A certain line of thinking emerged from some quarters of the MMA world in the wake of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s unanimous decision victory over Al Iaquinta: The idea that because Nurmagomedov wasn’t able to finish Iaquinta, his victory in the main event of UFC 223 wasn’t impressive, 50-43 scores be damned.
Of course, Iaquinta isn’t exactly chopped liver. He came into the bout at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center having lost just one fight since 2012. Maybe he’s doesn’t have Conor McGregor’s star power, but he’s far from an easy out in the cage, and he knows it.
“I come in there to fight every time,” Iaquinta said on a recent episode of The MMA Hour. “There’s a reason why guys don’t look good against me.”
Nurmagomedov dominated Iaquinta over the first two rounds, doing everything except get a finish. But from the third round on, the complexion of the fight changed, as Iaquinta made it a competitive fight in the standup.
For his part, the Long Island native believes Nurmagomedov was smart to think through the long game of potentially having to fight 25 minutes.
“I know he didn’t want to exert his energy trying to finish me because he knew he was going to have to kill me to finish me, and if he didn’t kill me, he was going to gas himself out,” Iaquinta said. “And five rounds is a long fight. So I know he knew that, he definitely respected me and he felt that. I think he’s got a little bit of — people are like, ‘Is he really that good?’
“Don’t think like that.”
Iaquinta is also not buying into the notion put forth by armchair warriors that Nurmagomedov, a man who is not only 10-0 in the UFC, but has never been knocked down in the process, is deficient in his standup. Having actually stood and traded with the new champ, Iaquinta believes it’s more a matter of Khabib having an awkward style that doesn’t necessarily translate unless you’re standing in front of him.
“His standup was really good,” Iaquinta said. “I felt like I was a step behind him, just from the first two rounds of trying to get up and stay against the cage, he was kind of wearing on me a little bit. So I felt a little behind, but his jab is good. Every time I tried to let so combos go, he’s awkward, he’s got like the Russians — it’s just a different style of boxing. They were saying he’s got his head up. I connect with everybody. ... It was hard to get to him. He’s tough, he’s tough. He’s got his own style. He’s awkward. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but, he’s definitely, he’s f*cking tough man.”
Nurmagomedov is presumably smart enough to know Iaquinta has knockout power — four of Iaquinta’s past five victories were via KO or TKO —- and that he wasn’t going to be dumb enough to give Iaquinta an opening to alter the fight’s trajectory with one punch.
“I knew we had a mutual respect on the standup when it was going back and forth, he was definitely worried about my power shots,” Iaquinta said. “But he kept me away with his jab and his movement was a little awkward and good.”
Iaquinta, of course, went through an entire training camp preparing to go three rounds, only to find out on 24 hours’ notice that he was instead going five. He took the approach of simply not overthinking matters, which worked out well enough, considering Iaquinta was still in the fight in fifth round.
“Five rounds, it can f*ck with your head, you know? It happened so quick for me that I didn’t even have time to really overthink it.
“I went after him in the beginning of the fifth. I went after him, I that knew I had to win it that round. And I kind of just went for it and I started slowing down halfway through that round. He hit me with a good uppercut and I kind of couldn’t see for a little bit.”
In the end, moral victories only carry you so far, and Iaquinta will have to go back to the drawing board after coming out with the loss.
First, though, he still has to fully process just how he ended up in this spot.
“The whole thing was just nuts, man,” he said. “It was so crazy. Who gets to do s*it like this? Nobody. I just wish, there’s a few things that — who knows?”