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Despite losing, possibly the biggest winner of UFC 223 was Long Island’s Raging Al Iaquinta. For those fight fans that weren’t paying attention over the last week, one of the UFC’s biggest fight cards of the year turned into a study in chaos. It all started when the long-awaited meeting of former interim champ Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov disintegrated as a result of a freak accident. I’ll spare you my analysis of the Conor McGregor shenanigans. If you’re interested in reading about that, check out my column, Notes from the Combat Underground.

 It was the fourth time that Tony and Khabib were supposed to fight, but it seems that the MMA Gods had other plans. We’ll all have to wait I see. It would have been the best time for them to fight, crucial for the division, because in my opinion, it would have been undoubtedly, the two best guys figuring facing off to determine wh should be the champ.  Though McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez to win the title, he didn’t earn anything. He didn’t claw his way to the top, prove himself; it was public opinion that gave him is shot.

After several opponent changes including current featherweight champ, Max Holloway, Al got the nod to step up and face Khabib for the official, undisputed lightweight title. Iaquinta had only fought once in the last 27 months and was ranked 11th in the division. Extreme conditions call for extreme measures. Using a fight like this to determine who is the champ is a huge leap of faith, but if you have lemons, you make lemonade and it was clear that Al showed up to win.

Al faced one of the most dominant fighters in the UFC, a total smashing machine. To date nobody has faired well against him, nobody has been able to stop the takedown and nobody has been able to weather his Sambo-fueled melee of violence and carnage. Khabib shut Al out, winning all five rounds, but the takeaway is that Al actually looked better than a lot of higher ranked guys did in past fight. He had a strong third and fourth round, where he stuffed a few takedowns and landed some great strikes. Khabib is not known for his striking, Al was able to lure him into a slug fest, a solid game plan. Also, Al had been preparing for a three round fight, so he knew that his only real shot of winning was to knock him out in an early round. Some analysts have stated that Al exposed some openings and possible weaknesses. That remains to be seen. In light of the unusual happenings of the prior week, no one will ever really know what was going through Khabib’s head during the fight. The McGregor tomfoolery was aimed at him and his camp, the opponent that he had been preparing for was taken off the card and for a few days, there was a musical chairs of potential opponents. There are few fighters that would have stayed on the card.

For the pas couple of years, Iaquinta was at odds with the UFC’s president Dana White. His Twitter account was raging with harsh words for White’s treatment of fighters and the relatively stinginess that organizations applies to payouts. Based on several appearance of the MMA Hour Podcast, it became common knowledge that Al had to take on a side job as a real estate agent on Long Island to make ends meet, which is somewhat of a travesty since he fights for an organization who’s worth is estimated in the billions. Additionally, he was sidelined by a serious knee injury for over a year adding uncertainty to whether or not he would ever step foot on a mat again to train, let alone compete in the octagon.

It was poignant that Al stepped up and essentially saved the main event of one of the most anticipated cards of the year. Sure he lost, but he wasn’t finished. He didn’t get knocked out or submitted and he faced arguably the most dominant lightweight in the history of the sport. His currency definitely rose, more people know about him and it can only be a positive move for the opinionated Long Islander.

Salud, Chindon Al!

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