The wildest week of potential distractions in UFC history did nothing to keeping Khabib Nurmagomedov from reaching his goal.
The undefeated star from Dagestan, Russia, became UFC lightweight champion on Saturday night as he defeated Al Iaquinta -- his fifth potential opponent in the span of a week -- in the main event of UFC 223 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nurmagomedov (26-0) fended off a tenacious performance by Iaquinta, as Nurmagomedov dominated in the first two rounds, held off Iaquinta’s resurgence in the third and fourth, and then clamped down in the fifth to seal the win. The judges’ scores were 50-44, 50-43, and 50-43 for a unanimous decision.
“It’s crazy, 26-0, 10 wins in the UFC, UFC lightweight champion,” Nurmagomedov said.
The fight was the culmination an unfathomable sequence of events in the week leading up to the bout. Nurmagomedov was scheduled to meet interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson. But Ferguson had to pull out of the bout last Sunday after a tearing his knee in a freak accident on the FOX lot in Los Angeles. That was the fourth time the fight had fallen apart after being scheduled, with both competitors having to withdraw twice.
Featherweight champion Max Holloway replaced Ferguson, but the New York State Athletic Commission refused to let him finish his weight cut Friday morning, declaring him unfit to continue, over Holloway’s vigorous protestations. Paul Felder and Anthony Pettis were offered as potential replacements before Iaquinta, who was original slated to fight Felder, got the nod.
Adding to the fight-week drama, former UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor attacked a van at Barclays Center following a Thursday media event, attempting to get at Nurmagomedov, who had a run-in with a teammate of McGregor at the fight hotel earlier in the week. McGregor was arrested and arraigned on multiple charges in a Brooklyn courtroom on Friday.
But the wildest week of distractions in the UFC’s 25-year history did not even come close to distracting Nurmagomedov from achieving his goals. Iaquinta came charging out to start the opening round, but Nurmagomedov finished a single with tenacity and got him to the mat. Iaquinta got back to his fight several times in the round, but his Russian foe brought him back to the mat several times. Nurmagomedov talked to Iaquinta while he delivered left hand after left hand.
In the second round, Nurmagomedov again scored an early takedown and got Iaquinta’s back. Iaquinta couldn’t shake him. Nurmagomedov got a choke, then a full mount after Iaquinta escaped, and then rained down more punches as Iaquinta flattened out on the ground.
The tough Long Islander made it to the third round, though, and got right back into the fight. Iaquinta sprawled a takedown attempt and landed a few nice shots to keep Nurmagomedov honest in a round that stayed on the feet, though the Dagestani landed the hardest punches.
The fourth was similar to the third, with Iaquinta sprawling two takedown attempts this time, as the round again stayed standing. Iaquinta again register with solid single punches, but never was able to follow up and put Nurmagomedov on the run.
The fifth had moments of drama, as Iaquinta went for broke and had Nurmagomedov moving backward. But Nurmagmedov finally scored another takedown — his eighth of the fight — midway through the round, and time ran out on Iaquinta’s upset quest.
“Thank you Iaquinta, other guys didn’t want to take this fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “He is real Brooklyn gangster.”
Iaquinta (13-4-1) had a five-fight win streak snapped.