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'TUF Live' finalist Al Iaquinta close to UFC return

Al Iaquinta of Wantagh trains at Ray Longo

Al Iaquinta of Wantagh trains at Ray Longo MMA in Garden City the day before leaving to be a contestant on Season 15 of the UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter." (Feb. 29, 2012) Credit: David Pokress

Mike Ricci and Colton Smith were afforded a luxury not given to Wantagh's Al Iaquinta: time.

Time to heal. Time to regroup physically and mentally from a prolonged stay in an unfamiliar home, removed from the everyday things in life.

Fresh off a three-month rest after taping of Season 16 of "The Ultimate Fighter" concluded in September, Ricci and Smith will fight each other this Saturday in the Ultimate Finale, with the winner guaranteed a six-figure contract with the UFC.

Iaquinta had seven days.

Seven days to recover from his semifinal bout against Vinc Pichel, which happened to be seven days after he beat Andy Ogle in the quarterfinals. The semifinal fight left Iaquinta (5-2-1, 0-1 UFC) with a banged-up right knee that was surgically repaired nine weeks after he lost in the Season 15 "TUF Live" finale on June 1.

"I threw a bunch of kicks and I remember a couple of times being like 'I'm gonna feel that in about an hour,'" Iaquinta said about his semifinal win. "After the adrenaline wore off, I was hobbling around. That's part of the game, I guess. You fight three fights in three weeks, you're going to come away with some injuries."

That's the difference between taping the series in advance and doing a live season. Iaquinta was part of the one and only live series since the show began in 2005. Fights were broadcast live on Friday nights with the rest of the hour-long reality show taped and produced in the seven days between fights. This season, which ends Saturday, returned to the filmed-in-advance format, as will Season 17 when FX moves to the show to Tuesdays starting Jan. 22. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is a coach against the best talker in the game in Chael Sonnen.

Iaquinta said he never considered not fighting in the finale, which he lost by submission in the first round to Michael Chiesa. He was too close. His goal was in reach.

"I'd crutch my way into the cage," Iaquinta said. "There was never a point where I was thinking about pulling out. It was just trying to stay positive and get in there as healthy as possible."

Last July, Iaquinta had arthroscopic knee surgery to clean up torn cartilage behind the patella tendon and scar tissue around the meniscus. Iaquinta, who is stil under contract with Zuffa (the parent company of UFC) as part of a multi-year deal stemming from "TUF,"  said he is hoping to return to the octagon in February or March 2013.

Iaquinta returned to the wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mats about six weeks ago and rarely feels any pain now in the knee.

Before that?

"I sat on a stool and hit pads," Iaquinta said.

Because, ultimately, he is a fighter.

New York Sports