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There was once a time, not so long ago, that Al Iaquinta seemed very much done with a career as a professional fighter. After a controversial split decision victory over Jorge Masvidal in April 2015 that ended with “Ragin’ Al” hurling profanities at a disagreeable crowd in Fairfax, Virginia, the Serra-Longo Fight Team product battled with a string of injuries before engaging Ultimate Fighting Championship management in a prolonged and highly visible dispute over performance bonuses, his contract and the terms of the organization’s health insurance policy. Over the course of two full years punctuated by numerous false starts and expletive-laden interviews, Iaquinta was the odd man out at 155 pounds, barely registering as an afterthought as the division’s ranks swelled with talent and the company placed its full promotional weight behind Conor McGregor.
Even when he returned to jettison former title challenger Diego Sanchez inside two minutes at UFC Fight Night 108, the Long Island, New York, native was thoroughly non-committal about stepping back into the Octagon. “If you’re selling a house, hit me up” was his rejoinder when he was asked when he wanted to fight next, later followed by a salvo of tweets where he tried to goad the organization into releasing him from his contract. When then-UFC-bantamweight Leslie Smith and lightweight Kajan Johnson teamed up to launch Project Spearhead, the latest effort to unionize fighters and secure better pay and conditions from the UFC, Iaquinta put his hand up to be treasurer -- sounding the death knell for his career and title aspirations in many people’s minds.
After walking such an acrimonious road with an organization infamous for its ability to hold a grudge, only an utterly absurd series of events could see the 31-year-old booked to headline a Fox show against a Top-5 opponent just two fights later. Yet that’s exactly what we got. First, Iaquinta found himself fighting for the lightweight title on less than a day’s notice after an obtrusive cable in a dimly lit television studio teamed up with the New York State Athletic Commission to kill off the UFC’s Plan A, B and C for the UFC 223 event in Brooklyn. A rock-ribbed, five-round showing against current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov -- who by way of comparison needed less than 20 minutes to dispatch McGregor on a full-camp a few months later -- put Iaquinta on the map, and on Saturday, he anchored the UFC’s final show on the Fox network and bested the No.4-ranked Kevin Lee by unanimous decision.
“The same Al!” is what Iaquinta screamed as the horn sounded at the conclusion of the fifth, a reference to Lee’s trash talk in the buildup, where “The Motown Phenom” suggested Iaquinta had made only marginal improvements since the two lightweights met at UFC 169 in 2014. Despite Lee having twice as many fights (12) as Iaquinta (six) since then, “Ragin’ Al” clearly did more damage over the 25 minutes and put on a striking clinic in the championship rounds after Lee took second and third courtesy of his smothering grappling offense.
“I’m the [expletive] guy in this division,” he asserted to commentator Jon Anik in the post-fight interview, subsequently calling for a rematch with Nurmagomedov, a title eliminator opposite McGregor or a showdown with Tony Ferguson. With the victory, Iaquinta usurped Lee’s place as the No. 4-ranked lightweight under the UFC umbrella, and with the champion’s fate still up in the air after his post-fight hulk-smashing at UFC 229 provoked the ire of the Nevada Athletic Commission, it’s conceivable that Iaquinta could find himself in a No.1-contender fight in 2019 depending on where the chips fall.
“Improbable” doesn’t do justice to Iaquinta’s success in 2018, both in the opportunities he has been given and the performances he has put on when the cage door closes. A part-time real estate agent who was filmed closing a sale by “Anatomy of a Fighter” barely a week out from his showdown with Lee, the image Iaquinta has presented of himself is less of starry-eyed, goal-obsessed professional fighter and more of the blue-collar everyman walking to the beat of his own drum. Fighting may be his passion, but when it didn’t pay the bills, he hung up the gloves; diplomacy with the UFC execs made the most sense, but on principle he couldn’t stomach it and instead told us all exactly how he felt; when a union came calling, he dropped his tools and went to help out, career consequences be damned.
Yet as we head into 2019, he’s closing in on a second shot at arguably the most important title in all of MMA. His authenticity has clearly resonated with MMA fans -- his fight in Milwaukee drew the best overnight ratings for a UFC on Fox show in two years -- and his power and accuracy make him a threat to anyone in the Top 5 going forward. Perhaps just as important has been his ability to rise to the occasion and reset in real time when he encounters adversity inside the cage.
It’s difficult to imagine Iaquinta being the one to finally solve the Nurmagomedov puzzle, but he has arguably had the most success since the Dagestani’s nail-biter against Gleison Tibau nearly six years ago. If he were to go out there and stick it to a Ferguson or Dustin Poirier -- both of whom match up well stylistically with him -- who’s to say a rematch between the company’s newest heel and the “real Brooklyn gangster” wouldn’t make sense in six months?
Ultimately, those kinds of predictions are far too premature given the prevailing state of uncertainty in the division. For now, we should just be grateful that Iaquinta did a U-turn on his retirement and enjoy the ride while it lasts. In a sport that’s known for its unpredictability, Iaquinta’s rebirth truly has no parallel.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.