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UFC on FOX 31 Aftermath: Al Iaquinta answers the questions

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Milwaukee-Lee vs Iaquinta Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The jury remained out on Al Iaquinta after his UFC 229 performance against Khabib Nurmagomedov on April 7.

Iaquinta didn’t back down from about as tough a task as you can ask in this sport: taking on one of the sport’s greatest fighters, the undefeated UFC lightweight champion who runs over opponents, on just 24 hours’ notice.

“Raging Al” went the distance with the champ in Brooklyn, putting in a credible performance that helped underscore his Serra-Longo gym’s already legendary toughness.

But was it truly a performance which announced his arrival as a real contender in the lightweight division? After all, he lost on scores of 50-44, 50-43, and 50-43.

Joe Soto once got a UFC title shot on a day’s notice, too, and he lasted into the fifth round before he was finished by T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 173. Soto was released by the UFC earlier this year after going 3-5 in the company.

So yeah, there was still a healthy bit of skepticism over whether Iaquinta had truly arrived on the short list at 155 pounds, or whether this marked the high-water point, and he’d go down as “that guy went the distance with Khabib Nurmagomedov once.”

But let that question be asked no more, as “Raging Al” gave a definitive answer at UFC on FOX 31.

Kevin Lee’s another guy who’s been right on the cusp, who fought his way to an interim title fight with Tony Ferguson last year after winning nine fights out of 10. This wasn’t an easy fight for Iaquinta, who had won five straight bouts before his loss to Nurmagomedov, but whose biggest win had been ... well, his first win over a much less polished version of Lee back in 2014.

But Iaquinta answered the questions in fine fashion Saturday night in Milwaukee, and did so when it counted most, in the championship rounds.

Lee’s wrestling helped forge second- and third-rounds wins, but even then, Iaquinta was never broken by Lee’s grappling game, which was a mental win as he clawed back into the fight. Over rounds four and five, Iaquinta displayed a superior gas tank, and displayed a high fight IQ in his approach.

Contrary to his “Raging” nickname, Iaquinta was patient and methodical in rounds four and five, landing strategic, well-timed shots, and landing them with authority. Iaquinta let the cumulative effects of the blows tell the story rather than do anything foolish trying to go for the kill, and it was Lee who was wobbly and battered as the fight came to a close.

“With the right preparation, the right fight, I could beat anyone in this division,” Iaquinta said after the victory.

On that count, there’s no question. We’re not going to proclaim Iaquinta the next UFC lightweight champion, but he’s damn sure on the short list, and going to give trouble to anyone the UFC might put in his path.

UFC on FOX 31 quotes

“I think [Tony] Ferguson’s the guy. I think I’m a perfect style matchup to beat him. If there’s any holdup, that’s the guy I want to fight.” — Iaquinta on who he might like to fight next.

“I’m the guy who if [Nurmoagomedov] wants to get a rematch, I’m the guy. No immediate rematch for [Conor McGregor], he tapped out. I took it like man on a week’s notice, he had all the time in the world to prepare, and he wanted a way out.” — Or maybe Khabib instead? Never change, Raging Al.

“I think I can compete very, very well at 170 and be fast in and out of the pocket, too. I don’t know. We’ll see as I kind of get healed up and everything.” — Lee ponders his next move.

Stock report

Up: Edson Barboza Barboza has been part of the scenery in the UFC for so long (his debut was a leg-kick TKO of Mike Lullo at UFC 123) it’s been easy to take him for granted. And he’s put together runs in his 20-fight stint on more than one occasion, only to stumble in his biggest moments. But maybe this is an example of patience finally paying off? Barboza has shifted his camp to American Top Team, the same place which took guys with all the talent in the world who hadn’t quite put it all together like Robbie Lawler, and made them champions. Barboza never appeared to lose his gas tank against Hooker and didn’t make the sort of mistakes which have given away winnable fights in the past. Maybe Saturday night was the start of something big.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Milwaukee-Barboza vs Hooker
Dan Hooker took a whole lot of these kicks from Edson Barboza on Saturday night.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Hold: Dan Hooker. Yeah, Hooker lost via knockout after 12-plus minutes of a brutally one-sided fight against Barboza. But how can you not admire the otherworldly toughness Hooker showed in the fight? Over and over, Hooker took the best shot Barboza could dish out, and over and over he shook it off and continued walking forward. It’s as if he felt the need to prove that Mark Hunt isn’t the only New Zealand native who can take a licking and keep on ticking. Now, there are caveats to this: Hooker’s corner should have thrown in the towel sooner, and a game plan that involved standing in Barboza’s range isn’t the soundest. But this guy had an impressive four-fight win streak and we’re willing to chalk this up to simply being a bad night. But one that left no question Hooker is one of the toughest men alive.

Down: Kevin Lee. Yeah, it’s a bit harsh to give this to someone whose only losses in his past 12 fights have been to Tony Ferguson and last night’s razor-thin decision to Iaquinta. But they’re the type of losses which suggest he’s plateaued. He faded against Ferguson after a strong start, and while it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as the early fade in the Ferguson fight, he slowed down in the championship rounds against Iaquinta on Saturday night. Maybe he’s just a half-step behind the best of the best at lightweight, but that half-step is all the difference in the world. Throw in Lee’s weight-cut issues and maybe it’s time to make the jump up in weight now, rather than waiting for the UFC to institute 165.

Down: Sergio Pettis, and perhaps a whole host of flyweights. I feel like I saw the potential future for a whole bunch of flyweights on Saturday night in the form of the Rob Font-Sergio Pettis fight. With rumors swirling about 125’s plight, several have been cut, and several others have jumped up to bantamweight. Including Pettis, who returned to 135 after a seven-fight stint at 125. No offense to Font, who is an entirely respectable competitor and a scrapper, at that, but he’s not on anyone’s 135 short list. And he thoroughly outclassed Pettis, using an obvious size and strength advantage in a one-sided decision victory. If I was a 125er still on the UFC roster, I might be putting a call in to ONE Championship in the next couple days.

Up: Joaquim Silva. Silva has already showed he can front run, with eight first-round finishes in his first 10 career wins. On Saturday night, he also showed both that he could weather adversity and engage in a war. Silva withstood a fast start by a tough out in Jared Gordon and then girded for battle, as the duo threw down for two-and-a-half rounds. Silva ended things with a standing knockout of Gordon, as the duo took home their first-ever postfight bonuses. Does Silva still have a ways to go? Sure, but Saturday was another step up the ladder.

Odds and ends

Bobby Green announced over Instagram that he was retiring, following his 29-28, across-the-board loss to Drakkar Klose. His manager said to let Green cool down before that becomes official. Let’s hope he does. Green’s 1-4-1 in his past six, but he hasn’t been blown out in any of those fights, and he’s one of the sport’s most interesting fighters, both stylistically and as a personality. Green still has some gas left in the tank, so hopefully he doesn’t walk away without knowing for sure that he’s done.

There wasn’t a ton to criticize from an official perspective Saturday night, other than wondering why the Hooker fight wasn’t waved off sooner. Oh, and the 49-46 card for Iaquinta was a little weird. But hey, the officials have by and large been out of the headlines for awhile, so let’s hope it stays that way.

Fight I’d like to see next: Al Iaquinta vs. Conor McGregor

Why not? Despite Iaquinta’s protestations, Nurmagomedov isn’t going to be in any sort of rush to rematch a guy he defeated in convincing fashion just 10 months ago. And the UFC is likely going to want to give McGregor an opponent who plays to his style after he got run over by Nurmagomedov’s wrestling. So why not a tough striker like Iaquinta, who has proven he can hang with the best of them?

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