More than 100 UFC events ago, Al Iaquinta was a ticket-buying high school kid inside Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. That night at UFC 53, the energy in the arena set Iaquinta's future in motion.
"I'm fighting in that cage!" Iaquinta recalled thinking that night in 2005, a few weeks before graduating from Wantagh High School.
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Well, he's done that three times already for the UFC. The fourth will occur Saturday as Iaquinta fights lightweight Kevin Lee at UFC 169 at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Iaquinta hasn't forgot that life-shaping night eight-plus years ago. As he talked about what it's like to now, as a professional fighter, be the one they're cheering, his excitement grew with each sentence.
"You know everyone is looking at you right then and there," Iaquinta said.
"You're extremely focused," he said.
"You realize everyone looks at you but you don't even really see them," he said.
"Even if you're looking at the crowd and high-fiving people, you're not even thinking about it," he said. "I'm thinking of what he's gonna do and how I'm gonna react."
Iaquinta (7-2-1, 2-1 UFC) has reacted just fine thus far, winning his last two fights by unanimous decision. That's after a 15-month layoff to heal injuries following a loss in "The Ultimate Fighter Live" season finale in June 2012.
Iaquinta's coach on that season of the UFC's reality series was Urijah Faber, the former WEC featherweight champion. The two forged a relationship that continues today. Faber welcomed Iaquinta into his home in Sacramento, Calif., toward the end of 2013 to help train for upcoming fights. Iaquinta was with Faber's Team Alpha Male when he received the news of his next fight against UFC newcomer Lee (7-0).
"He has all the makings of a champion," Faber told Newsday. "He has a super strong work ethic and he believes in himself. I have a lot of confidence that guy is going to continue to rise to the top of the sport."
Iaquinta also had an opportunity to spar with former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler earlier this month. The two share the same manager in Dave Martin. Iaquinta held his own with Chandler, who some consider to be among the top lightweights in the world regardless of promotion. Chandler said that was the first time he sparred since before his title fight against Eddie Alvarez last November.
"It was good to . . . ," Chandler said the day after, then seconds later pointed to his bruised lower lip and added "not good, I guess."
"You're always a little nervous stepping in with a guy who's three weeks away from a fight," Chandler said. "Whenever you're three weeks away from a fight, you're in shape, you're ready, you're a killer."
But if it is championship pedigree Iaquinta needs to motivate himself, he needn't look much farther than across the mats at his training camp with Ray Longo in Garden City and with former champion Matt Serra in Levittown. Iaquinta trains at the same gyms as UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman.
"It just reinforces that I know I'm doing the right thing," Iaquinta said. "I know if I'm doing the same workouts that Weidman's doing, what could be better than that? I'm following the footsteps of the middleweight champion, the guy who dethroned Anderson Silva."