Long Island's Al Iaquinta will be taking on Mitch Clarke during the UFC 173 prelims tonight (results here) in his first-ever fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. However, his most recent fight took place in an underground smoker in New York City.
Not in real life of course, as Iaquinta has taken up acting as a second job and the UFC lightweight answered the call for an audition that landed the lead role in the TV series project entitled "Choke Artist," which is currently being shopped around to networks (sizzle reel can be seen here).
Iaquinta plays Judd Pulaski, a New York-based fighter working his way up the ranks in the state where fighting is illegal. The series was written and directed by Sean Fitzgerald and produced by Stephen Koepfer and Jabari Gray.
Iaquinta was a guest on MMAmania's Darce Side Radio podcast recently along with Koepfer and discussed the challenges of taking up acting.
"It's tough but I'm definitely enjoying it," Iaquinta said. "It's really cool to work hard and see the finished result with the sizzle reel that came out and I'm looking forward to taking it as far as I can."
"When I first was watching it I was cringing as I was watching just because I didn't know how it was going to look. There were some scenes that I messed up and I didn't know how the editing was going to go and as I got towards the end I was like 'Wow, this is actually freaking good.' They made me look good. Everyone else did real good. It came together beautifully."
"I really feel like we discovered Al," said Koepfer, the current head instructor at NY Combat Sambo, who used to work with Iaquinta while coaching at a Miletich gym affiliate on Long Island. "I truly believe Al has a future in front of the camera if that's what he chooses to do."
The 27-year-old fighter has gone back and watched his fights like many other mixed martial artists have, but what about going back and watching himself act?
"It's kind of the same thing," said Iaquinta who is now 3-1 in the UFC. "I look back and I watched it a bunch of times and I see what I did right and I really like those parts. Then I see some parts and I'm like 'Oh if I would've done this a little differently it would've been a little better.' It's definitely pretty similar in a lot of ways."
One of the big highlights of the "Choke Artist" sizzle reel is a well-thought out and very realistic fight scene choreographed by Koepfer, that pits Iaquinta against his Serra-Longo teammate Johnny Bonilla-Bowman. The familiarity between the two allowed for some risky maneuvers that translated really well on screen.
"That was awesome having him in there with me," Iaquinta said about Bonilla-Bowman, who has fought in GLORY and was a Division-1 wrestler at Hofstra. "We spar together all the time so we work well together. We wrestle all the time so we know each other's movements pretty good. It worked out and I think it made the shots really good. We got to practice a lot. He also has a suplex that he does. I said 'You have to do that, it's going to work,' and I think a lot of people might not have trusted him to do it. He might not have been comfortable throwing someone he didn't know over his head."
Iaquinta said the scene "really portrayed an underground fight. It was dark and dim, a little bit of light, you couldn't really see the crowd. The way it was filmed was awesome."
The 8-2-1 fighter showed the reel to his coach Ray Longo and said he "loved it" and said it was "awesome" and "one of the best fight scenes he's seen."
Koepfer was obviously very flattered by the high praise from Longo and said, "If the show gets picked up, I definitely want a cameo from Ray."
"He's in," Iaquinta said without hesitation.
As we know the sport is still illegal in NY. The bill to legalize MMA has once again passed through the state Senate, but is most likely destined to fail in the State Assembly, where it has the last several years. Being a part of the series is unique for Iaquinta because he really does know what it's like to not be able to fight in his home state.
The native New Yorker said he hopes "Choke Artist" gets picked up and "opens everyone's eyes to the ridiculousness that is going on with this whole thing and maybe it will have a little bit of impact on getting this thing legalized in New York."
"Most New Yorkers don't even know that it's banned in New York," said Koepfer, who produced the 2011 documentary NY MMA and led a grassroots movement in the city to push for legalization. Over 60 people auditioned for "Choke Artist" and he revealed that the majority of them thought that MMA being illegal in NY was "fiction" and "written for the show."
It's been a long time since Koepfer worked with Iaquinta, but the two stayed in touch through the years and they couldn't be happier to be working with one another once again.
"The martial arts community in general is just so awesome. You make connections with people and it sticks a long time. I learned a tremendous amount from Steve back in the day. He was always fun to get on the mat with. He always had new variations and little techniques that were really fun and stuck out in my mind. We stayed in touch a little bit over the years and then when I saw him tweet about this project I said 'Why not? Lets give this a shot.' I'm glad that I reached out to him."
Koepfer feels the same, "It's like Al said. The NY MMA community is really close knit. To work with Al now is great."
The former Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season 15 finalist said it was "pretty good" to get his "head out of training" for the weekend the "Choke Artist" reel was shot and he returned "refreshed and refocused" when he got back to his fight camp.
"I'm doing the same thing I've always been doing," he said. "I'm with Ray Longo and Matt Serra two times a day, six days a week, putting in the work and trying to get myself to be the best that I can be and I think that is what you are going to see on Saturday night."
As far as his opponent Clarke goes, Iaquinta says he is "good on the ground and has decent stand up," but he feels he is on a "whole different level" than his adversary who fights out of MMA lab and is now 1-2 in the UFC.
The fighter who stopped Iaquinta in the TUF 15 final, Michael Chiesa, also fights on tonight's UFC 173 preliminary card and the Serra-Longo fighter was asked about a potential rematch.
"Me and Mike are good friends now," Iaquinta revealed. "I actually just ran into him we were both going to check our weight. It was like a big reunion with me, him and Sam Sicilia. That loss has been bothering me ever since, so if I get that opportunity, I'm definitely going to turn that into a win for sure."
A win over Clarke tonight would be Iaquinta's fourth in a row. He hasn't faced the elite fighters of the UFC's shark tank division yet, but a four-fight win streak in the UFC could see him jump up in competition his next time out.
"I don't put too much thought into it," said Iaquinta about thinking ahead. "That's definitely the goal is to move up the ranks, keep winning, put on good shows and get those guys with those names and those big fights: co-main event, main event, that's the goal. But for right now, I'm just worried about going out there and putting on a show. It's kind of the short term goal I'm focused on now is to getting that win. After that anything is possible, but for right now I just have to get my hand raised."
Yes, Iaquinta has fought in Las Vegas on TUF, but he has never fought on a numbered UFC card. It's safe to say he is fired up for his fight against Clarke tonight.
"This is my first one at the MGM. I'm amped up. This is as good as it gets besides MSG, but we talked about that already."