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Al Iaquinta: Kevin Lee might be ‘just as tough, if not tougher than Khabib’ Nurmagomedov

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NEW YORK — Al Iaquinta and Kevin Lee have had a lot to say to each other and about each other, almost going all the way back to their first fight in 2014.

Now, the two top lightweights are set to fight again in the main event of UFC on FOX 31 on Dec. 15 in Milwaukee and the talk has nearly ceased. Things have gotten conspicuously quiet, and according to Iaquinta, that might have a bit to do with some mutual respect despite some of the barbs previously exchanged.

Iaquinta was supposed to fight Justin Gaethje back in August, but withdrew due to injuries and other issues with the UFC. Iaquinta would have been just four months removed from a one-day notice fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 back in April. Nurmagomedov won by unanimous decision, but it wasn’t a bad showing for Iaquinta considering he spent his training camp preparing for Paul Felder and only fought Nurmagomedov when Max Holloway was unable to safely make weight.

While the Gaethje fight wasn’t right at the time, Iaquinta said this bout with Lee is.

“Everything was correct about this and nothing was correct about the last one,” Iaquinta said. “It was like injuries, coming off that Khabib fight I was still banged up. It was quick. I wasn’t happy with a few other things. It just wasn’t right. This is definitely a better fight. I think it’s an intriguing matchup. Just everything. Everything about it, I like. He’s just as tough, if not tougher [than Gaethje]. He might even be just as tough, if not tougher than Khabib. I was sitting front row at his last fight with (Edson) Barboza and I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to be Barboza right now.’ It was brutal, it was not fun to watch. So, I’m training my ass off. I want to be the one doing that to him, for sure.”

Iaquinta, 31, beat Lee at UFC 169 by unanimous decision.

The Long Island native, though, acknowledged that Lee has only improved since that bout. Lee was only 21 years old at the time.

“He’s definitely bigger and stronger,” Iaquinta said. “More mature as a fighter, probably less mature as a person. He’s polished, he’s seasoned. Now he’s been in there with really tough guys. He was cocky when he came into the UFC, he kind of thought that he was gonna run through everything.”

After Iaquinta beat him back in 2014, Lee moved to Las Vegas to train at Xtreme Couture. Iaquinta said he has taken note of the alterations his rival has made, but that doesn’t mean he thinks that will give Lee any kind of edge.

“I definitely humbled him there and he changed his life,” Iaquinta said. “He moved to Vegas, he switched camps. I think I’ve been in the guy’s head for a while and he’s been looking forward to this. There’s two kind of ways this goes. He’s definitely put in the work — he’s all in. A guy willing to move to Las Vegas, because he thinks it’s a better team there is definitely serious. He’s coming to put it on me, I know that for sure.

“On the other hand, I’ve been with Ray (Longo), I’ve been with Matt (Serra), I’ve been with these guys forever. We have such a good bond. (Matt) Frevola coming over, [Aljamain Sterling], (Chris) Weidman. I don’t think he has anybody like that on his team. I don’t think he’s got like a family like I have. Not saying that’s gonna win me the fight, because I’m the one fighting, but I just feel like I put in so much work in my life that I have to beat this guy. That’s it.”

Iaquinta (13-4-1) was on a five-fight winning streak heading into UFC 232. Lee (17-3), meanwhile, has won six of his last seven fights, the most recent of which was his fifth-round TKO of Edson Barboza at UFC Atlantic City in April. Lee’s lone loss in that stretch came in an interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson.

The winner at UFC on FOX 31 will put himself in good standing in the division. Lee is currently ranked No. 4 among contenders in the UFC’s official rankings, while Iaquinta is No. 8. This one has major implications, which is perhaps why the chirping between the two loquacious 155-pounders has been at a minimum lately.

“He’s been awful quiet lately,” Iaquinta said. “So have I. I think we both realize the talking was in the past. Now it’s business. It’s for real. We signed the contract — it’s on.”