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With darkest hours behind him, Al Iaquinta grateful for rough road to the top: ‘I wouldn’t have been ready’

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Al Iaquinta faces Donald Cerrone at UFC Ottawa.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It wasn’t long ago that a small but noticeable trickle of eulogies had begun being penned for the career of Donald Cerrone. Look back to last year and they’re easy to find. After suffering the first three-fight losing streak of his career, and dropping four of five fights overall, it was fair for even the most ardent Cerrone believers to wonder whether the mileage “Cowboy” put on his body over all of those years had begun to catch up with him.

But those eulogies can be thrown into the trash heap now.

As is only fitting, Cerrone proved he still belongs among the world’s best in the most Cerrone way possible, picking up back-to-back wins in a span of three months with sensational stoppages of up-and-coming contenders Mike Perry and Alexander Hernandez, the latter of which took place at UFC Brooklyn.

A native New Yorker, Al Iaquinta was seated cageside at the Barclays Center for UFC Brooklyn, and he witnessed firsthand the fire that still burns inside the 36-year-old. So as he readies to face “Cowboy” on Saturday in the main event of UFC Ottawa, with a prime spot in lightweight contendership up for grabs, Iaquinta is acutely aware that the number on his foe’s odometer doesn’t mean much against a grizzled veteran like Cerrone.

“He’s still the ‘Cowboy,’ man. He went out there and the crowd loved him and he got a huge [ovation],” Iaquinta told MMA Fighting ahead of UFC Ottawa. “The fans were loving him in Brooklyn for his last fight, I was sitting there. I think he’s so experienced and he’s been in there with everybody, he’s really just put it all together. His entire body of work throughout his whole career just speaks for itself. But I think my experience is at an all-time high too. I’ve been in there with the best and I’ve showed what I can do. Even through my losses. A lot of people lose to the guys that I’ve lost to, and they get almost like it deflates them and it sends them in a downward trajectory throughout their career.

“But the way I’ve lost and the way that I’ve handled it, it motivated me and it benefited me. So I think that my experience is at an all-time high, my motivation, my hunger, I’m in the prime of my career right now and it’s all coming together.”

Iaquinta can relate to the ups and downs of his opponent’s road in his own way, because it wasn’t long ago that he appeared to be on his way out of MMA altogether. Gaze back a few years and “Raging Al” was persona non grata in the UFC. Between a body that was betraying him and a seemingly insurmountable contract standoff with promotion officials, it appeared to be a long shot that Iaquinta would ever even get the chance to fulfill the promise he showed as the high-motored, power-punching runner-up of The Ultimate Fighter 15.

But look at him today.

In a matter of days, Iaquinta will headline his third straight UFC event. He’s a bona fide fan-favorite. He’s a top-five ranked fighter in the most talent-rich division in the entire sport. It’s a turnaround that is both improbable and remarkable — and now that he is past his darkest hours, Iaquinta is grateful to have gone through the trials that he did.

“I stood up a lot for myself and I think the fans understood where I was coming from, and even the UFC in a lot of ways understood where I was coming from,” Iaquinta said. “At the time, it was a difficult situation. But I think it all played out the way it was supposed to. I always just wished that I would be here. I always just said to myself, I’m going to appreciate it so much once [it happens]. Being through all that crap, I think, makes me just appreciate so much more. And I don’t know, it’s a weird mindset that I have. Not weird, but I think I just get it so much more. Maybe if I was in this spot four years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready.

“But being here now, mature — I think I’m making some good money, decent money — I’m mature enough now to where I can really, really do some big things, and mature enough to where now I can handle it. I know what I’m capable of. And I always knew the right things from the wrong things, but I kinda just was a little out of my mind. I’m still out of my mind, but I’ve figured out ways to channel it and control myself. I’m not like a big religious guy or anything, but maybe it’s like God’s way of telling me: ‘You’re ready, man. If you would’ve been headlining cards four years ago, you probably would’ve made a fool of yourself.’ It’s just a lot to handle, I think, so I think I’m ready now.”

The big question now that surrounds Iaquinta’s showdown against Cerrone is the same question that gets asked about any matchup between top-ranked lightweight contenders these days; namely, what does it all mean?

To say the UFC’s 155-pound is a mess would be an understatement. Khabib Nurmagomedov is, at the moment, a suspended champion; Dustin Poirier is an interim champion; Conor McGregor remains the specter that looms above all lightweight discussions; and the previous interim champion, Tony Ferguson, is seemingly ready to jump back into the fray.

Even Iaquinta, the No. 4 ranked lightweight in the UFC, isn’t sure what a win over Cerrone at UFC Ottawa will mean in the grand scheme of things.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just know that a win over Donald Cerrone puts me right up there. It puts me right up there. This is a big fight, it’s a big opponent. He’s very well-known, very technical, very skilled, very experienced. So a big win over him puts me right in there.”

That philosophy may be the best way for all 155-pound contenders to approach their division until the logjam at the top gets figured out — and that’s just fine for “Raging Al.”

At this point, after everything he’s been through, Long Island’s most fearsome real estate agent is done worrying about matters beyond his control.

“I kinda stopped thinking about it like that,” Iaquinta said. “I kinda just worry about myself, worry about this fight. I was worried about Kevin Lee, then I was worried about the fight I was going to get. I wanted to get the best fight, and this is a great fight. This is a fight that motivated me. I’ve been watching him forever, since before I even started fighting. I saw him in the WEC before I stepped into the gym. I was just a wrestler. So I just love fights like this. I love fights where it’s like I watched them come up, I’ve seen his whole career. He’s been on my radar longer than I’ve been on his.”