Al Iaquinta always seems to fly under the radar when discussion turns to the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division. Perhaps now he has everyone’s attention.
“The Ultimate Fighter” Season 15 finalist persevered when met with adversity and outstruck Kevin Lee to a unanimous decision in the UFC on Fox 31 main event on Saturday at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. All three cageside judges scored it for Iaquinta: 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46. The five-round battle served as a rematch to their UFC 169 encounter on Feb. 1, 2014, which “Ragin’ Al” also won by decision.
Lee failed to capitalize when he created opportunities. The Xtreme Couture export struck for takedowns in the second and third rounds, moved to Iaquinta’s back and secured his position with a body triangle. Lee fished for rear-naked chokes to no avail, unable to crack the submission defense of a man who had been choked unconscious twice before. Iaquinta found another gear over the final 10 minutes, as evidenced by the fact that preliminary FightMetric data shows he denied Lee’s only takedown attempt and outlanded him by a 57-35 margin in the championship rounds.
In the aftermath of UFC on Fox 31 “Lee vs. Iaquinta 2,” here are five matches that ought to be made:
Al Iaquinta vs. Anthony Pettis: Iaquinta has rounded into form at age 31. He has rattled off six wins in seven appearances -- a stretch of prolonged prosperity that has seen him defeat Lee, Diego Sanchez, Jorge Masvidal, Joe Lauzon, Ross Pearson and Rodrigo Damm while losing only to current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a short-notice assignment at UFC 223. While none of Iaquinta’s skills stand out in an overwhelming sense, he has proven to be a fighter whose sum is greater than his individual parts. Pettis has alternated wins and losses in each of his last seven outings. He last fought at UFC 229 in October, when he wound up on the wrong side of a technical knockout against Tony Ferguson.
Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje: Dan Hooker will remember his battle with Barboza, all 12 minutes and 19 seconds of it. The former Ring of Combat champion carved up Hooker across two-plus rounds, systematically dismantling him with crushing inside leg kicks and brutal combinations to the body and head. Barboza doubled over the Kiwi with a spinning back kick to the gut on more than one occasion in the third round and then finished him with a left hook to the liver. It was the kind of beating from which fighters sometimes never fully recover, the win snapping Barboza’s two-fight losing streak. Gaethje has not competed since he knocked out James Vick in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 135 headliner on Aug. 25.
Rob Font vs. Jimmie Rivera-Aljamain Sterling winner: Font rebounded from his July 7 defeat to Raphael Assuncao with a unanimous decision over Sergio Pettis in their three-round bantamweight showcase. All three judges scored it 30-27 for the Team Sityodtong rep. Competing at 135 pounds for the first time in more than four years, the undersized Pettis was overmatched. Font tagged him repeatedly with jabs and integrated takedowns when the mood struck, pairing them with effective ground-and-pound. Rivera and Sterling will collide at UFC on ESPN 1 in February.
Charles Oliveira vs. Alexander Hernandez-Donald Cerrone winner: Oliveira made quick work of the most prolific fighter in UFC history, as he needed a little more than a minute to submit Jim Miller with a rear-naked choke in a featured lightweight attraction. Miller conceded defeat 1:15 into Round 1, dropping to 1-5 over his past six appearances. Oliveira executed a high-amplitude takedown, transitioned to his fellow Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt’s back and cinched the choke. Miller struggled briefly to free himself but arrived at the conclusion that resistance was futile. The 29-year-old Oliveira has rattled off three straight wins since Paul Felder plowed through him with elbows a year ago at UFC 218. Hernandez will put an eight-fight winning streak on the line when he matches wits with Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 143 on Jan. 19.
Jack Hermansson vs. Jared Cannonier: Hermansson blew away Gerald Meerschaert with surprising ease on the undercard, as he submitted the Roufusport veteran with a first-round guillotine choke. The former Cage Warriors Fighting Championship titleholder drew the curtain 4:25 into Round 1 and improved to 5-2 since joining the UFC roster in 2016. Hermansson softened “GM3” with takedowns and superior positional control before catching the guillotine in a scramble. It was Meerschaert’s first submission defeat in nearly six years. Cannonier made his 185-pound debut at UFC 230, where he brought down David Brach with punches on Nov. 3.