“When that happened, Khabib was there, and they were sitting right behind us, and I just felt, like, a weird, it was weird, like ‘I’m going to fight this guy one day,’” Iaquinta said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “It was a weird, I’m not going to be too jokey about this whole thing, I don’t want to get friendly about it, because I feel like we’re going to fight one day.”
Little could “Raging Al” have imagined, though, that two nights later, he and Nurmagomedov would be squaring off in the main event at Barclays Center.
“That was just the craziest weekend, that was just insane,” Iaquinta said.”I still don’t know what the f*ck happened.”
It gets a little easier to piece things together when you break it down. Iaquinta successfully weighed in at Paul Felder at 155.2 pounds, a number which seemed inconsequential at the time. Nothing seemed amiss.
“I weighed in, I was eating, drinking. Paul Felder, he was sitting to the right,” Iaquinta said. “He was sitting to where he could see me, but I couldn’t see him, I would have to make it obvious to turn to see him. So I was eating and I felt like he kept looking over at me. That was the guy I was thinking about, I was thinking about fighting him, you know what I mean? Then I left, I went up to hotel room and I was just laying down.”
Then Iaquinta heard that the New York State Athletic Commission pulled UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, who was supposed to fight Nurmagomedov, from the card, citing concerns over his weight cut. And it was on.
“Someone said ‘Max is out,’ and immediately I called my manager and said ‘what’s going on?’” Iaquinta said. “And he said [Anthony] Pettis and [manager] Dave Martin kept in touch with them whole time. I just kept following it on social media see what latest was, forget this, I’m going downstairs, and I chased Sean Shelby around the hotel room. He didn’t want to even look to at me at first. I think he was mad at me for some other stuff. And then I just stayed on him. I let him know I was down to fight.”
The personal lobbying paid off, as Iaquinta landed the fight ahead of Pettis and Felder. But there was another hurdle before things could be finalized: Iaquinta’s 155.2 was kosher for a non-title fight, but he’d have to hit 155 on the nose to be eligible for a championship fight, and he had long since rehydrated and wasn’t going to come near the mark.
This led to the UFC’s comical attempt to get around things by weighing the underwear Iaquinta wore to the weigh-ins.
“They asked me to come down with my underwear, and I know that was a good sign, so I grabbed my underwear and I went down and they weighed it. It was funny, I went down there and I went into the room and they were all looking at me, I pulled out the underwear and waved it like a flag and they were hoping it said .2. The scale said .2 and, so they said, the commission, I don’t know what the deal what that was, I don’t know why it wasn’t a title fight.”
NYSAC didn’t go for this attempt around the rules, so it decreed they would not recognize Iaquinta as champ if he won the fight. At this point, all that was left to make the fight was a matter of money. Iaquinta, who has butted heads with the UFC over pay in the past, decided this wasn’t the time to try to hold the UFC over the edge of a cliff, and instead told his manager to handle the details and let him worry about the fight.
While not naming a dollar figure, Iaquinta reports that he did indeed get a pay bump to fight Nurmagomedov, and that he’s satisfied with the number.
“I definitely got a bump,” Iaquinta said. “There’s a time for negotiating and holding out and then there’s go time. That was an opportunity that was brought to me, it was just go time. I told my manager, Dave, you take care of it, my trust is in you. Let me know after the fact. I don’t even want to think about it, I just want to think about fighting this guy. I just said let’s go. ... For that everything was good, I really had a great week with the UFC, they really treated me well.”
All the elements were in place for a “Rocky” story: The underdog fighting in his hometown, 11 years to the day after his coach, Matt Serra, pulled off the most enduring upset in MMA history by knocking out Georges St-Pierre to win the UFC welterweight title.
It wasn’t meant to be, as Iaquinta lost a unanimous decision to Nurmagomedov. But he comes out of UFC 223 having gained in stature, earning respect both for stepping up to take the fight and showing mental fortitude in going the distance with an undefeated opponent and having his moments along the way.
Two days later, it’s still all a blur to Iaquinta.
“I’m still sitting here like, I can’t sleep, I haven’t slept, I’m delirious,” he said.