Toward the end of what, even by mixed martial arts and UFC standards, was a ludicrous fight week, an improbable arrangement of letters ascended to unbelievable place.
Yet, there those letters were — “IAQUINTA” — atop the marquee inside Barclays Center on Friday evening. And again on Saturday night.
A series of events almost too far-fetched to be published — bus attacks, arraignments, failed weight cuts, concerned athletic commissions and weighty underwear — delivered this destination point: Al Iaquinta, the 30-year-old fighter and real estate agent from Wantagh, fighting in the UFC 223 main event against Khabib Nurmagomedov with the lightweight championship at stake.
“It’s something I never felt before,” Iaquinta said Saturday, less than 24 hours after he landed the prime spot on the card. “It’s a new experience, but it’s something I always wanted. This is where I wanted to be. You dream about stuff like this and you have to jump at every opportunity you get.”
Iaquinta was supposed to fight Paul Felder in the first fight on pay-per-view. But the card started to crumble after Conor McGregor’s melee on Thursday led to three fights being canceled, and main-eventer Max Holloway missed weight Friday morning.
Up stepped Iaquinta, who harassed UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby for several hours for the chance to fight the undefeated Russian considered one of the best in his sport. He was seen yelling toward Shelby from across the hotel lobby, “I’m your guy.”
Eventually, he was.
Iaquinta had weighed in at 155.2 pounds, within the one-pound limit for a lightweight fight. But for a title fight, he couldn’t be an ounce above 155. So, a couple hours after he weighed in and had rehydrated, out came the underwear! Iaquinta brought the underwear he wore on the scale to the New York State Athletic Commission to be weighed.
“I walked into the room and they were all sitting there and I had them in my pants,” Iaquinta said. “I took them out, I was waving them around.”
They weighed 0.2 pounds — and are sure to appear on any “Notable underwear in UFC history” lists in the future. Yet NYSAC ruled that only Nurmagomedov was eligible to win the title.
That didn’t stop Iaquinta from treating his new fight as an opportunity to become champion. UFC president Dana White said if Iaquinta beat Nurmagomedov, the UFC would figure out “all the technicalities” to crown Iaquinta the champion.
It’s been that kind of a three-year run for Iaquinta. He’s “Raging Al,” the most vocal fighter about the UFC’s pay scale. He’s been known to publicly air a grievance or two. He’s fought once since April 2015, and that was a first-round knockout of Diego Sanchez for his fifth straight win.
“I fought for 90 seconds, pretty much cursed out every UFC employee, and I got a title fight,” Iaquinta said. It’s pretty [expletive] crazy. It’s insane. You can’t make this up.”
Iaquinta approached the fight with nothing to lose.
“I’m the main event in the UFC. Two years ago, I never thought I was going to ever fight again. I was in a real estate class, thinking that’s what I was going to be doing. This is the thing dreams are made of.”
He’s doing both, just not in this moment. Iaquinta has three active listings and received a call and text from a buyer’s agent on Saturday morning. “I said, I’m fighting for the UFC title tonight, check it out on pay-per-view, I’ll call you Monday,” Iaquinta said. “She said OK.”