He wasn’t supposed to win at UFC on FOX 31, but Al Iaquinta spoiled the party with an upset victory over Kevin Lee in the five-round main event of the evening.
Iaquinta used his wrestling in reverse to keep the fight on the feet, where he outstruck Lee to earn arguably the most important win of his career. With so many question marks surrounding Iaquinta after losing his last fight to UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and subsequently pulling out of a scheduled August fight against Justin Gaethje, for the fighter/real estate agent to come out there and defeat a top-five opponent in Lee is absolutely massive for his career.
After losing a hard-fought decision to Nurmagomedov his last time out, Iaquinta really needed to get back into the win column against Lee, and he did just that. Not only did Iaquinta get his hand raised, but he put on one of the most impressive performances on a card full of them, ultimately being rewarded by the UFC with a bonus for “Performance of the Night.”
The fact Iaquinta won a bonus award over Edson Barboza, who brutally beat down Dan Hooker in the co-main event, shows how highly the UFC thought of his performance. Iaquinta is a guy UFC president Dana White likes because he’s always down to stand and bang and put on a good performance, but he’s also a guy who has given the promotion troubles with contract negotiations in the past. The thing is, he’s such a good fighter that the UFC knows they need to keep him happy because he’s one of the best lightweights in MMA, and talented fighters like Iaquinta don’t grow on trees.
Beating Lee like he did puts Iaquinta in the driver’s seat when it comes to future fight negotiations with the UFC. He says he was happy with his contract with the UFC before, but after beating Lee in such impressive fashion he’ll surely want a raise and a new contract before he agrees to fight anyone else. After doing the UFC a solid and fighting Nurmagomedov on one day’s notice and then picking up a top-five win over Lee, the UFC needs Iaquinta.
The promotion is expected to run 50 events in 2019 and although Iaquinta is not going to be headlining a pay-per-view unless he wins the belt, he is someone who can headline UFC on ESPN shows next year and beyond. The UFC needs Iaquinta more than he needs them because he has a successful day job as a realtor, and he’ll be in a good spot for when it comes to negotiations as to who he fights next and for how much money.
Although a rematch with Nurmagomedov isn’t likely, Iaquinta can absolutely expect a top-10 if not top-five opponent for his next fight. He’ll likely be gunning for a fight against Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz, but at the very least he can expect someone like the aforementioned Gaethje or Barboza. I see Iaquinta holding out for one of the big names but ultimately settling for a top-10 opponent regardless. He hasn’t earned the right to completely call his shots yet as he’s not a champion, but the UFC knows Iaquinta won’t be desperate to take any fight offered, and the promotion will have to work closely with him to book him a bout that makes him happy and pays him what he believes he is worth.
Iaquinta is one of the best lightweights in the world and we saw that with his bonus-winning effort over Lee. He may have lost to Nurmagomedov his last time out, but he looked improved in this bout against Lee and a rematch against Nurmagomedov down to the road isn’t impossible. For now, Iaquinta will continue to get big fights from the UFC and will be paid well to perform.
After headlining two cards in a row, the UFC now has someone who is a second-tier star for them. Iaquinta has an exciting style and is still growing as a mixed martial artist. Pay him what he’s worth and we might just see him take it to the next level, which is scary considering how good he already is.