We’ve seen real-time human shufflings on UFC cards before, those situations where at the last minute a perennial undercardsman ends up in a main event. A classic example was when Charlie Brenneman stood in against Rick Story in Pittsburgh on just 24 hour’s notice after Nate Marquardt was removed from the card, and ended up winning. Joe Soto got bumped into a bantamweight title fight with TJ Dillashaw at UFC 177 when Renan Barao went down for the count during his weight cut. He couldn’t make the most of the promotion, though, losing via a fifth-round knockout.
In the case of Al Iaquinta, who is being thrust into a main event on a day’s notice at UFC 223, it’s hauntingly familiar yet altogether different. Had Iaquinta been fighting more regularly over the last few years, there’s a chance he would either be — or very close to becoming — a champion in the UFC. He gets a rare opportunity to step into the headlining gig against the mighty Khabib Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn tonight, which is a kind of karmic return with interest for what happened to him at UFC Fight Night 71 in San Diego. That time Bobby Green fell out of his fight with Iaquinta and was replaced with Gilbert Melendez, who just a little over a week before the bout was scotched after popping for a banned substance. It wasn’t long after that that “Ragin’ Al” found himself in a contract dispute with the UFC, which led to defiance in the form of a real estate license.
This time it’s Iaquinta who is benefitting from the bizarre happenings going on in Brooklyn. After Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway both became casualties in navigating the minefield leading to New York, Anthony Pettis looked like he might get the spot. Then it went to Paul Felder, the square-jawed fighter who was supposed to face Iaquinta. The New York State Athletic Commission didn’t like that idea, seeing Felder — somewhat comically — as too green.
Option 5 was Iaquinta, perhaps the most dangerous of the third wave options.
Because A) he’s really good, having won five fights in row staggered over the last three years, B) he’s fighting in New York, his old stomping grounds, which gives the whole situation a poetic glaze, and C) Iaquinta stealing the show would be par for the course of UFC 223. Why shouldn’t one of the UFC’s most outspoken, disgruntled and stubborn-minded fighters come bounding out from his camouflage to snatch a title that already has three sets of hands on it? That’s just the kind of impossible to predict chaos this sport deals with all the time, the constant redirect of attention that in itself is exhilarating.
Seriously, imagine it. Imagine Iaquinta with the ‘recognized’ lightweight title after Conor McGregor’s long term toxic relationship with it, after Ferguson’s one-night stand with it, and after we’d already fastened it in our minds around Nurmagomedov’s waist. That’s some monkey wrench action right there. Another sidetrack. A needle kicked off the record and dragging down the streets on Seaford at full volume.
If there’s a drawback to Iaquinta getting this fairly mind-boggling chance to blow up so many pre-constructed narratives, it’s that the card itself is already exhausted with so much improbability. McGregor’s hooliganism cast an ugly pall over the whole thing, and reduced an event that had 13 fights down to nine in the aftermath. The whole thing with Ferguson had barely sank in when we wrapped our minds around Max Holloway playing the role of savior. Wednesday’s press conference was a return to the old days of fight promotion — two guys saying, “we’ll find out Saturday night who’s better” in such a way that compelled people to daydream about it — and yet that, too, was just a tease.
So it ends up being Iaquinta. If he shows up and Brooklyn and beats Nurmagomedov — and kudos to Nurmy, too, for remaining unflinchingly open to fight anybody the UFC came up with over the last five days — it will be a game-changer. The mighty Nurmagomedov will have suffered his first loss, breaking a streak that carries a great deal of mojo. The Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fight might be lost forever. And who knows what it means to McGregor, but the idea of Iaquinta-McGregor is like going to the florist to buy Easter lilies and coming out with a new set of tires.
Everything we believed to be true about the lightweight division could go up in smoke with one violent flurry from Iaquinta, who suddenly has it in his hands to act as Agent Chaos. That’s the thing about these kinds of opportunities. They are romantic up front, but havoc coming out. Only if “Ragin’ Al” wins, that is. The savior can be a thief.
Only if he wins.