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Main event at UFC Ottawa exactly where Al Iaquinta wants to be

Al Iaquinta, left, faced Khabib Nurmagomedov for the

Al Iaquinta, left, faced Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title at UFC 223 at Barclays Center on April 7, 2018. Credit: Mario Gonzalez

The lights go dark. The adrenaline-filled crowd of fight fans takes pause. Silence briefly takes hold of the arena. Then, on comes the music, raucous goes the crowd and out walks the last fighter of the night. It, as UFC octagon announcer Bruce Buffer will yell into the microphone a few minutes later, is time. The main event of the evening.

This Saturday, the arena will be the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. The music will be “Woke Up This Morning,” the theme song from the HBO series “The Sopranos.” The fighter will be Wantagh’s Al Iaquinta.

“That’s where you want to be, that’s the goal. So, I’m enjoying it,” Iaquinta said. “I’m the last one walking out now. It’s pretty sick.”

Iaquinta, the fourth-ranked lightweight in the UFC, will be walking to the octagon to face Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, ranked eighth, in the main event of UFC Ottawa. It is a somewhat unfamiliar spot for Iaquinta. Yes, his last two fights were main events, but he was the first fighter in the cage for those bouts against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee.

A main event brings it with greater exposure, additional fight-week media obligations, a heightened pressure and a few extra perks, financial and otherwise. Iaquinta, 32, has the experience and a veteran Serra-Longo fight team around him to not let the moment become too big. Still, it’s an environment Iaquinta said he thrives in.

“I think I do way better in the higher-intensity situations, the pressure situations,” Iaquinta said. “I want to impress people, show them everything I’ve done. There are more people watching. I’m going to try harder to show them what I can do.”

Iaquinta impressed people a year ago when, on one day’s notice and having trained for only a three-round bout, accepted the challenge of facing Nurmagomedov, an undefeated Russian mauler, for the vacant lightweight title in a five-round main event. Sure, Nurmagomedov did to Iaquinta what he had done to 25 previous opponents, but reading the judges’ scorecards – 50-44, 50-43, 50-43 – without context doesn’t convey the effort put forth or the acknowledgements he received afterward.

Before that, fans had seen Iaquinta fight for a total of 98 seconds in three years, and that was one 98-second fight where he knocked out Diego Sanchez.

“It was the Khabib fight that changed everything,” Iaquinta said. “I think I had the same attitude before that fight. Getting that opportunity got me motivated, got me the exposure I needed to make the money that made it worth it to fight. Diego Sanchez, I was pissed off before and I was pissed off after.”

"Raging Al" Iaquinta (14-4-1) had his share of things that angered him over the years. Injuries and disputes with his UFC bosses helped shape his narrative for a few years. In that time, Iaquinta became a real estate agent on Long Island, giving himself a steady career to fall back on as well as a supplemental revenue stream if he continued fighting.

There were times when Iaquinta figured he was done fighting, that his career wouldn’t reach the pinnacle he planned for when he first made it to the UFC as a contestant on the only live season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2012. He reached the final, where he lost to Michael Chiesa in what was Iaquinta's third fight in a 15-day span.

“When I was on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ I was like, this is where I’m going to be, main events, fighting the guys I would watch, fighting the best guys in the world, being ranked at the top,” Iaquinta said. “Then when I got hurt and all that nonsense, I got doubtful, but I always had the end goal still in mind. It was just, ‘How am I gonna get there?’ It turned from ‘I’m getting there,’ to ‘How am I gonna get there?’ I figured it out.”

There, at least for this week, is the main event against Cerrone, one of the most popular and active fighters in the UFC. There also is here: a prominent spot in the conversation of title contenders in the 155-pound division, where Nurmagomedov reigns and Dustin Poirier is the interim champion. They are considered likely to unify the title in September in Abu Dhabi, though no official announcement has been made yet.

Cerrone (35-11, 1 no contest) has the most wins (22) and most finishes (16) in UFC history. His return to lightweight after a 5-4 run at welterweight began in January when he beat Alexander Hernandez by second-round TKO.

“I thought his last fight, he showed his experience,” Iaquinta said. “His fight IQ is very good.”

Cerrone long has been the “anywhere, anytime, anybody” type of fighter, but he now talks about focusing solely on winning a title, the one thing that has eluded him in the UFC and WEC (he’s 0-4 in title fights). Cerrone, 36, puts together combinations as good as anyone in the sport and can finish a fight equally well with strikes (10 KO/TKOs) or submissions (17). Iaquinta is a powerful striker with four of last six wins coming by knockout. He has won six of his past seven fights.

“He’s just really a tough dude," Cerrone said. "Real tough.”

With Cerrone there also is, by his own admission, two different "Cowboys" — the one who shows up on fight night ready to ascend to greater heights, and the one who feels it’s not his night before he even puts on the four-ounce gloves.

“You have to be prepared for the tough one, and if you make him look like the easy one, then you did your job,” Iaquinta said. “It definitely seems like he’s focused. He’s starting to talk about the title sometimes.”

UFC Ottawa main card, 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN+

Donald Cerrone vs. Al Iaquinta

Derek Brunson vs. Elias Theodorou

Cub Swanson vs. Shane Burgos

Brad Katona vs. Merab Dvalishvili

Walt Harris vs. Sergey Spivak

Marc-Andre Berriault vs. Andrew Sanchez

UFC Ottawa prelims, 5 p.m. on ESPN+

Sarah Moras vs. Macy Chiasson

Aiemann Zahabi vs. Vince Morales

Nordine Taleb vs. Kyle Prepolec

Juan Adams vs. Arjan Singh Bhullar

Mitch Gagnon vs. Cole Smith

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