Post-Fight Thoughts: Khabib Nurmagomedov -vs- Al Iaquinta
After the dust had settled, and the UFC had gone through the most replacement fighters for a main event in UFC history, both Khabib Nurmagomedov and Al Iaquinta successfully made the walk to the cage. The UFC lightweight title was decided (sort of), and the most jinxed event I can recall concluded around 1:30AM EST on April 8th. The fight ended up being better and somewhat worse than expected, though hardly a dud — especially in light of everything that happened over the course of the last 7 days. It wasn't a great main event, but it served its purpose and I wasn't disappointed either. We all knew this match up was a concession to circumstance, which also dulled the excitement.
As expected, Khabib Nurmagomedov executed a grappling-heavy gameplan and was able to smother, stifle and otherwise stymie Al Iaquinta for almost the entirety of 25 minutes. To his credit, Iaquinta was able to defend himself from submission attempts, and avoid taking excessive amounts of damage. At no point was Iaquinta winning the fight, but there were only a few fleeting moments where it looked like he might be en route to being finished — and, even then, he recovered and defended himself. Over the course of 5 rounds, Iaquinta landed less-than 2 dozen strikes, while Khabib took him down repeatedly and controlled him for entire rounds.
Aside from the lack of a finish, the fight was pretty typical for a Nurmagomedov bout; tenacious wrestling, relentless grappling once he gets his opponent to the ground, and Khabib demonstrated a very solid jab — the latter of which appears to be a new addition to his arsenal. All of this left Al Iaquinta strictly on the defensive, and he was never able to take the lead and assert himself in the fight. To his credit, Iaquinta fared better than everyone else the UFC has put in front of Khabib, even if it still resulted in a lopsided loss all the same. It speaks volumes about the kind of opponent Khabib is when merely making it to the score cards is considered a moral victory. Al seemed to be operately entirely on the defensive, hoping to seize a moment of vulnerability and then go on the offensive, but such a moment never came.
As mentioned in my pre-fight analysis, I didn't see any path to victory for Iaquinta beyond landing a fortunate punch at just the right time. Even with a lengthy fight camp to prepare, I still would not give Al Iaquinta a big shot to defeat Nurmagomedov, but I will admit that the former's defensive capabilities did surprise me. Given the ferocity of Khabib's ground-game, and the way he chains together submission attempts, I figured that once he secured the first takedown that we were witnessing the beginning of the end. To his credit, Iaquinta remained calm and composed in a position where previous opponents have looked visibly shaken and defeated even more being tapped out or TKO'ed. Al Iaquinta has nerves of steel. Even in defeat, I think this performance actually raised Iaquinta's stock, all things considered.
Ironically, in the aftermath of a title fight where Khabib saw his opponent changed twice in 6 days — with the final change coming a day before the event — and remained undeterred from executing his gameplan. To some fans, because he didn't dispatch Al Iaquinta — someone who would not be anywhere near a title fight if it weren't for the extraordinary circumstances of UFC 223 — in sufficiently dominant fashion means he is somehow overrated or unworthy. I find this notion ridiculous, personally; with absolutely no time to prepare or adjust himself to his new opponent, Nurmagomedov came into this fight with an immense amount of pressure on him to perform and he won a decision 50-43 on some score cards.
There are legitimate criticisms of Al Iaquinta's resumé, but the fact remains that Khabib rose to the challenge put in front of him. He is the lightweight champion now, regardless of whether or not he passes any fanboy purity tests. That the worst you can say is that Khabib didn't finish another elite level fighter, and only ragdolled and beat him up for the better part of 25 minutes should speak for itself. I am very much reminded of the criticisms lobbed at Georges St-Pierre when he failed to put away Dan Hardy; fans often don't appreciate how difficult it is to finish an opponent who is 100% committed to not losing rather than trying to win.
Unfortunately, we still don't have any clarity in the lightweight division's title picture. Tony Ferguson's interim title status is still unknown, and regardless of whether or not he has a title, he is still first in line to challenge for the real thing. Khabib is officially the champion, but Conor McGregor, despite being stripped of his belt, still has his hooks in the division as no one beat him even though he's not the formal champion. In short: it's still a mess and, with Khabib likely taking a break to observe Ramadan, Tony Ferguson out of action and needing surgery, and Conor McGregor now facing a number of legal issues stemming from his presser rampage, we won't be getting clarification any time soon.
Never before has a championship been any less "undisputed." Today, Khabib won a belt — the rest is still up for debate.
Published: April 8th, 2018.