UFC 223 in New York City was set to be the first marquee event in 2018 with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson headlining a card fans had circled on their calendars long ago. Instead, Dana White agonized through the worst week his company has ever experienced.
Just to recap, Tony Ferguson tears his LCL just one week away from fight night, marking the fourth time this fight has been called off. Then Monday, Lightweight Champ Max Holloway replaces him a day later and offers fight fans some solace. The same day, Khabib and his team confront fellow UFC fighter and confidant of Conor McGregor, Artem Lobov. Khabib and Artem jaw in Russian and the two have to be separated, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal at the time…
Then Thursday, Conor invades the Barclays Center and finds Khabib in a passenger bus with his team and other fighters. With revenge on his mind, McGregor accompanied by his posse throws a nearby hand truck through the bus window. One of his accomplices jettisons a folding chair through the front windshield. In all, Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg are badly cut and unable to fight Saturday, Conor is locked up, and the UFC just lost three fights and their golden boy in a matter of hours.
Thursday marked likely the worst day in UFC history, and Friday offers no remorse. The New York State Athletic Commission announces early Friday morning Max Holloway will not compete as they deem him unfit to cut further weight and thus partake in the main event. Fans were nervous all week that this scenario could happen, as Max only had 6 days to cut the extra poundage.
With no 155-er for Khabib to fight, The UFC goes on a rampage to find the next guy. Anthony Pettis is the first lightweight choice, as his fight with Michael Chiesa just got canceled after the Conor fiasco. However, Pettis ultimately declines because the money wasn’t right, and he was already bulking when UFC brass told him he needed to cut 0.2 pounds to attain championship weight (155 exactly).
Hours later, a new man is in the plan and it’s the fan favorite “Irish Dragon”, Paul Felder. Unlike Pettis, Felder has already made championship weight. The problem is that he’s outside the top 15 in the UFC’s arbitrary lightweight rankings. The NYSAC deemed him unfit to fight because of this even though the rankings are made from MMA writer’s opinions and hold no official meaning.
Two fighters now off the table and UFC is likely down to their last hope, “Raging” Al Iaquinta. The native New Yorker saved the card by demanding the fight, even reportedly running through the hotel in search of a UFC matchmaker to cement the new main event, according to The MMA Hour Podcast. “Raging” Al is known for his unwavering self-confidence, and he relished the chance to make history.
Through the turmoil, Khabib’s focus never wavered. He took each new opponent in stride, unworried that circumstances may sully his 25-0 record. Saturday night finally arrives with “Raging” Al squaring off against “The Eagle” in the most important fight of both their careers.
With no preparation for Iaquinta, Khabib still only needs a minute in the cage to establish his dominance. The Eagle’s signature relentless style is already on display in round one. Al employs a new awkward squatted stance to curb Khabib’s takedowns, but to no avail as Iaquinta’s back meets the canvas quickly. Khabib isn’t able to keep him down like former opponents; Al’s strong wrestling pedigree allows him to escape Khabib on the ground and power back to the feet where he believes he can win. But like he adapted all week, “The Eagle” uses Al’s strategy to his own advantage.
Khabib realizes in the early rounds that Al’s unorthodox stance with his head forward makes him susceptible to the jab. On the feet, Khabib employs his own awkward stance and movement. His quirky footwork and head movement coupled with the threat of the takedown kept Iaquinta guessing all night. Al couldn’t read Khabib’s feints and was bruised and bloodied by his stand up game. Khabib claims that the choice to stand up with Al was purely his own because he wanted to show fans he could do more than grapple and ground and pound.
Whether it was by design or by adaptation, Khabib’s game plan worked as he dominated all five rounds, outstriking Al 172-43 and taking him down 6 times compared to none. The stats don’t tell the whole story here though; “Raging” Al deserves a ton of credit for even stepping in, let alone taking it five rounds with the champ. Iaquinta held Khabib to one takedown in the final three rounds, landed 41 significant strikes, and fared better than perennial contenders Edson Barbosa, Michael Johnson, and Rafael dos Anjos. “Raging” Al’s stock soared this weekend and a win in his next bout could vault him into the title picture.
Al Iaquinta will be a hero amongst UFC fans forever, and the behind-the-scenes disaster will never be forgotten, but it’s “Khabib time” now…and possibly for a lot longer. It’s going to be tough for Dana White to green light Khabib vs. Tony for the fifth time. Conor vs. Khabib would likely be the biggest fight in UFC history, but McGregor is drowning in a swamp of legal trouble and who knows if he has a future with this fight promotion. One thing is for sure, The Eagle from Dagestan has the potential to be the pound for pound greatest of all time and he won’t relinquish that gold easy.