“Raging Al” might need a new nickname soon.
The 31-year-old lightweight contender continued his winning ways at UFC on FOX 31 in Milwaukee, picking up his second unanimous decision nod over Kevin Lee after doing the same at UFC 169 almost five years ago.
A lot has changed since then. The first Lee fight was just Iaquinta’s fourth Octagon appearance and he’s gone on to have an eventful career, winning six of his last seven fights and going five rounds in a losing effort against Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 223. During that stretch, Iaquinta has dealt with the perception that he’s somewhat of a loose cannon, as well as injuries and public spats with UFC management.
For one evening at least, his coach Ray Longo saw much of that persona kept under control.
“I think we did see a more mature Al, even outside of the cage, and I think that parlayed into the cage and you saw a very patient, calculated, cool, calm, and collected Al Iaquinta,” Longo told Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour.
Longo pointed out that Iaquinta was respectful to everyone after, including Lee and the UFC officials in attendance. That has to be good news for fans of the proud New Yorker who signed a new contract earlier this year after heavily criticizing his employers in 2017. According to Iaquinta, officials ruled him ineligible to collect fight night performance bonuses as punishment for not attending a fighter summit in Las Vegas, and that was just one example of his issues with how the UFC treats its athletes.
There was no sign of that rebellious attitude in Milwaukee, which pleased Longo. In particular, he thinks Iaquinta’s relationship with matchmaker Sean Shelby has gone a long way to mending wounds.
“I texted Sean Shelby, Sean did a great job with this guy because trust me, they go back and forth, it’s craziness,” Longo said. “But it almost is craziness to the point of comedy, but Sean really stayed the course with this guy. He believed in him. He loves Al’s father and I think they’ve got a great working relationship. I hope that stays the course because that took a while, those guys were back and forth and all the crap.
“At the end of the day, Al just wanted to feel like he was appreciated and he never let anybody down with his performances. He always comes to fight, so I think they found the right thing now and hopefully it just progresses from here on out.”
Injuries have also been an issue for Iaquinta over the past few years and while Longo wouldn’t go as far as to say that his fighter will be 100 percent healthy going forward, he feels confident that they’ve “found a recipe to work around” any health complications and he praised Iaquinta for always being on top of his rehab.
Reminded of the infamous April 2015 incident that saw Iaquinta fire back at a booing crowd after winning a split decision over Jorge Masvidal — the day that “Raging Al” was truly born — Longo could only laugh and marvel at how much better Iaquinta is at controlling his emotions now. He ended the Lee fight with a flurry, but was able to almost instantly calm himself and handle his post-fight duties.
“It’s got to be like a light switch. You’ve got to be able to turn it on and turn it right off,” Longo said. “You can’t walk around like a lunatic 24 hours a day, so you have to know how to really bring it on at an instant and get rid of it at an instant. I think that’s what you saw.
“He was raging for the last 10 seconds of that fight then he went right back — you don’t want that lunatic on the mic. … That was right after screaming in his face, same Al, with his hands down, with no regard for whatever this guy could throw at him. That’s the stuff movies are made out of, I think that’s gonna live on forever.”
The Nurmagomedov fight may have been a major turning point for Iaquinta, not just because he went 25 minutes with the current UFC lightweight champion, but because of the circumstances leading up to that fight. Nurmagomedov was supposed to fight longtime rival Tony Ferguson only to have Ferguson suffer a freak injury that forced him out of the April 7 show.
Next up was featherweight champion Max Holloway who volunteered to fight Nurmagomedov on short notice, but during fight week it was determined that Holloway would not be able to safely make the cut to 155 pounds in those circumstances.
That meant Iaquinta, who was originally scheduled to fight Paul Felder, was asked to step up to face Nurmagomedov instead and he did so admirably even in defeat. Longo wasn’t surprised by the move, given what he knows about Iaquinta’s approach to his career.
“Here’s a kid that just really wanted to get paid for his performances,” Longo said. “That’s all. He always told me, ‘I just want to go in there, feel good about what I’m making, and thank Sean Shelby.’ That’s what he was telling me.
“Here’s a kid that never lets anybody down in the spotlight. In his main event performances he always comes through, he always fights with his heart — even in the Khabib fight, they’d still be fighting, both of them, both of those guys would have never stopped fighting in that fight. Nobody was going to quit and I think that’s the mindset you want in a fighter.”