UFC 223 Preview: Khabib vs Iaquinta, The Fight We Didn’t See Coming

UFC 223 Khabib Nurmagomedov Max Holloway UFC 242
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Al Iaquinta was not the fight anyone expected on Sunday morning, but on Saturday night it will be the main event we have.

The story is already well documented: Tony Ferguson fell out of Saturday’s bout due to an injury.  Featherweight champion Max Holloway filled in but was denied an opportunity after the athletic commission ruled he was unfit.  After several other options were exhausted, “Raging” Al Iaquinta now headlines UFC 223 against the dominant Khabib Nurmagomedov.

By this point, it would be concerning if Nurmagomedov did not feel bothered by the events of the past week.  His much anticipated bout with Ferguson was cancelled for the fourth time.  He agreed to face the dynamic Max Holloway on short notice, only for that fight to fall through Friday morning.  Then there was the little matter of being Conor McGregor’s intended target on Thursday that contributed to the madness.  Now, he has had a little more than 24 hours to prepare for a dangerous contender in Al Iaquinta.

Nurmagomedov has the chance to become the UFC lightweight champion on Saturday and the circumstances thrown at him don’t change that fact that he has been on this course for several years.  Nurmagomedov began his career in Russia and tore through the competition in his homeland and other parts of Eastern Europe before making his UFC debut in 2012. He then reeled off nine straight victories in the Octagon to become one of the most feared contenders in the world.

Along the way, his style of Sambo has made him the most dangerous grappler at 155 pounds as he has been able to use his skills on the mat to dismantle every opponent put in front of him. Last year, Nurmagomedov called for the championship bout he felt he deserved, but falling out of the bout with Ferguson and subsequent absence with a back injury hurt his reputation with the fans. In December, he had a chance to redeem himself as he was paired with dangerous striker Barboza. Nurmagomedov turned in the performance of his career, surviving the best shots from the Brazilian striker and taking a decisive victory on the scorecards.

In 2015, it was beginning to appear that Al Iaquinta was en route to transitioning to life as a successful realtor.  He had several bouts fall out over the next year and a half.  But even though he was successful away from the Octagon, it didn’t stop him from continuing to work with his lauded team that includes Matt Serra and Ray Longo.  He did make one return to the UFC, a victory over Diego Sanchez in April of 2017.  However, a scheduled bout with Paul Felder in late 2017 fell out due to a contract dispute.

Iaquinta was outspoken about his pay and was not afraid to challenge his employers.  But his performances inside the cage spoke for themselves and the UFC ended up vastly improving his contract.  The bout with Felder was rescheduled but has now fallen by the wayside as the Long Island native now gets an opportunity to take out the top ranked Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn.  UFC President Dana White stated that the promotion will honor Iaquinta with the title should he be victorious, overlooking the NYSAC ruling that he was ineligible to win the belt due to officially weighing in at 155.2 pounds.

Stylistically, Iaquinta has the benefit that he has had a full training camp to prepare for a dangerous opponent in Paul Felder.  However, Nurmagomedov has been preparing for a five round battle with a dangerous opponent in Tony Ferguson.  Iaquinta will need to establish his striking early, getting in and out and maintaining a high output.  Nurmagomedov has been successful in coming forward and neutralizing his opponent’s striking.  For “Raging” Al to get the victory, he needs to put pressure on the feet and not allow the Russian to set up a takedown.

Nurmagomedov has had to make several adjustments but his game plan should remain the same  as the one he would have implemented against either Ferguson or Holloway.  “The Eagle” needs to use forward pressure, forcing Iaquinta to fight off of his heels.  As always, he looks to have an incredible advantage on the mat and that doesn’t look to change against the Long Islander.

After all that will have taken place in a week, Nurmagomedov likely is ready to come in take what he feels is his after all he’s been put through.  For Iaquinta, he only months ago stated he was not interested in a fight with “The Eagle.”  Now, he could become the breakthrough fighter in the sport if he can come in and end Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten streak.  They are not the players we expected last Sunday morning but the stakes are the same: the UFC lightweight title remains up for grabs between two surging contenders in the division.