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There are no losers in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, even after the final bell sounds and the scorecards are read. Sure, only one combatant will get his or her hand raised, signifying another notch in the win column. True as that may be, there are no real losers in the cage. Even fighters who are not victorious should exit the Octagon with their heads held high: The grueling work they had to put in, the substantial obstacles they had to overcome and the arduous process they had to endure just to get into the cage is enough to characterize both fighters as “winners.”
UFC 223 on Saturday featured a main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov, an undefeated powerhouse with a 25-0 record, and Al Iaquinta, a surging contender on a five-fight winning streak that included victories over Diego Sanchez, Jorge Masvidal and Joe Lauzon. Nurmagomedov had won all of nine of his UFC bouts before the headliner, which was reconstructed three times. First, Max Holloway stepped in for an injured Tony Ferguson; Anthony Pettis then filled in when Holloway was deemed medically unfit due to a failed weight cut; and finally, Iaquinta was given the green light when negotiations with Pettis went off the tracks and the New York State Athletic Commission refused to sanction Paul Felder.
UFC 223 was originally supposed to feature a lightweight showdown between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, the two best fighters in the division not named Conor McGregor. Unfortunately, fate stepped in and Ferguson tore his lateral collateral ligament while engaging in promotional activities leading up to the fight. We felt blessed for a moment, as Holloway, the reigning featherweight champion, stepped up, literally and figuratively, by accepting the opportunity to challenge Nurmagomedov for lightweight supremacy, potentially saving the main card and the overall event in the process. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, as Holloway couldn’t cut the weight in preparation for the fight. Pettis, whose own fight was canceled when Michael Chiesa was sent to the hospital with injuries sustained during the UFC 223 Media Day melee, was allowed to step into the championship bout against Nurmagomedov. The drama didn’t stop there, though, as negotiations with Pettis’ team fizzled and the NYSAC gave Felder the thumbs down. Soon after, the UFC announced that the main event would move forward with Iaquinta as the late replacement fighter.
The show must go on, and thankfully, neither fighter disappointed at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. They battled for five grueling rounds, taking the fight to each other from feet to floor, cage to cage and bell to bell. Though Iaquinta had never headlined a UFC event, the resilience he showed by going 25 minutes with Nurmagomedov proved he has the potential to someday properly challenge for the lightweight throne. For his part, Nurmagomedov showed us why he is considered by many as the best in his division and why he is widely viewed as one the best fighters in the UFC at any weight class. He put on a jab clinic and showed his superior grappling skills, as he transitioned from the single-leg shot to high-crotch to foot sweep seemingly at will throughout the contest.
The skill, the aggression, the heart, the fight intelligence and the determination that Iaquinta and Nurmagomedov poured out in the cage captivated thousands watching in attendance and many more watching via pay-per-view. Seeing these lightweights leave everything they had in the Octagon through blood, sweat and tears streaming down onto the canvas like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, you could not help but be emotionally charged and inspired. Their struggle epitomized the human condition, as the two standouts literally fought to shed their flesh-and-bone existence, Nurmagomedov in an attempt to become a legend and Iaquinta in an attempt to author a legendary upset. Champions are made of such things.
On paper, Iaquinta wasn’t going to win the fight, and most observers felt he was going to get smashed and added to Nurmagomedov’s highlight reel. That didn’t deter him from taking the fight, though he could have just remained on the sidelines and not risked any negative press. Nurmagomedov risked losing everything -- his undefeated record and the lightweight championship -- to a fighter who was on the edge of the top 10, but he made no excuses and entered the cage like the matchup was planned all along. In the end, Nurmagomedov walked out of the Octagon with the UFC lightweight championship belt, but the UFC 223 main event produced no losers.
Based in Los Angeles, Alexander Tsao is a longtime student of the martial arts and an avid fan of combat sports. He currently trains out of Golden State Jiu-Jitsu in Torrance, California, under Professor Dane Molina. Professionally, he is an attorney at Venerable Injury Law, where his practice focuses on the representation of professional and amateur athletes, as well as everyday athletes, involved in motor vehicle, bicycle, mass transit, ride-sharing and pedestrian accidents.