“Raging” Al Iaquinta – An interesting year
Al Iaquinta has had an interesting year, to say the least. “Raging Al” started 2018 a quirky and loud mouthed supporting cast member on the fringes of the lightweight showcase. Known for his brazen commentary on his less than stellar relationship with Dana White and his employer’s dubious intentions, he was good for fun, New York accented interviews and knocking out the Diego Sanchezes of the world, but true progression into the upper echelons of MMA was a fanciful notion amongst fight fan’s most hardcore factions. Then Tony Ferguson tripped and fell.
The hell week of UFC 223 in April is well chronicled, not only by myself but by everyone else in the fight-sphere. Many things happened, fighters were injured, dollies were thrown, and we still stumble around in its crater in many aspects. One of the chief stories returning from the UFC’s fateful trip to Brooklyn, New York was the emergence of fighter turned real estate agent turned fighter again “Raging” Al Iaquinta. Due to “El Cucuy” losing a sparring session with a cable at the fox studios, the UFC was forced to conjure up a new opponent for impending champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The initial choice, featherweight kingpin Max Holloway, was halted inches from the finish line as the New York State Athletic commission put a stop to his weight cut on the day of the weigh-ins. That left three previously weighed in 155ers: Anthony Pettis, Paul Felder and the “Raging One” himself. Former champion Pettis was a no go for reasons known only to himself and the UFC, so Felder was the logical choice, having made championship weight earlier that morning. In a baffling yet bitterly unsurprising move by the commission, they vetoed the inclusion of the “Irish Dragon” based on the contrived and young but still somehow outdated rankings system. Felder had not yet elbowed his way into the good graces of the committee of who the hell knows, and thus was not featured in the top 15.
The late save
That left one man: the sole New Yorker not decimated by the events of the prior few days, “Raging” Al Iaquinta. Having weighed in at 155.2 lbs for a three round non-title contest with a striker, the Long Island native was asked to send his boxer briefs down to the UFC’s top brass. A act of bizarre desperation to the uninitiated, but a sign that something magical was about to happen for the MMA faithful waiting with baited breath. After concluding that Al’s pants did indeed weigh 0.2 lbs – which begs several questions on its own – and he had technically weighed in at 155 on the dot, it was official: the Serra/Longo product was the new headliner for UFC 223.
Of course, lost in the romanticism was the confusing stipulation that Iaquinta wouldn’t actually be champion in the state of New York had he won, but would also maybe kinda be recognised as champion by the promotion. Frankly, for continuities sake, it’s a good thing he lost and Khabib finally reached the promised land, hoisting up his first UFC belt after years of dominance interrupted by injuries and weight cut issues. It wasn’t straight forward on the night however.
Iaquinta had been preparing for a 15 minute affair with the aforementioned Paul Felder, a karate based stand up fighter. On less than 24 hours notice he accepted a 25 minute contest with pre-eminent wrestler-smasher Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov. Instead of a thorough disintegration at the hands of the preternaturally savage mauler, “Raging” Al put forward a sturdy resistance. He eluded several of Khabib’s vaunted single legs, and refused to get out of the Dagestani’s face during striking exchanges. For the first time Khabib looked something like a mortal man, unless you count the Gleison Tibau fight – which MMA fans have unanimously decided to exorcise from their memories so I suppose I won’t bring it up.
Not quite enough
Iaquinta did still lose 50-44, 50-43 and 50-43, but he won 50-35 in our hearts. There were many positives to take from the night, ignoring the stimulus for several late developments. Al was praised thoroughly for his mettlesome moral victory in defeat, but the lightweight division was far from relieved of its turmoil. Now many were saying Khabib was an illegitimate champion, justifiably so, as he hadn’t beaten a top ten fighter for his belt, nor had he tangled with his principal rivals Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson – which would go halfway to being settled in October when Khabib submitted McGregor. Instead of receiving plaudits, Iaquinta was used as evidence for the overvaluing of the once lionised skills of Nurmagomedov.
Nevertheless, Iaquinta was afforded a loftier presence in the MMA world thanks to his late main event save in his homestate. Interestingly, this all comes after an apparent career wind down for the Wantagh native. Having only fought three time since 2014 thanks to a combination some contract disputes, Iaquinta turned much of his attention to the real estate game, making a decent living selling houses. And never one to mince words, Iaquinta was known for verbal spewing, amongst his grievances being the UFC’s decision making a distinct lack of bonus money coming his way despite several impressive stoppage finishes. This would be termed the “Iaquinta bonus ban” by fans, an idiom which continues to carve out a legacy.
The always entertaining New Yorker clearly was not a man the UFC machine was going to get behind thanks to his precarious commitment to fighting and his ruthless fulminating whenever a microphone was in front of his face, not to mention the contract issues. After the Khabib fight it was difficult to predict the direction his career would go in, but it seemingly lit a fire under him.
the top five
With his eyes set on a rematch, Iaquinta endeavoured to fight again in a timely fashion, and was initially booked to take on Justin Gaethje in August. That fell through and we were left to wonder once more. Then came the Kevin Lee booking, a rematch of a fight back in 2014 that Al took via decision. Lee was storming up the rankings, and thanks to a methodical drubbing of Edson Barboza back in April. He was considered by many to be an heir apparent in the Lightweight division, something he was more than happy to point out. Now the “Motown Phenom” had a chance to avenge a loss suffered at the young age of 21 to Iaquinta.
That didn’t happen, as “Raging” Al put forth a calculated boxing heavy effort to score the unanimous nod in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last weekend. Despite Lee threatening with lengthy periods of back control, Al out struck the brash Detroit native to earn the victory, much to Kevin Lee’s incredulity. Despite protests from Lee, MMA media was awash with praise of Iaquinta’s performance, this time with no caveats. In a predictably entertaining post fight interview, “Raging” Al called out Conor McGregor, declaring himself more deserving of a rematch with Khabib than the “Notorious One”, and in a rare show of concordance most MMA fans agreed.
After the fight Lee communicated his disbelief at the decision. Dana White, himself not hesitant to return verbal fire at Iaquinta over the years, expressed his approval of the score cards and even threw some shine at Al. Al Iaquinta now ends the year in the top 5 after nearly four years of being a practical non-factor in the division. He currently stands as a legitimate contender in the division, and could conceivably get his rematch in the next year or two.
What’s most important in all this is Al Iaquinta got to this position while still being Al Iaquinta: a loudmouthed, complaining, New York estate agent who fights every now and again. Unwilling to keep his opinions to himself, he stood up for his principles on many occasion. Respectable when you consider the UFC’s history of manipulating the narrative. The formula didn’t change, it just started to work, much to the amazement and delight of the MMA faithful. Now “Raging” Al is the number 4 lightweight in the world, and he finally got his bonus.
Images courtesy of mmajunkie.com, foxsports.com and twitter.com.