Wantagh's Iaquinta rises in main event

Despite loss, MMA fighter earns high praise


Wantagh’s “Raging” Al Iaquinta slid right into a MMA main event slot last weekend — his biggest fight to date — on just over 24 hours’ notice. In a long-awaited return, he helped deliver a bout with memorable moments, giving mixed martial arts fans a show they never expected.

“Let’s go. I told them that I am the guy,” Iaquinta said when he was told about the schedule change that thrust him into prime time.

But Iaquinta fell short of defeating the unbeaten lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0), of the Russian republic of Dagestan, at Barclays Center. Iaquinta lost a five-round decision by scores of 50-44, 50-43 and 50-43 on the judges’ scorecards.

His return came after multiple knee injuries, company disputes and contract negotiations, while fighting for just 98 seconds in two years. He was one of the last major Long Island-based fighters to throw down in the state of New York after it legalized the sport in 2016. 

“He delivered like no one could imagine,” Matt Serra, former UFC fighter and Iaquinta’s mentor, said after the fight.

Iaquinta traveled a tough road back to the Octagon, enduring two major knee surgeries to repair articular cartilage damage just a few years apart. He even took up real estate as a second and more predictable occupation, in which he was comfortable in lieu of fighting if the contract and terms he felt he deserved weren’t met. This time he returned to MMA healthy — in large part due to NY Sports Science Lab — and ready to fight.

In a storyline almost too farfetched to believe, Iaquinta was possibly the fifth option for the main event slot he eventually slid into. As the No. 11-ranked lightweight, he was slated to face South Philadelphia’s unranked Paul Felder in the first bout of last Saturday’s UFC 223 main card, headlined by a lightweight title fight between Interim Champion Tony Ferguson and Nurmagomedov. But Ferguson tore a knee ligament in a freak accident six days before the fight, which set off a chain of unanticipated events on the way to last Friday morning’s weigh-ins. 

Ferguson’s replacement, featherweight champion Max Holloway, was deemed unfit by the New York State Athletic Commission to continue cutting weight, leaving the UFC scrambling for a replacement to head the card. After a hellish week highlighted by an attack on a bus by the UFC’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, the organization eventually called on the Wantagh native, whom it has had some differences with in the recent past, to move into the main event and fight in front of the New York faithful.

“I still don’t know what the hell is going on, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Iaquinta said last Friday. “Stay ready and seize the moment, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Despite the loss, he did just that, lasting against a fighter many believe to be the best under the UFC umbrella and possibly the most dominant grappler the sport has seen. Nurmagomedov employed his patented pressuring wrestling game plan early in the fight, taking Iaquinta to the mat and threatening submissions while landing punches along the cage fence. Then Iaquinta began “stuffing” — negating Khabib’s takedowns — in the middle portion of the fight. A Wantagh High School and Nassau Community College wrestling product, he tapped into his background to mess up his opponent’s game plan.

Throughout Rounds 3 and 4, Iaquinta stood and traded blows with Nurmagomedov, allowing himself to be touched time after time by his opponent’s jab, looking for the counter right hand, which he landed toward the end of the third and a few times in the fourth round. When he connected on a few overhand rights, the crowd began to rally behind Iaquinta.

Nurmagomedov, now no longer taunting while striking Iaquinta, looked once again for takedowns. Iaquinta, bloodied but determined, defended each with tenacity and urgency. The crowd roared as he looked to recreate the “Rocky” story, downing the unbeatable Russian as an impossible underdog.

In the final round, however, Nurmagomedov finally secured his first takedown with control since the second round, neutralizing the striking threat of “Raging Al” until the final bell sounded.

Iaquinta was transported to a local hospital after the bout, but his stock skyrocketed and his spirit never faltered. “Thank you to Iaquinta,” Nurmagomedov said after the fight. “He is the real Brooklyn gangster.” He was only one of the many who voiced their respect for Iaquinta, his camp and the toughness and determination of Long Island MMA.