It’s back to the drawing board for Al Iaquinta.
The longtime lightweight contender stumbled against Dan Hooker this past weekend at UFC 243, dropping a unanimous decision to the New Zealander and he now finds himself on the first true losing streak of his career (technically, Iaquinta suffered back-to-back losses to Pat Audinwood and Michael Chiesa, but the two bouts were separated by Iaquinta winning four straight exhibition matches on The Ultimate Fighter 15).
Iaquinta was hampered by Hooker’s powerful leg kicks early in the fight and the event’s medical suspension list has him potentially being shelved for six months. According to Iaquinta’s longtime coach Ray Longo, he should be able to return to training long before that and it’s mostly his pride that is hurt at the moment.
“His leg is fine,” Longo told MMA Fighting. “That’s number one. I guess there’s that nerve that runs down the leg, it definitely had a big impact on the fight. But it’s not like broke or anything like that. I guess it comes back in a day or two.
“The leg is fine, he’s mentally bummed out, it’s too be expected. He’s the type of guy that wants to just work hard and get back in the gym right away and get back on track.”
In his last two fights, Iaquinta has been outpointed by Hooker and Donald Cerrone, two of the rangier strikers in the lightweight division. Iaquinta has lost three of his last four fights overall, including a short-notice main event bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223.
It’s the Hooker and Cerrone fights that are most concerning to Longo though. Iaquinta is known as a standup specialist himself, so to lose consecutive unanimous decisions on the feet is an indicator that changes need to be made.
“It looks like he’s having trouble with the taller guys, for sure,” Longo said. “Because Cerrone is a big ‘55er and this guy was tall, so that’s something we’ll have to address. That’s the first thing I’m gonna address as a coach. The height, and we did have tall sparring partners, so I’ve got to really look at it.
“And with this fight I think the first calf kick really had a big impact on him and then when he went for the takedown, he took some elbows to the head. After the first round, he was really fighting out of a pretty big deficit that some guys might not even have made it out of that first round, so he’s definitely tough. Tactically, it was good what Hooker did. But again, we gotta move on from it.”
Currently, Iaquinta is enjoying some rest and relaxation in Hawaii, and Longo wants to play it by ear as far as when his fighter will resume training, even if Iaquinta’s medical suspension is lifted early by a physician, as Longo expects it will be. He’s convinced that Iaquinta’s limitations during the fight had more to do with nerve damage from Hooker’s kicks than any structural issue.
Iaquinta’s last four fights have all been against highly-ranked fighters, one of them a five-round decision win over Kevin Lee, and Longo agreed that it would be ideal if UFC athletes had the luxury of taking a step back in competition to rebuild themselves; however, given Iaquinta’s place in the rankings, that seems unlikely.
Given how volatile the lightweight division is and the success that Iaquinta has had, Longo doesn’t think he’s too far from a move back up the contenders’ list anyway.
“Here’s the other thing, it’s not linear logic in MMA,” Longo said. “(Edson) Barboza beat the crap out of Hooker, Kevin Lee beat the crap out Barboza, Al beat the crap out of Kevin Lee, there’s no way to look at this—This is crazy.
“Linear logic does not exist in MMA, so at any given point in time I think anybody could beat anybody. You’ve got to show up healthy and make sure anything’s good and anything can happen. Even in his losses, just one punch could change anything.”