Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight elite Khabib Nurmagomedov will clash with power-punching real estate agent Al Iaquinta for the (sort of) vacant Lightweight crown TONIGHT (April 7, 2018) at UFC 223 inside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
What a truly wild week it has been in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), both for this bout and for the Lightweight division. First and foremost, Tony Ferguson found a way to successfully kick metal pipes without injury, but his ligaments failed to survive a UFC media event. His injury is announced on April Fool’s Day of all things. Next, Max Holloway showcases enormous guts by accepting an absurdly high-level fight a weight class up on six day’s notice. Finally, Conor McGregor crashes the whole thing, ruins half the fights, and potentially costing himself a small fortune, all to defend the honor of Artem Lobov.
I was all prepared to end the intro blurb there, but then the New York State Athletic Commission decided that Holloway didn’t look healthy while cutting 20 pounds (shocking), and pulled him. After hours of incompetence from the commission and scrambling from UFC, Al Iaquinta was able to step up and save the main event.
Let’s take a closer look at the fight itself:
Key Wins: Rafael dos Anjos (UFC on FOX 11), Edson Barboza (UFC 219), Michael Johnson (UFC 205), Gleison Tibau (UFC 148)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: Nurmagomedov did not win 25 straight bouts by accident. The Sambo master is one of the most dominant fighters in the sport, using amazing chain wrestling and airtight top control to brutalize opponents with scary regularity.
In this bout, Nurmagomedov need not rush forward like he did opposite Barboza — Iaquinta is not a one-hit kill kicker. This match up calls for a more patient brand of pressure, which is something Nurmagomedov has accomplished in the past many times.
For Nurmagomedov, it’s all about finding that one entry into the takedowns. As he stalks Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov will wait for a chance to shoot. “Raging Al” is likely to keep his hands low in hopes of defending that shot, but Nurmagomedov can help himself out by feinting low and firing an uppercut before actually shooting.
Once in on the hips, Nurmagomedov is in his wheelhouse. Even if Iaquinta defends well early, it will be difficult to continually stop the Dagestani’s shots without fatiguing a bit considering the fact that Iaquinta was preparing for a kickboxer.
Key Wins: Jorge Masvidal (UFC Fight Night 63), Ross Pearson (UFC Fight Night 55), Joe Lauzon (UFC 183), Piotr Hallmann (UFC Fight Night 30)
Key Losses: Michael Chiesa (TUF 15 Finale), Mitch Clarke (UFC 173)
Keys to Victory: Iaquinta is a clubbing bruiser with slick pocket boxing and a strong wrestling background. Seven of his career wins came via knockout, including four of his last five wins.
The odds may be against him, but Iaquinta is arguably the best wrestle-boxer that Nurmagomedov has ever faced, and that’s not a bad style match up opposite a smothering top fighter.
In this bout, lateral movement is the New Yorker’s best friend. The fence is death opposite “The Eagle,” but the silver lining is that he isn’t great at cutting off the fence. If Iaquinta is sticking jabs and changing directions, he stands a far better chance at defending the takedown. More than anything else, I’d like to see Iaquinta target his foe’s body. Nurmagomedov pushes an exhaustive pace for both men, and fighters like that can overexert themselves. In such situations, a well-timed body shot can cause that high pace to back fire, as suddenly the fighter driving the high pace can no longer maintain it.
Plus, like Iaquinta’s coach Matt Serra once demonstrated in his legendary upset over Georges St-Pierre, a few punches low can cause a power shot to slip through high.
Bottom Line: Nurmagomedov finally has a shot at gold, while Iaquinta has a chance to leapfrog numerous contenders and do the impossible.
Nurmagomedov’s entire goal since joining UFC has been the strap. He seems to talk and care for little else — Nurmagomedov just wants to be seen as the best. While his title will still technically be disputed by Ferguson, it would still be a well-deserved belt around his waist. Plus, 26-0 with a UFC title should be enough to earn him a high-ranking among the pound-for-pound list. Meanwhile, a loss would be devastating. All of Nurmagomedov’s success has led to this point, and for him to lose to a short-notice foe would sting badly.
There’s much to gain and little to lose for Iaquinta. A victory makes him the new champ in the eyes of UFC, and being the first to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov is a remarkable accomplishment even without the wild circumstances. It would be a hilarious series of events, as Iaquinta has been raging at the UFC for years and would suddenly be in a position of power. Meanwhile, a loss costs Iaquinta little. Prior to all the mayhem, Iaquinta was never discussed as a possible contender or even really elite fighter. That’s not a knock on his skill ... he just wasn’t fighting enough to climb the ladder.
At UFC 223, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Al Iaquinta will duel with a belt on the line. Which man will remain standing when the dust settles?