Preview: UFC 223 ‘Nurmagomedov vs. Iaquinta’

Nurmagomedov vs. Iaquinta

By Josh Stillman Apr 6, 2018

UFC 223 available for order on Amazon Prime (Prime Video PPV)

UFC 223 can only be described as an unmitigated catastrophe, a disaster of unprecedented magnitude.

A quick recap: Original headliner Tony Ferguson suffered a freak knee injury and was pulled from his headliner with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Staggeringly, it was the fourth time this fight has been booked and then cancelled. Featherweight champion Max Holloway stepped in to “save” the fight and the event, despite pulling out of his own title defense a month ago. On weigh-in day, he was deemed medically unfit to compete, not by a doctor but by New York State Athletic Commission officials. Weigh-ins concluded before the Ultimate Fighting Championship settled on a replacement opponent. Anthony Pettis was tabbed to fill in but allegedly asked for too much money and was passed over. Paul Felder -- the only other fighter on the card who had made championship weight -- was next up, but the commission refused to sanction him in a fight opposite Nurmagomedov. Apparently, he was not ranked high enough in the UFC’s official rankings. Finally, Al Iaquinta became the opponent, Nurmagomedov’s fifth of the week. However, he is not eligible to win the lightweight title because he weighed in 0.2 pounds over championship weight with his shorts on.

I have not even gotten to the train wreck that is Conor McGregor, who managed to single-handedly get three fights scratched from this event. In an apparent attempt to protect the honor of teammate Artem Lobov, the “Notorious” Irishman and his entourage assaulted the bus Nurmagomedov was on after a pre-fight press conference at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. That bus was full of other fighters, and as McGregor and his crew threw heavy objects at the windows, Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg were cut by broken glass. Their respective bouts with Pettis and Brandon Moreno were consequently cancelled. For his part in the debacle, Lobov was pulled from the card, nixing his scheduled fight with Alex Caceres. With original opponent Iaquinta promoted to the main event, Felder was also dropped from the lineup.

There are still fights going on at what remains of UFC 223, and some of them are quite good. Let us try not to dwell any longer on all that was lost and look ahead to the fisticuffs still on tap.

UFC Lightweight Championship

Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0) vs. Al Iaquinta (13-3-1)

THE ODDS: Nurmagomedov (-500), Iaquinta (+375)

ANALYSIS: Under normal circumstances, such as they exist in this freakshow sport, Iaquinta fighting Nurmagomedov would be a great matchup. It is no secret what “The Eagle” wants to do his fights. Like Demian Maia, Jon Fitch and other single-minded wrestle-grapplers, it is all the more impressive because he makes it work anyway. However, Nurmagomedov has added a level of violence and inevitable bodily harm to which no one before him has ever even aspired.

No one doubts Nurmagomedov’s wrestling skills are elite, but people have this idea that he can just walk across the Octagon, take down his opponents at will and smash them until the fight ends. This is not always the case. Powerful wrestlers like Gleison Tibau and Pat Healy managed to deny him for long stretches. Where the Dagestani is really otherworldly is in top position. He breaks opponents by sticking to them, putting constant pressure on them and exploiting their weaknesses over and over again.

Nurmagomedov is powerful and willing on the feet, but he is also wild. He has tightened his standup to some extent but mostly looks to box enough to make opponents commit so he can take them down. When an opponent brings his guard too high to cover up or bites down to throw back, the American Kickboxing Academy export will duck under for an easy takedown.

If Iaquinta is to win, he will have to capitalize while the two are at boxing range and land something substantial. He has had well-publicized spats with the UFC over his contract, started a real estate career and has had exactly one fight in the last three years -- against a washed-up Diego Sanchez, no less. With that said, he looked extremely sharp in that sub-two-minute cakewalk, just as he did in putting away Ross Pearson and Joe Lauzon. His last fight before a two-year hiatus was his controversial split decision victory over Jorge Masvidal, which stands as his best win on paper. “Ragin’ Al” initially had difficulty dealing with Masvidal’s slick head movement and lead hand. When “Gamebred” finally decided to put it on him late in the first round, he put Iaquinta on his butt twice in short order. However, he never really got to the New Yorker again, and Iaquinta worked his way back in the fight with greater volume and plenty of kicks. The Serra-Longo Fight Team rep also made a nice adjustment by stepping in behind his jab and then throwing a long cross behind it, snapped back Masvidal’s head a few times.

Iaquinta wrestled in high school and community college. He is a capable if not dominant takedown artist, but his defense has thus far been stellar, currently boasting an 84 percent stuff rate. That will come in handy in keeping Felder out of his most fearsome phase: landing vicious, head-splitting elbows from top position. Otherwise, Iaquinta primarily uses his wrestling as a distraction to set up his hands. He will grab a snatch single or just fake a shot, bail on it and come up swinging.

Out of the available options following the removal of Ferguson and Holloway, Iaquinta provides the stiffest test for Nurmagomedov. His takedown defense and ability to land effective offense moving forward and backward while keeping an ideal distance should make this fight interesting; and unlike Holloway, he had the benefit of a full camp. With that said, it is probably knockout-or-bust for Iaquinta within the first two rounds, as he will not be able to keep the undefeated Dagestani at bay forever. Nurmagomedov will get his mitts on the New Yorker and slowly drown him in deep water, just as he has done to so many others. Nurmagomedov by third-round submission is the pick.

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