Preview: UFC on Fox 31 ‘Lee vs. Iaquinta 2’

Lee vs. Iaquinta

By Tom Feely Dec 12, 2018


This is it. All in all, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s deal with Fox probably has to be considered a bit of a disappointment, particularly the component associated with the flagship station. Beyond the initial Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos heavyweight title fight, the UFC’s offerings on broadcast TV never really delivered huge ratings or a platform that propelled showcased fighters into pay-per-view draws. However, it did provide some excellent cards, and UFC on Fox 31 “Lee vs. Iaquinta 2” stands as a solid testament to that legacy, especially the top four fights. All of the main card bouts should be fun and produce some interesting results, and even the prelims are solid, filled with more veteran talent instead of the complete unknowns that defined some recent cards.

Here is the breakdown for UFC on Fox 31, scheduled for Saturday at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee:

Lightweights

Kevin Lee (17-3) vs. Al Iaquinta (13-4-1)

ODDS: Lee (-310), Iaquinta (+255)

The UFC tends to have a policy of throwing its most talented prospects to the wolves, but Lee serves as an example of the cream still managing to rise to the top, even if his path could have been much easier. Lee got a tough fight right off the bat in his UFC debut. Less than two years into his pro MMA career, his first fight in the Octagon came against Iaquinta, who had already established himself as a rising lightweight contender. Lee acquitted himself well, including getting Iaquinta in some tough spots on the mat, and the UFC proceeded to give Lee a bit of a soft touch before moving him up the ranks against Leonardo Santos, which resulted in a stunning first-round knockout loss. From there, Lee rebounded with an unmemorable win over Efrain Escudero, and it was back to tough matchmaking. However, Lee started winning fights when matched with fellow top prospects this time around. An interim title fight against Tony Ferguson was still too much too soon, particularly since Lee was battling a staph infection, but a submission win over Michael Chiesa and a dominating win over Edson Barboza have affirmed that Lee is one of the best wrestlers at 155 pounds, perhaps even matching Khabib Nurmagomedov in that department. With the aftermath of the Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor fight leaving the top of the lightweight division somewhat muddled, it is apparently time for Lee to settle some old business: Four and a half years after his UFC debut, “The Motown Phenom” draws a rematch with Iaquinta.

It has been a weird last few years for Long Island’s “Raging Al.” Injuries halted the beginning of his UFC run, but once Iaquinta settled into a regular fight schedule, he quickly rose up the ranks, winning seven of eight fights. That last fight was the closest of the bunch, as it was a controversial split decision win over Jorge Masvidal, but even that gained Iaquinta some notoriety, as he cursed out the fans for booing the decision. Iaquinta then took some time off for knee surgery. That, plus constant battles with the UFC over health insurance and pay, left the New Yorker on the sidelines while he focused on his burgeoning real estate business. Iaquinta briefly came back to knock out Diego Sanchez in under two minutes, but by his post-fight interview, he was teasing retirement once again. Naturally, within a year, Iaquinta would wind up getting a lightweight title shot; the comedy of errors that was the leadup to UFC 223 left him as the preferred option to face Nurmagomedov on a day’s notice, and while Iaquinta managed to survive 25 for minutes with the current champ, he had little to offer over the course of those five rounds. Now back after a comparatively brief eight-month layoff, it is unclear exactly where Iaquinta falls in the lightweight pecking order. There is quite a gap between being able to beat the 2017 version of Sanchez and being worse than Nurmagomedov. If nothing else, this fight should at least set some expectations for Iaquinta going forward.

The UFC has historically been loath to do rematches, only to pivot and book a bunch in recent months. Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to have come at weird times, and this one is no exception. On paper, Iaquinta can still pose some problems for Lee, as it looks like the latter’s poor chin will always be a concern going forward. Plus, the Nurmagomedov fight did at least show that Iaquinta can hold his own against a strong wrestler. However, given that Lee has spent the last three years becoming a legitimate contender while Iaquinta has been in a holding pattern, this feels like a fight that Lee has moved past. Even so, there is something to be said for revenge, and if nothing else, Lee figures to get that here. Much like Nurmagomedov, Lee should be able to get in on clinches and takedowns against Iaquinta and dominate the fight from there. While Iaquinta does have the moral victory of taking Nurmagomedov to a decision, Lee is a much more aggressive finisher, particularly when it comes to hunting for a submission. Remember, too, that even during his rise up the ranks, Iaquinta seemingly gave up his back or neck once per fight, and if the Long Islander cannot score a quick knockout, this looks like a fight where Lee can get the ball rolling towards a victory without much trouble. The pick is Lee via first-round submission.

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