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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on FOX 31’s Al Iaquinta

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Heavy-handed wrestler, Al Iaquinta, will take on top contender, Kevin Lee, this Saturday (Dec. 15, 2018) at UFC on FOX 31 inside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

What a strange road it has been for Iaquinta. After coming up short at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) Finale back in 2012, Iaquinta established himself as a top contender by winning seven of his next eight fights, showcasing a well-rounded and dangerous game in the process. Then, he spent two years beefing with Dana White, returned to knockout Diego Sanchez in 98 seconds, and somehow ended up fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov for the Lightweight title. “Raging Al” has done it his way, and all has generally worked out for the New Yorker. However, as a result of his time away from the cage and weird match ups, Iaquinta hasn’t faced many of the division’s current top fighters. In this match up with Lee, we’ll find out where Iaquinta truly stands in 2018.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

I’ve written about Al Iaquinta in quite a few “fight previews” over the years, and I think I’ve used the word “clubbing” to describe his punching in just about every one. It’s the perfect descriptor for Iaquinta, a man who routinely curves his right overhand or right hook around the guard, smacking opponents upside the side of the head in devastating fashion. Check out this highlight of Iaquinta clubbing heads if you don’t believe me (GIF).

More to the point, Iaquinta is a smart pocket boxer with some sneaky kicks and a general flair for creativity.

Iaquinta is very often seen walking opponents down in an attempt to enter the pocket. When closing the distance, the Ray Longo-trained boxer does very nice work with his left hand. He commonly doubles or triples up with his lead hand, working his way forward behind a trio of jabs or jab-hook. Often, Iaquinta will also go to the body with his jab or left hook, allowing him to lower his level and load up the right hand a bit more.

Body work makes up a decent portion of Iaquinta’s offense. Aside from the body jab and occasional double hook going low-to-high, Iaquinta commonly digs that right hook to the mid-section as well. The benefits are numerous; aside from what I already mentioned about loading the right, dropping down to hit the mid-section can also help Iaquinta avoid punches and is always valuable in getting his foe’s hands to drop.

Once the distance is closed, it is all about the right hand. To that end, I’d say Iaquinta’s biggest advantages over the average slugger would be his ability to mix up the angle on the right and as well as pure confidence. They’re two fairly self-explanatory traits, but the reason Iaquinta’s right hand lands rather than his opponent’s in a straight up exchange is often because Iaquinta keeps his right loaded all the time and is able to find the hole (GIF). In addition, Iaquinta generally does a nice job pitching his right over his foe’s jab/hook and getting his head off the center line in the process.

Another common trait of Iaquinta is to post his left on his opponent’s guard. From this positioning, Iaquinta can get a good read on his opponent’s reaction and potential offense. Plus, if he’s close enough to place his left hand on the forearm, he’s close enough to starting clubbing with his right.

Any fighter who relies on his right hand as frequently as Iaquinta does should have a hard right low kick as well. The double threat of the right hand-right kick is generally not as devastating as the Southpaw equivalent, but the reasoning is similar enough. If an opponent is covering up tight or leaning back to avoid the right, his lead leg is available to be kicked. Even better, if Iaquinta can convince his opponent to raise their leg to check, there’s no better time to punch someone in the face than as they stand on one foot.

While Iaquinta had trouble landing many punches on Jorge Masvidal, the low kick did land with good consistency as a result of the boxer’s stance and head movement.

Speaking of the bout with Masvidal, that fight really showcased Iaquinta’s creativity. I won’t pretend that I believe Iaquinta deserved to won that decision, but his smarts kept things close. With Masvidal picking him apart in the pocket — which is usually Iaquinta’s wheelhouse — the real estate agent improvised.

For one, Iaquinta would tie kicks together in combination. In one example, Iaquinta threw a right low kick then stepped that foot down into a left high kick. In another, Iaquinta smacked the inside of Masvidal’s thigh with a quick left kick before immediately digging into the mid-section with a left snap kick.

At distance, Iaquinta was also took more of an MMA approach to his movement and entries than his usual boxing-centric approach. Rather than move straight in behind the lead hand, Iaquinta was more willing the dart off the center line and try to take angles on Masvidal.

Finally, while Iaquinta was completely unsuccessful with his single leg takedown attempts in that bout, he did build off them with punches. Often, Iaquinta would reach down, touch the lead leg, and fire his right. At one point, he even tried a leg touch into an upward elbow and follow up punches.

Wrestling

A high school and junior college wrestler, Iaquinta has largely used his wrestling in reverse outside of the occasional single leg takedown and threat of the shot. Defensively, Iaquinta has stuffed 77 percent of his opponents’ takedown attempts, an impressive number considering he’s faced men like Nurmagomedov and Lee.

While no one has been able to stop Nurmagomedov entirely — well, Gleison Tibau did some years back, but he sacrificed actually being offensive in the process — Iaquinta did better than most. Early on, Nurmagomedov’s chain takedowns and pressure were too much to deal with, but even then, Iaquinta did a nice job of turning his back, getting toward the fence, and fighting hands in an attempt to stand back up.

He did spent the majority of those 10 minutes on his back, but he at least saved himself from being mauled compared to someone like Edson Barboza.

Later in the fight as “The Eagle” tired a bit, Iaquinta’s defense did deny a number of shots. On the whole, Iaquinta found most of his success by denying the initial entry with a the MMA equivalent of a wrestling down block: dropping one hand down to defend and kicking the targeted leg back. If Nurmagomedov did manage to grasp the leg through the down block, Iaquinta did his damnedest to limp leg out and flee from the shot.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A student of Matt Serra, Iaquinta is not helpless on the mat nor is he the most offensive grappling. Really, the one offensive movement he continually returns to is the scissor sweep into a heel hook, which is actually quite unique. The best situation for its use is the one he faced against Kevin Lee the first time around: denying a single leg takedown. While bouncing on one foot, Iaquinta will place a hand on the mat and use it to momentarily hold himself up as his other leg swings around and trips up his foe. This immediately places Iaquinta in position to attack the trapped leg (GIF).

Additionally, Iaquinta attempted to heel hook Jorge Masvidal twice. The first time it was actually quite helpful, as Iaquinta used a knee reap to buy himself a few seconds after being stunned by punches. The second example was less useful, as Iaquinta attempted to jump forward and wrap up the leg from range — very difficult to pull off.

Defensively, it does have to be mentioned that Iaquinta has been tapped out in three of four losses and was nearly strangled by Lee as well. The near sub by Lee and rear naked choke defeat to Chiesa are understandable: those two Lightweights specialize in being giant and cranking on necks. The other UFC loss was a miracle submission from Mitch Clarke, a man Iaquinta was thoroughly pummeling before he pulled off a spinning d’arce choke from the bottom. That’s a rare submission (and a personal favorite), one that is extremely effective if you haven’t seen it before.

Conclusion

Is Iaquinta an elite contender, Top 15-worthy puncher, or out of his league? At this point, that question cannot be answered without guesswork ... any of those choices are arguable depending on what fights you choose to support your position. Luckily, this is a perfect match up for Iaquinta to prove where he stands against someone he seems really excited to punch.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.