When Al Iaquinta returns this weekend to stake his claim for lightweight contendership against Donald Cerrone in the main event of UFC Ottawa, it will be a serendipitous dip into familiar waters for the New York native.
That’s because the matchup against “Cowboy” nearly happened eight years ago, when the mixed martial arts world looked quite different than it does today. Back in 2011, Iaquinta was just a burgeoning 24-year-old prospect racking up wins on the regional scene, while Cerrone was fresh off making his Octagon debut following a successful run as one of the most established names in the WEC’s fabled blue cage.
For his follow-up act, the always-busy Cerrone was thrust into a grudge match against TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig at UFC 131. But just weeks out from the contest, injury befell Danzig and sent UFC matchmakers scrambling for a replacement.
Even back then, before his Octagon résumé ever set records for its unparalleled level of activity, “Cowboy” embodied the “next man up” philosophy that became his calling card.
And at UFC 131, that next man up nearly became the fight world’s most lovable real estate agent.
“I remember watching him in the WEC and I knew who he was, I knew about him,” Iaquinta told MMA Fighting ahead of UFC Ottawa. “I can’t really pinpoint exactly [my introduction to him], but one thing I do remember, I think I was 4-0 as a professional, 4-0 as a professional fighting in Ring of Combat, and I had a fight scheduled. And I got a call from a manager and he was like, ‘Would you fight in the UFC in like three weeks?’ And it was basically the same date as my fight was. And I was like, ‘Who is it against?’ And they were like, ‘Just, for right now just tell us, are you ready, are you able to fight?’ Whatever. So I said, ‘yeah, sure, I’ll take that opportunity any time.’
“I end up finding out that it was Donald Cerrone.”
By that point, Cerrone was already a grizzled 18-fight veteran whose only three losses had come in title opportunities for the WEC belt. Iaquinta, on the hand, was just beginning his own mixed martial arts journey. He hadn’t competed for close to two years and his best win had come against a prospect with a third of the experience of “Cowboy.”
But “Raging Al” was game.
“One of his opponents had fallen out and they were looking for a short-notice replacement. They ended up going with a different guy,” Iaquinta remembered. “He was a jiu-jitsu guy, I can’t remember his name right now, but they ended up going with somebody else. But they were considering me for it, and I don’t know what made them choose the other guy, but he beat the crap out of the other guy. He was just like a jiu-jitsu fighter, and it was pretty crazy. I didn’t even really remember that until just now.
“That was pretty wild. I remember watching that fight at home and being like, ‘Oh man, I should be in there right now.’ It would’ve been fun.”
That jiu-jitsu fighter ending up being Vagner Rocha, and Cerrone promptly made mince meat of the Octagon newcomer at UFC 131. It was a second fight in a five-fight debut campaign for Cerrone that firmly established him as a fan-favorite and perennial contender in the 155-pound division by year’s end.
Iaquinta, meanwhile, returned to the regional scene and won a split decision over Gabriel Miglioli six days later at a Ring of Combat show. But his UFC 131 near-miss still put his name on the radar of Zuffa matchmakers, and nine months later he made his national television debut as a precocious lightweight prospect on the only live season in history of The Ultimate Fighter, ultimately finishing as a runner-up to tourney winner Michael Chiesa.
The road since has been a prosperous one for both Iaquinta and Cerrone. Both men have challenged for the UFC’s lightweight title and both are constant fixtures atop the promotion’s official 155-pound rankings. Yet as he readies to settle a matchup eight years in the making at UFC Ottawa, Iaquinta still wonders what would’ve happened if he had indeed taken Danzig’s place at UFC 131 instead of Rocha.
“I don’t know. I was confident. I was young,” Iaquinta said. “Definitely, technically, I was nowhere near where I am now. I was just like a loose cannon. I was just wild, man. I was really just a wild, wild, strong wrestler with good boxing. It would’ve been a tough fight for me but there’s definitely the possibility [I could’ve won]. But now I think it’s just, he’s gotten more experience and obviously been in the UFC forever — I think that was one of his earlier fights in the UFC, maybe his second or third fight in the UFC since the WEC. But it’s definitely a better time now. Who knows how things would’ve changed, you know?”