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A lot has changed since the first fight between Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta. Buried on the UFC 169 undercard, the two future headliners went back and forth in a closely contested fight. Lee, 21 at the time with a 7-0 pro record, was making his Octagon debut. Iaquinta, a few months shy of his 27th birthday, was slightly more experienced on the big stage. He was 2-1 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and 7-2-1 overall. The New York native, however, was fighting in front of a partisan New Jersey crowd, and when the judges’ scorecards were turned in, “Ragin’ Al” was given the unanimous nod. It was close, though: All three Sherdog judges called it a draw.
Fast forward four and a half years, and their careers had panned out very differently. Lee went on a tear, fighting three times every year and winning nine of his next 10 in increasingly dominant fashion. He earned a crack at the interim title opposite Tony Ferguson, and despite a staph infection and a strong opening round, he succumbed to a third-round submission. No matter. Lee was still young, his performance still impressive. He was a notch below the Holy Trinity of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Ferguson and Conor McGregor, but just a small one.
Iaquinta, on the other hand, took a different path. After beating “The Motown Phenom” in New Jersey, he lost his next bout and then strung together a four-fight winning streak against solid opposition. However, it should be mentioned that his split decision win against Jorge Masvidal was controversially bad, as 13 out of 15 MMA outlets scored the fight for Masvidal, and the decision was one of Sherdog’s “Robberies of the Year” for 2015. The turbulence only got worse from there. Fights were cancelled due to opponent injuries and positive PED pops, effectively halting Iaquinta’s momentum and preventing him from putting the Masvidal fiasco behind him. He was banned from receiving post-fight bonuses for missing a fighter summit from which he was originally excused, and when a fight contract was put in front of him next, it was for a pay cut. He turned down the fight, and his exile continued. Two healthy prime years came and went between wins, and another year would go by before he stepped up to fight Nurmagomedov in a makeshift title fight, where he was dominated across five yawning rounds.
Suffice to say, Lee looked like a lock to win the rematch at UFC on Fox 31 on Saturday in Milwaukee. He was on an upward swing and was steadily growing into his peak fighting years. Iaquinta had ups and downs and doldrums between. Lee was busier and more successful against better opposition; Iaquinta’s best win was hard to call a win. Lee looked like a future champion; Iaquinta looked like a future full-time real estate agent.
Yet here we are, the Monday after the fight, pleasantly reminded that “Ragin’ Al” is still a force in the deepest division in the sport. He fought through adversity and definitively took the two championship rounds to cinch his second unanimous decision win over the highly touted Lee. It wasn’t long ago that Iaquinta’s entertainment value began and ended at cussing out the UFC on Twitter. Now, he’s back in the title picture after a gutsy performance.
As for Lee, he still has the potential to become champion. A 10-4 UFC record as a 26-year-old is nowhere near a career death knell, and he is still one of the most imposing athletes in the division. Stylistically, he may pose the biggest challenge to reigning champion Nurmagomedov than anyone else in the top echelon, and sooner or later, it’s looking like he’ll get a chance to prove it. Lee has done enough and is young enough that a close, tough loss like this does little to diminish his standing. Iaquinta has jumped in the mix, but he didn’t displace Lee by any means.
The lightweight division has always been the most talent-rich weight class in the UFC -- if not also the most snakebitten -- yet now more than ever it hosts the most compelling matchup potential in the promotion. Put these names in a hat and virtually any combination you pull out is an awesome fight: Lee, Iaquinta, Ferguson, McGregor, Nurmagomedov, Nate Diaz, Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza. I usually do not envy the job of UFC matchmakers, but this is a pretty hard list of names to mess up. Knock on wood.
Perhaps more important than simply being another formidable shark in the tank, Iaquinta’s persona and style, in and out of the cage, make him an exciting addition to the top tier. He’s a stout, power-punching gunslinger and as tough as they come. He’s funny and emotionally transparent but confident without being self-serious. He’s talkative enough to make pre-fight hype fun, but he’s not over-the-top obnoxious with it. He’s distinct and original in a sport full of characters. It’s no small delight to have Iaquinta in the title picture. The lightweight division would have been fine without him, but it’s no doubt much better with him in the mix.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.