Al Iaquinta belongs here. He may not be the loudest, the brashest, or the flashiest, but after wins in six of his last seven bouts, including back-to-back finishes of Ross Pearson and Joe Lauzon, the New Yorker has earned his co-main event slot against Jorge Masvidal on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Fairfax, Virginia. And the way he sees it, it’s only going to get better from here.
“It definitely hasn’t surprised me,” he said of his recent move from prospect to contender. “I always knew what I was capable of; it just took me a while to maybe get comfortable in the cage. And I also feed off the energy of the crowd and everything. When you’re fighting in the first couple fights of the night, it felt kind of dull to me. I want to be on center stage, and the more people that are watching me, I rise to the occasion. I’m not the kind of person that shies away from stepping up to the big stage.”
For the 27-year-old, this is a natural feeling, one he assumed every fighter had. But that’s not always the case, as he recalls a bout on the amateur scene.
“There was a kid who fought in one of the amateur shows, and he didn’t even tell his family or his friends that he was fighting, and he ended up losing,” Iaquinta said. “He knew he wasn’t prepared, he was unsure of himself and he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. I know what I’m getting myself into and I know that I’m more than well prepared. I’ve got the best coaches, so when I step out there in the spotlight, I want more people watching me, and when I’m on the main card and (UFC President) Dana White’s sitting there, and all the celebrities are in the front row, that’s when I shine.”
It’s hard to argue with him. After losing in the final of The Ultimate Fighter 15 in June of 2012, Iaquinta won four of his next five, setting up the first of two bouts against marquee names some felt he wasn’t ready for. He was, stopping both Pearson and Lauzon. And the funny part about the wins was that usually when a prospect moves up the ladder, the fights get harder. Iaquinta has made them look easy, and he has a theory why.
> Watch Iaquinta's past fights
“When you’re facing a more experienced guy, they’re a little more predictable because they do more of the right things,” he said. “When you’re fighting someone who’s unpolished and a little more raw, they’re kind of wild, and I can’t think what he’s thinking because he doesn’t know what he’s thinking. I’m fighting more experienced guys and I know what they’re doing and I can think a step ahead of them because I know what train of thought they’re on.”
It makes a lot of sense, and while Masvidal will be another veteran test, “Raging” Al is confident that he’s ready for it.
“There are obviously no easy fights, but I think I can break down all the guys in this division, I will come prepared, and I will figure out a way to beat them,” he said. “It’s staying relaxed when things get wild and getting things back into your hands. I’m pretty good at doing that and I’m getting even better the more comfortable I get in the cage.”
He’s pretty comfortable at this point, making up for a long layoff following the Chiesa fight with two bouts in the second half of 2013, four in 2014, and one thus far in 2015.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling healthy, I’m young and hungry and I figure let’s make the most of this,” Iaquinta said. “When I was out for that year and a half when I had the knee surgery, it was brutal. And I looked at a bunch of the guys that were on The Ultimate Fighter, and I was like ‘man, why aren’t these guys fighting? It’s crazy.’ And I said when I get healthy I’m gonna take every fight and every opportunity. It was killing me that I couldn’t fight, so it’s definitely something that’s stuck with me, and now that I’m healthy, everything’s been going good, I’ve been winning fights the right way, and I’m feeling good.”
But is he finally going to pick up that post-fight bonus he’s been searching for?
“I’m gonna say no,” he said. “Two guys are gonna go out there and wing crazy haymakers at each other and they’ll win Fight of the Night. Two other guys will get performance bonuses and I’m gonna be clean, technical, and I’m gonna win my fight that way. I’ll get the win bonus, I’ll get the W and people who know a lot about fighting will have their jaw dropped again.”
Call it the Iaquinta version of reverse psychology.
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