While not the fight that many wanted for Donald Cerrone, considering the persistent rumors of “Cowboy” facing Conor McGregor, the fight against Al Iaquinta is perfect in most respects; Cerrone gets a top 5 opponent at lightweight after a dominant win in January, and Iaquinta gets a chance to cement his ranking with a win against a well-regarded contender who has only lost to the best.
Cerrone’s move back to lightweight at UFC Brooklyn was an extremely successful one; in a bonus-winning performance, “Cowboy” beat top-15 Alexander Hernandez from pillar to post before landing the head kick to enter the rankings. After a hot-and-cold run at welterweight (where he almost reached the top only to lose 4 out of his last 6 fights at the division), Cerrone is back at the weight that brought him the most success, and looks to enter the top echelon with a win in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, despite being in the top 5, Al Iaquinta’s true standing in the division is very much in doubt; while he beat the extremely talented Kevin Lee in Milwaukee, Iaquinta’s inactivity over the years had rendered his best pre-Lee wins significantly less valuable when he came back. Iaquinta’s lopsided loss to the current champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, will likely keep him from challenging for the title in the near future, but his resume would greatly improve with a decisive win over one of the most prolific winners in the history of the promotion.
Al Iaquinta has been a large presence in the UFC for a fairly long time, but until 2018, it wasn’t really because of his success in the division; Iaquinta had been extremely active until about 2015, at which point he dropped off the map a bit amid public conflicts with the UFC (and a career in real estate). The events surrounding UFC 223 led to Iaquinta finding himself facing top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov on a day’s notice; while that didn’t go well, taking that short-notice fight put “Raging Al” in a position to get a step up on a full camp, which he took full advantage of. Iaquinta got his first top-5 win in Milwaukee, defeating Kevin Lee in their 2018 rematch, and has an opportunity to get another solid name on his resume on May 4th.
Iaquinta’s primary skillset is as a boxer, and he’s a very good one; while lightweight is a fairly deep division in terms of boxing acumen (between Poirier, McGregor, and Holloway if he sticks around), it wouldn’t be wrong to consider Iaquinta elite-adjacent with his hands. Iaquinta’s most recent fight against Kevin Lee showed his skills against an imposing foe (albeit one who isn’t at his strongest on his feet). Against the longer fighter dedicated to jabbing/kicking from the outside, Iaquinta showed his ability to cover distance to enter the pocket; Iaquinta did a good job jabbing into range, entering in flurries to the body, and using faked takedown attempts to punch on the break, and even threw a few judicious shifting combinations to catch Lee on the back foot.
Where Iaquinta shined in that fight was when he was able to open up with his right-handed attack, which is Iaquinta’s most consistent strength; whether on the lead or on the counter, the right is what he’s looking for, and can switch between the straight and a wider overhand (which caught Lauzon over the shoulder to lead to the finish). On the counter, Iaquinta is reasonably capable; when a hurt and tired Lee carelessly jabbed just to keep Iaquinta away from him, Iaquinta reliably punished it with the right hand across, and he finished Pearson with a chopping right hand inside of a kick. Iaquinta’s lead hand isn’t great, but he can use it to set up the blow that he really wants to throw; using the jab to build into a combination or cover distance, or using a left hook to draw the guard and build into something more useful (as he did to Diego Sanchez, leaping in with a left hook to pull down Sanchez’s arm and club him with a right hook as soon as he tried to open up).
On the negative side, Iaquinta has shown defensive vulnerability in the past; he was able to slip a few of Lee’s shots when he saw them coming, but the Masvidal fight showed that he wasn’t hard to pull onto jabs (and eventually a brutal combination off the double jab) when forced to come forward. Khabib Nurmagomedov showed, to some extent, the same vulnerability; Iaquinta was rightfully wary of the takedown, but his solution (to just eat every jab) proved about as successful as wrestling with Nurmagomedov would’ve been. Nevertheless, Iaquinta’s crafty performance against Lee, especially in the grappling (where he held off a vicious submission threat for minutes at a time), is something to be encouraged by moving forwards.
At this point in his career, Donald Cerrone is the definition of a known quantity; he competes so often and has fought for so long that his ceiling seems fairly well-established against many of the young welterweights and lightweights coming up. Despite the cycle that Cerrone has gone through at two weight classes now (building a solid title run against well-regarded competition, only to fall short when the goal is in sight), Cerrone has never fallen into full-on “action fighter” territory, which speaks to the strength of his resume and how good he looks against opponents who aren’t uniquely equipped to take away what he does well. That isn’t to say that Cerrone can’t surprise people anymore, either; many thought Mike Perry and Alexander Hernandez had the tools to send “Cowboy” into a tailspin, only for both to be sent home with losses. Cerrone looks to do the same to Iaquinta, and perhaps have a renaissance as a lightweight once again.
Cerrone’s strongest moments come on the outside courtesy of his kicking game; Cerrone is a fairly weak boxer (that one jab on Edson Barboza aside), but he punches into kicks fairly regularly and he can use that to work the legs and the body of his opponent. Cerrone’s trademark in recent years has been the head kick, which he can work from either leg to attack from the open side; against other orthodox opponents, Cerrone can switch to throw the kick or throw the kick off his lead leg out of his regular stance (as he did to finish Matt Brown), where Alexander Hernandez took the kick as a southpaw as he tried to brace for the straight right and Rick Story was herded into the kick with a body-straight into a left hook. Combined with an aggressive and opportunistic submission game and a solid clinch, Cerrone is a fairly rounded fighter.
What’s arguably more interesting about Cerrone than what he does in a perfect fight is what he does in a tough one; Cerrone is noticeably a momentum fighter, who has real trouble if he’s pushed as he warms up but once settled is tough to beat, and he’s gained the ability (to an extent) to keep an opponent from rushing him in the meantime. In a sense, Alexander Hernandez was the perfect test for that; Hernandez’s two previous fights featured him swarming a notoriously slow starter and running into clinches at every opportunity, and he started extremely fast against Cerrone. Once Cerrone had calmed down the aggression of Hernandez with an intercepting knee (which also paid dividends against an opponent as good as Eddie Alvarez, who took it multiple times as he tried to close distance on the longer fighter), Cerrone was able to run Hernandez back to the fence with flurries and kick freely.
That said, effective pressure is still a large problem for Cerrone, especially when compounded with economical boxing and body work. Cerrone doesn’t have many tools in the pocket if the knee can be bypassed, and his lack of a nuanced boxing game gets him in trouble against a fighter who can cover distance thoughtfully (Masvidal, who feinted and jabbed into range well). The body work has been a more obvious weak point; Rafael dos Anjos ripped the body of Cerrone early to put him away in their rematch, and even when it doesn’t finish him, body work tends to perplex “Cowboy”. A fighter with extremely defined strengths (and arguably even better-defined weaknesses), the best moments of Donald Cerrone are a handful for the vast majority of fighters near his weight.
Conclusions and Capping
Iaquinta’s skill inside kicking range poses real issues for Cerrone if he can get there; while “Raging Al” isn’t as thunderous a puncher nor as aggressive a pressurer as some of Cerrone’s past losses (such as Darren Till and Rafael dos Anjos), he has the boxing skill in close to punish Cerrone’s wilder hands. Iaquinta’s ability to counterpunch would likely give Cerrone some trouble in doing what he did to Hernandez on the front foot; while Hernandez rushed backwards trying to shell up as Cerrone threw combinations at him, Iaquinta can be somewhat trusted to look for counters and keep Cerrone from getting into that sort of rhythm. Cerrone’s advantage as a kicker is formidable, though, and this means that Iaquinta is likely safest if he can avoid staying on the outside with “Cowboy”.
Iaquinta doesn’t necessarily need to rush Cerrone to get the win, but his ability to thoughtfully close distance is likely to be extremely useful in Ottawa; while Cerrone has developed the skills to punish an opponent who tries to force his hand recklessly, Masvidal gave him issues by just not giving Cerrone a rushing opponent, and Iaquinta’s ability to jab in and mix up his entries likely gives Cerrone trouble. The smart fight that Iaquinta fought against Lee is encouraging when he faces a fighter as battle-tested as Cerrone, especially since Cerrone’s known weak points dovetail reasonably well with Iaquinta’s strength as a pocket-operator (and even more if Iaquinta hits the body, as he did at times in his last fight). Cerrone is a tough enough opponent that he could find a way to win, but it’s probably Iaquinta’s to lose.
Prediction: Iaquinta via KO2. This writer caps Iaquinta at -150.
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.