Al Iaquinta has tasted what it’s like to be a world title contender. Now he’ll have to beat the UFC’s most battle-tested veteran for another shot.
When Iaquinta steps into the cage Saturday for UFC Ottawa’s lightweight main event, he’ll be facing Donald Cerrone, a man making his 31st walk to the Octagon and second since returning to the lightweight division in January. Iaquinta needs a win over Cerrone to keep himself in line for a rematch with Khabib Nurmagomedov, the current lightweight champion who won the title by defeating Iaquinta at UFC 223.
Iaquinta was a last-second replacement after a calamitous series of events knocked out challengers Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway, and he went five rounds with Nurmagomedov. Despite losing a unanimous decision (and not actually being able to compete for the vacant title due to him weighing in above championship weight for a different scheduled bout), “Raging Al” showed that he could hang with the elite at 155 pounds.
Cerrone has also previously competed for the lightweight title, losing via TKO to Rafael dos Anjos back in December 2015, and the 36-year-old is poised to make one more run at a championship that would be a considerable feather in his already esteemed Cowboy hat.
Saturday’s co-main event also has contendership implications for two middleweight veterans, Ontario’s own Elias Theodorou and Derek Brunson. Theodorou has been flying under the radar with an 8-2 record, his ascent limited by the lack of a signature finish and a big-name scalp.
He’ll be aiming to vault into the top 10 with a win Saturday, but Brunson will have something to say about that. The noted first-round finisher has put together an impressive highlight reel, but stumbled time-and-time again when matched up with the elite at 185 pounds.
In other main card action, Cub Swanson and Shane Burgos look to generate some featherweight fireworks, The Ultimate Fighter 27 winner Brad Katona puts his undefeated record on the line against Merab Dvalishvili, heavyweight Walt Harris welcomes short-notice debutant Sergey Spivak to the Octagon, and two-division TKO champion Marc-Andre Barriault makes his UFC debut against Andrew Sanchez.
What: UFC Ottawa
Where: Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario
When: Saturday, May 4. The six-fight preliminary card begins at 5 p.m. ET on the ESPN+ streaming service and the six-fight main card continues at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
During a media scrum this week, Donald Cerrone pointed out that when he made the move from lightweight to welterweight three years ago, he was still ranked in the top three at 155 pounds. He certainly looked the part of a top contender in his return against Alexander Hernandez, starching the upstart in the second round. Even at 36 years old, “Cowboy” is able to match almost any fighter at lightweight or welterweight skill-for-skill.
The problem with Cerrone has always been slow starts and facing opponents who are maybe just a little more technical and a little faster on the draw than him, and Al Iaquinta fits that bill, at least at this stage in their careers. We saw the best version of “Raging Al” in his rematch with Kevin Lee, a power-puncher with great footwork and excellent takedown defense.
That latter quality will help him avoid Cerrone’s always dangerous submission game and make this primarily a stand-up affair, much to the delight of the Canadian fans who Cerrone has never disappointed when he competes in The Great White North. Iaquinta should also set the tone early on the feet and keep Cerrone from getting into any kind of rhythm.
One more factor to consider is the toll that these cuts down to 155 take on Cerrone. It’s a much more natural weight class for Iaquinta and that’s an edge he’ll have in what is a close contest on paper.
Though it’s possible this develops into a five-round slugfest, I like Iaquinta to pick up a knockout sometime in the first three rounds.
How you see this fight unfolding depends on whether you think Derek Brunson can finish Elias Theodorou early. When he’s on his game, Brunson has looked like a world-beater; when he’s not, he’s looked like a glorified gatekeeper.
Theodorou is nearly the opposite. If anything, the Torontonian has been consistent to a fault, so calm and steady that it’s raised questions as to whether he has another gear to shift to. Even if he does, don’t expect him to go full throttle against Brunson. Theodorou is a fighter who takes his time and in his own words, he wants to show Brunson the difference between a sprint and a marathon.
Brunson hasn’t won a decision in years and a three-round fight has to favor Theodorou, if only because of his aptitude for point-fighting. An ideal scenario for Theodorou sees him using sharp defense and evasive movement to frustrate Brunson early and set him up for a finish in the final round. More likely, this one goes the distance and Theodorou ekes out another decision win.
This is a classic “passing of the torch” fight. You better believe Cub Swanson won’t make it easy for Shane Burgos to wrest it from his bruised and battered hands.
Burgos has all the makings of a future contender at 145 pounds and he’s going to push the pace early to prove that Swanson, respected as he is, is no longer in his league. The 28-year-old can swarm on a hurt opponent with the best of them. He won’t show any mercy if he senses for a second that Swanson is on the verge of defeat.
Putting Swanson in a precarious position is the tricky part. Yes, “Killer Cub” has lost three straight, but those setbacks have come against a trio of featherweight beasts in Renato Moicano, Frankie Edgar, and Brian Ortega. There’s no shame in losing to them and Swanson can’t be too mentally shaken from those experiences. If that’s the case, Burgos is in trouble because he doesn’t have the big fight experience that Swanson has. Few featherweights do.
This bout will live up to its potential Fight of the Night billing and when the dust settles, it’s Swanson whose next-level toughness will carry him to a win.
Merab Dvalishvili has to be one of the toughest prospects to gauge right now. He came into the UFC as a hyped Serra-Longo product only to run into tough losses in his first couple of outings. His impressive wrestling was not enough to put him on the right side of a split call against Frankie Saenz and then he was the victim of one of the strangest finishes in UFC history when he appeared to be headed to a decision verdict against Ricky Simon only to be ruled the loser after the bell rang when it was ruled that he had passed out in a guillotine choke.
He turned things around against Terrion Ware, absolutely mauling him for three rounds, and if he brings that aggressiveness on Saturday, it will go a long way towards him handing Brad Katona his first loss. Unbeaten in eight pro bouts, Katona has looked like a solid prospect and he showed legitimate growth in his first post-TUF bout. He’s a strong wrestler in his own right, though in a straight grappling contest he probably loses to Dvalishvili.
Katona is the more disciplined striker. Like many young fighters with a dedicated wrestling background, Dvalishvili is more prone to power-punching (and in his case, throwing some wild kicks) than setting up combinations and that’s going to cost him unless he can catch Katona making a mistake. I don’t see that happening. Katona will work hard to fend off and recover from takedowns, while finding openings to do damage and win over the judges.
Moldova’s Sergey Spivak brings the kind of killer instinct you like to see from a heavyweight prospect to his Octagon debut. Just 24 years old, he’s already faced and quickly finished two of the sport’s iron men, Tony Lopez and Travis Fulton.
With respect to both of those warriors, Walt Harris is a considerable step up from them and anyone else that the 24-year-old Spivak has faced so far. He’s won four fights in his second stint with the UFC and shown great patience that compliments his explosive striking potential.
Neither fighter is going to wow anyone with their raw volume, so we could be in store for a slow-paced, methodical match in the opening minutes. However, when the fists start flying, Harris’s length and experience will make him quicker to the punch (or kick) and he’ll put Spivak down for the count.
Andrew Sanchez is an excellent grappler, so the path to victory here is clear: Tie Marc-Andre Barriault up, test his takedown defense, and see if he has the cardio to hang for three rounds at the UFC level. Fortunately for Barriault, he’s already shown he’s capable of winning five-round fights at the regional level and that will serve him well here.
Even if Sanchez can’t take Barriault down, he’ll willingly brawl with the French-Canadian fighter. That won’t be a smart strategy for him as Barriault is blessed with heavy hands and he could punish Sanchez with ground-and-pound as well if he’s willing to venture into Sanchez’s guard.
Barriault has been pegged as a breakthrough Canadian star for a while and I’m predicting his mixture of heavy top control and heavy hands will be enough to earn him his first UFC win.