Following a last-minute main event at April 7’s UFC 223, suddenly prominent lightweight Al Iaquinta will look to bounce back when he meets fellow slugger Justin Gaethje in the main event of August 25’s UFC Lincoln.
The bulldozing Gaethje should be more of the similarly heavy-handed Iaquinta’s pace after he stepped in at the last minute to face current champ and dominant wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov in his last match-up after four previous opponents fell through. Iaquinta was beaten in a relatively one-sided bout, but earned the admiration of many for stepping in to face the man who many believe is by far the world’s most dangerous 155-pound force on such short notice.
He may have NCAA All-American wrestling status to his name, but “The Highlight” has preferred to throw down in all-out slugfests since coming to the UFC after a long reign as the WSOF lightweight champion, and it hasn’t gone his way of late. After winning his Octagon debut over Michael Johnson in a “Fight of the Year” contender last year, Gaethje has dropped back-to-back stoppage losses to top contenders Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.
Discussing his upcoming foe to Ariel Helwani on this week’s episode of The MMA Hour, Iaquinta stated he has a tough task ahead of him, but only for a short amount of time:
“We got a tough task ahead of us. Justin Gaethje is no joke. That guy is about a round-and-a-half of hell. I gotta be ready for a round-and-a-half of absolute hell, then he starts slowing down about midway through the second round. But holy sh*t, that first round. We gotta sit, we gotta talk with (coach) Ray (Longo), get a gameplan going. This is good.
Despite the pain he brings, however, Iaquinta believes that Gaethe needs a break after eating countless strikes and getting finished in his last two fights, something he stated has not happened to him after he lost a decision to Khabib following a lengthy break off of a KO win:
“He needs time off. That’s another advantage for me. He needs a break. I’ve had a break. I’ve been on break. I’m good, you know? Took a couple weeks off after Khabib (Nurmagomedov) just to head up everything, but, I don’t know, I think it’s not a good fight for him. I don’t think it’s a good one for him. I don’t know, take a little time, take a little time to relax [your] chin. I don’t know, you need time. He needs time.”
‘Ragin’ Al’ then delved further into why he thought Gaethje’s style had come back to haunt him in the worlds best MMA promotion, noting, as many have, that Gaethje failed to make adjustments to his strategy while facing the best fighters in the world who each required different attacks and gameplans:
“I think [his style has] come back to haunt him more in the UFC than not,” Iaquinta said. “That’s like a coin toss of a style. You just go kamikaze, let’s go. I think I’m just more tactical, more gamplan-oriented. I just feel like, I don’t know — I don’t know if there’s a gameplan going into his fights. Does his coach talk to him about a gameplan, like, ‘This is what you’re going to do?’ Because he does the same thing every fight. There’s no difference compared to the opponents he fights, so it’s just, you’ve got to make little adjustments.
“At this level, there has to be those little adjustments. That’s the adjustment that Eddie Alvarez made, that’s the adjustment that Dustin Poirier made. You make adjustments at this level, you’re gonna win, and you’ve got to make the right adjustments at the right time. He’s got to realize. And he’s not learning anything between those fights and these fights. So I’ve gotta just show that I’m on that level. I’m better than that. I’m way better than that. So I think it’s perfect. It’s a perfect fight.”
Iaquinta then closed by acknowledging Gaethje’s all-out toughness, but also the school of thought that he could only keep pushing forward and eating big shots for so long in the UFC. With that said, Iaquinta promised to make his victory over ‘The Highlight’ even more impressive than that of Alvarez or Poirier:
“He fights like a freaking tough guy, but you know what? It comes to a point where you can’t do that anymore. Not saying that he can’t anymore. He will. He’s gonna. Like I said, it’s gonna be a round-and-a-half that’s just outta control, but I think it’s a good fight at the right time. I think it’s good. I think we’re right where we want to be. This is what I want to do, man. This is where I want to be: Main event, Justin Gaethje, guy is tough as nails but he’s not unbeatable. He’s 1-2 in the UFC, so I think it’s — everyone’s gonna see where I’m at. I’m gonna make it look better than Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier did, absolutely.”