UFC 223 Khabib v Iaquinta: 2 YEARS after ‘The Eagle’ was crowned king, a legacy remains uncemented
Unbeaten, up-and-coming and seemingly unstoppable, Khabib Nurmagomedov was a soaring star within the UFC ranks in 2018, having amassed a perfect paid slate of 27 victories from 27 bouts in professional MMA to tear through the lightweight division and bang on the door for a title shot.
Local boy Al Iaquinta wasn’t first choice to try and clip the wings of the Dagestani Eagle at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on April 7 2018; as a matter of fact, nor was he second or third. True to tradition, the notoriously unpredictable roads leading up to a Khabib fight took four separate twists with the choice of opponent.
The straight-talking, papakha-sporting Russian had originally been pencilled in to lock horns with Tony Ferguson for the 155 lbs championship - the fourth time that saga had been due to take place - but nobody was laughing when Ferguson pulled out with a knee injury on April 1.
Incidentally, history would repeat itself exactly two years on from that day when Khabib officially announced he wouldn’t wiggle round covid-19 travel restrictions for a 5th fight with ‘El Cucuy’ at UFC 249, having traveled from the US to Abu Dhabi and then back to his home in Russia’s North Caucasus region.
In the proceeding six days after Ferguson’s 2018 pullout, the UFC frantically searched for a replacement opponent, but that quickly became secondary to a subplot that would eclipse even the card itself.
A smattering of unsavory events unfolded in the days prior to UFC 223, and ubiquitous bad boy Conor McGregor had already made his unmistakable imprint on the event before it even began.
In a scene more fitting of one of the myriad gangster films set within the boundaries of New York’s five boroughs, McGregor executed his own hit; the irate Irishman and his crew sprinted towards a coach transporting UFC fighter’s from the arena after a press conference, including his intended target: Khabib.
McGregor launched a dolly which shattered a window pane and sprayed shards of glass onto the passengers inside. Khabib was unhurt in the melee but Michael Chiesa was gashed and forced to pull out of his fight with Anthony Pettis.
That feud was rooted in an incident when Khabib slapped McGregor’s close friend Artem Lobov in a hotel after the Russian-born adopted-Irishman allegedly branded his fellow countryman a coward in comparison to his stablemate.
The incident incensed McGregor, who subsequently turned himself in to the NYPD after his hit-and-run and was sentenced by a New York judge for disorderly conduct - but the backstory for his blockbuster meeting with Khabib months down the line was gifted another chapter.
Meanwhile, the search for Khabib's new opponent rumbled on. Featherweight title holder Max Holloway could have emulated McGregor in becoming a ‘Champ Champ’, but was declared medically unfit to fight. Chiesa’s injury freed up Anthony Pettis, but after he tipped the scales at a fraction over the division limit he declined to weigh in once more.
When unranked Paul Felder was turned down, his opponent Iaquinta, a licensed real estate agent by day, stepped up to the plate at the eleventh hour and UFC 223 had a main event.
Despite some stubborn work from Iaquinta in which the plucky New Yorker initially went looking for the takedown against perhaps the most feared grappler in the sport, the first round was dominated by Khabib. The Russian seemed to serve up his bread and butter with alligator-like takedowns and a hellacious ground and pound game.
As though looking to break Iaquinta’s mental as well as physical will from the opener, Khabib could be heard barking into the ear of his rival, a twist of gamesmanship for which he had become well-known.
The pace slowed in the second, Khabib administering a vice-like grip on Iaquinta as he exerted his superior wrestling skills, opening up an opportunity to seize the American’s neck but Iaquinta’s sheer resilience saw him wriggle free every time.
The third and forth saw a standup game ending in a stalemate where both landed heavy shots, Iaquinta penetrated Khabib’s almost impregnable guard but the Russian would have the better of the exchanges.
The fifth round was a formality and Khabib ate up the minutes upright and at distance to capture the unified lightweight championship by unanimous decision, although the far from vintage style of his victory produced a myriad of questions about his capability of keeping in with a striker such as Conor McGregor.
Khabib would go onto emphatically answer those questions and more when a fourth round neck crack silenced any critics in Las Vegas in October 2018, forcing the brash Irishman to surrender with a tap, an admission of failure to regain the lightweight crown he won just two years prior.
Khabib's win came at the end of a torrid road of press conference and media days where Khabib was subjected to a flow of epithets and abuse from a scathing McGregor.
The Russian's career-defining moment under the neon lights in Nevada was a personal victory over a man who had insulted and violated his religion, his background, and most importantly his people.
His subsequent vault from the octagon and ensuing mass brawl catapulted Khabib further into the sporting stratosphere and announced him as a household name, something which he capitalized on by submitting the likable and capable Dustin Poirier to confirm his rating as one of the best pound for pound fighters in the sport today.
Two years on and Khabib should this month be cementing a legacy that began that night in New York, but events beyond anyone’s control again transpired to derail the Dagestani warrior’s long climb to MMA immortality.
Two years on and its now five times a fight with Ferguson has failed to materialize. Khabib remains in Russia having fled the US amid the covid-19 pandemic, but the event will still go ahead on an unnamed island per UFC head honcho Dana White.
Khabib is now forced to wait, powerless, to sew up his legacy and exit unbeaten from the game having faced all contenders, and a fight with Tony will be cast further into doubt should the latter not be successful on April 18.
The UFC 249 saga will play out without its main protagonist and despite the injustice served to both Khabib and Tony, perhaps those that will lose out most are the fans, who have bing dealt the very real possibility of that fight taking place way being the primes of the two best 155-pounders.
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