recent loss to current two-division champion Daniel Cormier, Iaquinta’s loss to Nurmagomedov has had a positive impact on his career because nobody expected him to defeat the Russian. And like Lewis, Iaquinta wouldn’t have cared if that wasn’t the case.
Fittingly, Iaquinta’s loss to Nurmagomedov is now his biggest Octagon accomplishment. Originally scheduled to face a very tough opponent in Felder at UFC 223, Iaquinta was only prepared for a three-round fight when he agreed to go five rounds with Nurmagomedov on less than 24 hours notice. More importantly, Iaquinta lasted all 25 minutes with the current lightweight king, something that the infamous Conor McGregor was unable to do despite a full training camp geared towards defeating Nurmagomedov.
Following a contract dispute, Iaquinta was more than willing to walk away from the sport and briefly hung-up his gloves in Sept. 2016, becoming a legitimate real estate agent in order to make ends meet before returning to the Octagon to face Sanchez in April 2017. But shortly after defeating Sanchez, Iaquinta’s rage towards the UFC resurfaced over past issues and he began to taunt his bosses through social media, daring the “sissy’s” to cut him from the promotion’s roster.
Fortunately, it appears that accepting the last-minute opportunity to face Nurmagomedov has gone a long way towards improving the relationship between Iaquinta and the UFC brass. But he’s always put business before everything else–which is one reason why he’s still in the real estate game, and in many ways, he embodies today’s definition of a true prize fighter.
Of course, a victory over Lee in Milwaukee on Saturday could change all that and place “Ragin’ Al” in the thick of the division’s elite. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Serra-Longo product during the past few years it’s to expect the unexpected, because Al Iaquinta is far from the typical UFC fighter.