Al Iaquinta boarded a plane to Las Vegas on Thursday morning with the same dreams of fortune and success as everyone else who makes the trip. Only, his slot machine comes with eight sides and the house he is playing against wants to punch him in the face and kick him in the shins.
Iaquinta, a mixed martial artist from Wantagh, earned a spot as one of the 32 lightweight fighters on the first episode of season 15 of "The Ultimate Fighter." He will fight a to-be-determined opponent Friday for a chance to stay on the UFC's reality competition show which serves as a feeder program of sorts for fighters. This season's fights, for the first time in the show's seven-year run, will air live and on FX.
"My heart was beating like before a fight," Iaquinta said about seeing the caller ID when his phone rang with the news. "I have been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this. I have no idea what is going to happen."
The journey to this point has had its share of twists for Iaquinta (5-1-1). He was going to be on Season 12 of "TUF" before he broke his hand while training. Six weeks in a cast and no sense of when his next fight would come.
Then, he got another phone call.
"I found myself in Russia training a bunch of rich businessmen," Iaquinta said. "I was there for the hottest day ever. I brought three pairs of shorts. Moscow, I think 'Rocky' and Siberia. Then when I get there, it's like 100 degrees."
Actually, 99.3 to be precise, but who wants to argue with a former wrestler who was flown to Moscow to train Russian Muay Thai fighter Ivan Busarov among others.
From Russia to Ray Longo MMA in Garden City to "Ultimate Fighter" in Las Vegas -- not a bad trip for a kid who got grew tired of wrestling and "cutting week every week." Like many former wrestlers, Iaquinta accompanied his friend to his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class one night in Franklin Square four-plus years ago. He quickly learned that BJJ isn't wrestling. Iaquinta found himself caught in several submissions.
"It discouraged me, but at the same time, it motivated me to find out what the heck it was," he said. "And how is it that they're kicking me and it hurts me, but when I kick them, it hurts me, too?"
Now a member of the Serra-Longo fight team led by trainer Ray Longo and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra, Iaquinta benefits from being part of that group. He can look left and see Chris Weidman, a rising star at middleweight in the UFC. Or he can look to his right and see another promising UFC middleweight in Costa Philippou, who beat Court McGee by unanimous decision Friday night in Australia.
"Sometimes [Weidman] will want to work on his defense and I feel like a superstar because he's not going hard," Iaquinta said. "Other times he makes me feel like a toddler."