Al Iaquinta said it. His striking coach and lead trainer, Ray Longo, said it. His jiujitsu instructor and cornerman, Matt Serra, said it.
The 30-year-old MMA fighter and real estate agent from Wantagh walked into the octagon with “nothing to lose” Saturday night.
Sure, he could lose the fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 at Barclays Center. But who would hold that against someone who has spent 98 seconds inside the octagon in the past three years and changed from facing an unranked but talented opponent in Paul Felder to fighting the No. 2 lightweight in the world on one day’s notice?
“Al doesn’t need the ‘Braveheart’ speech,” Serra said earlier Saturday. “He’s a warrior.”
Iaquinta planned to fight carefree against Nurmagomedov, an undefeated Russian with a penchant for walking through opponents’ strikes to inflict his own grinding punishment on them. He planned to be loose and “have fun in there,” just as he did last year when he knocked out Diego Sanchez in the first round, his only UFC fight in the past three years before Saturday.
But this is Khabib Nurmagomedov, an unrelenting and unbeaten force inside the cage. Nurmagomedov won a unanimous decision over Iaquinta, with the judges scoring the bout 50-44, 50-43, 50-43. Nurmagomedov was crowned the UFC lightweight champion. (Iaquinta was not eligible to win the title because his official weight was 155.2 pounds.)
“Iaquinta is a real gangster,” Nurmagomedov said. “He come here. Where’s Conor [McGregor]? He want to fight a bus. I want to fight a real gangster. Iaquinta, thank you so much.”
“Much respect to Al, too,” UFC president Dana White said. “He didn’t show up just for a paycheck, he came to win.”
Iaquinta (13-4-1), who was taken to NYU-Langone Hospital in Brooklyn after the fight, fought gamely in the first two rounds but spent much of that time defending against the pressure and grappling of Nurmagomedov (26-0). Every time Iaquinta was able to get back to his feet, it was with Nurmagomedov holding on and controlling his body, leading to another takedown.
Iaquinta developed a bloody nose in the third round as Nurmagomedov kept the fight on the feet. For Iaquinta to have a real chance at the upset, it would be here, standing, in the middle of the octagon exchanging punches. Amid the jabs and punches, Nurmagomedov and Iaquinta occasionally exchanged words as well.
Nurmagomedov kept the range on Iaquinta in the fourth round, using his jab to set the pace. Iaquinta, who has never been afraid to take a shot in order to give a shot, struggled to get past that jab. He got a few shots off here and there but wasn’t able to establish a consistent pace.
In the fifth round, with really nothing to lose, Iaquinta turned more aggressive. Nurmagomedov turned it on in the middle of the fifth round as well. “Don’t feel like a loss, though, don’t feel like it,” Serra said as he walked past media row after the bout.
“I’m so proud of this kid,” Longo said. “He’s just a gutsy kid. He trained for a three-round fight and went five rounds with a complete monster.”
A series of events almost too far-fetched to be published — bus attacks, arraignments and failed weight cuts — delivered Iaquinta to this moment in time. But there would be no magical “shock the world” moment for Iaquinta, not even on the 11th anniversary of Serra’s upset of Georges St-Pierre.
“Although we lost,” Longo said, “I’ve never been this positive after a loss and this proud of a performance.”