Pre-Fight Thoughts: Khabib Nurmagomedov -vs- Al Iaquinta
After all the dust settled, from the madness that transpired over the past 2 days, the UFC was able to just barely stitch together their intended main event attraction — a lightweight title fight featuring Khabib Nurmagomedov. First they lost Tony Ferguson to a freak injury (story), but were able to quickly secure Max Holloway as a replacement, albeit a brazen and ill advised one. At the eleventh hour, that fell through, as the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) deemed the UFC featherweight champion "medically unfit to compete." This left the UFC in a huge bind, seeking replacements among those left without fights in the wake of Conor McGregor's rampage on the loading docks (story).
What followed was some of the most bizarre, and morbidly hilarious scrambling ever witnessed in all my time watching the UFC and MMA. The promotion next sought to put Paul Felder in Holloway's place, but the NYSAC nixed the idea because Felder is not ranked. By ranked, we mean placed in the completely arbitrary, UFC-controlled rankings that absolutely no one, anywhwere — ever — has given any weight. Well, apparently they are legitimate enough for the NYSAC to use them to refuse to sanction an MMA fight, despite a decades-long history of allowing egregious mismatches at boxing events held in the state. Regardless, the commission ruled Felder out and there was nothing to be done about that.
The next choice: Anthony Pettis, who was now without an opponent after Michael Chiesa went to hospital with facial lacerations, resulting from Conor's vandalism of a fighter van, and had his weight cut disrupted. There was talk that the UFC tried to lowball the former lightweight champ, after he rightly demanded more money. I tend to believe it; if any organisation would be so stubborn as to try and haggle with a last-second replacement it would be the UFC. Regardless, the NYSAC also did not sanction this bout, as they didn't feel Pettis could fight for 5 rounds, which is simply ridiculous as he's done it many times before, including as recently as December, 2016, when he lost to Max Holloway for the interim featherweight title.
As the final option available, Al Iaquinta was selected as the replacement and, somehow, the commission allowed it. This is despite the fact that Iaquinta hasn't fought 5 rounds since 2011, when he lost the Ring of Combat lightweight title. I will assume Iaquinta's status as a resident of New York had absolutely nothing to do with the commission's decision, and shame on you for drawing that conclusion. Nevertheless, the fight was salvaged, and the last-minute nature of the whole thing certainly added a lot of drama to the situation. None of that will help bolster the ratings and buyrate for UFC 223, but as a fan it made for a fun Friday afternoon on social media.
As for the fight itself, I don't think there is a whole lot to say. At least, if nothing else, Iaquinta was already training for a fight; at least we're ostensibly in a more dignified position than hoping an injured, off-the-couch champion from a lighter division is able to survive a massive weight cut on 6 days notice and not get trucked. As I have said many times, Nurmagomedov / Holloway would be a great fight, but under literally any other circumstances. Al Iaquinta is not the first name that would spring to mind if I were asked to name some lightweight contenders, but his record is decent but certainly nothing on it would earn him a title shot except in circumstances like this. (Also, good on Mr. Iaquinta for leveraging this situation for a good payday — that's exactly what one does in a situation like this.)
I don't want to completely dismiss Iaquinta, he is a very good fighter but the knocks against him are significant. Most conerning is his inactivity; due to recent contract disputes with the UFC, Iaquinta has been on a "bonus ban" — preventing him from earning post-fight Performance Of The Night money — and has been vocally unhappy with his base pay as well. When he has been active, his most recent wins include a razor-thin decision win over Jorge Masvidal that was anything but decisive, and a violent TKO over the shattered remnants of Diego Sanchez. Neither of those accomplishments should count for much, and extrapolating any statistics — such as takedown defence — is meaningless. All we know is that Al Iaquinta is a solid, capable fighter with good boxing; we have absolutely no idea how he will fare against an opponent like Khabib Nurmagomedov, especially with no advanced preparation.
To be fair, Nurmagomedov has not been very active in recent years either. An unfortunate combination of injuries, some failed weight cuts, and long breaks, due to his religious observance of Ramadan, have kept the undefeated Dagestani fighting an average of less-than once per-year since 2013. In spite of all that, when Nurmagomedov does fight he wins in such a lopsided, dominant fashion his opponents look helpless and defeated long before they actually lose. His smothering top-control is among the very best in MMA; when he takes fighters down, they stay down — getting up is a matter of waiting for the round to end. His wrestling is so effective that the threat of it had a killer like Edson Barboza literally running backwards to avoid presenting a target for a takedown. (Spoiler: it didn't work, and actually played into Khabib's strategy.)
While it would make for both an amazing story, and a huge — and wholly deserved — shot to the UFC's future plans, seeing Al Iaquinta defeat Nurmagomedov just feels like a near impossibility. I am loathe to discount any professional fighter without clear evidence of an egregious mismatch, but given the late notice and lack of specific preparation, I think Iaquinta's front-foot heavy style plays right into Nurmagomedov's desire to take the fight to the ground and win by either submission or TKO. If Nurmagomedov gets sloppy, or takes a well-placed shot, then all bets are off — that's why there is never truly a sure thing in fighting. Iaquinta has the skillset to win, I just think that if you assess both fighters in a vaccuum — which is essentially what this fight is — then Nurmagomedov's skillset seems to trump Iaquinta.
I would love to see Iaquinta notch a win here, given his candor with regards to his issues with the UFC, his understanding of the need to have options outside of MMA, and the fact he has openly aligned himself with Project Spearhead and their campaign for fighters' labour rights. It would be a shocking outcome, even to this tenured, incredibly jaded MMA fan. That said, I do expect Khabib Nurmagomedov to put on a strong performance and demonstrate to the world why he has such a strong fanbase and immense respect from fellow fighters. I am genuinely surprised at the amount of effort put into salvaging this fight, and it's impossible to be excited for it. I am going to watch it and just hope that no one is crushed by a hanging piano, swarmed by locusts or otherwise slips on a banana peel on the way to the cage.
I never say "things can't get any worse," as I know life loves a challenge. With that in mind, hopefully the MMA gods will finally give us a reprieve from their sardonic mockery.
Published: April 7th, 2018.