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Interview: UFC 169′s Al Iaquinta Discusses His Journey From Wrestling to MMA, Training With the Serra-Longo Crew, And ‘The Ultimate Fighter’

(Iaquinta lands on Piotr Hallman during their bout at UFC Fight Night 30 in October. / Photo via Getty)

By Shawn W. Smith

Armed with a thick Long Island accent and a 5-1-1 pro record, Al Iaquinta joined the cast of the first live Ultimate Fighter in 2012. He stormed through the competition, defeating Jon Tuck, Myles Jury, Andy Ogle and Vinc Pichel en route to the finals, where he fell short to Michael Chiesa.

What many thought would be a difficult matchup for him in his next UFC appearance turned out to be his coming out party, as Iaquinta decisively beat on Ryan Couture for three rounds at UFC 164. A follow-up win over Piotr Hallman established him as one of the many lightweight prospects to watch heading into 2014. His wrestling base with heavy hands is not unlike his Serra-Longo teammate Chris Weidman, who Iaquinta looks up to for inspiration in the gym.

At UFC 169, for the third time in six months, Iaquinta will take to the cage. This time he will take on the debuting Kevin Lee. A submission expert by trade, Lee presents some interesting challenge to Iaquinta, whose two professional losses both came by submission.

CagePotato caught up with Iaquinta ahead of his bout at UFC 169 this Saturday to get his thoughts on Lee, The Ultimate Fighter experience, and much more.

CAGEPOTATO.COM: How was your training camp for this fight?

AL IAQUINTA: Training’s been going good, same as usual. I’m here with Ray Longo and Matt Serra and the team, just getting ready. I’m ready to go. I’m chomping at the bit to get in there.

Does the terrible weather we’ve had in the Northeast make things difficult? At 20 degrees below zero, it must be challenging to get up and into the gym.

Yeah, definitely. It makes things a little difficult, but I kind of like it, going through training camp in the snow. It reminds me of wrestling season. If you go out for a run you’re all bundled up and getting through the elements. It kind of makes me feel like I’m in a Rocky movie. I’m thinking of all the things I’m doing to get ready for this fight and if he’s not doing that, it’s a big disadvantage.

When you have these constant camps in succession, three in the past six months, does it make it difficult to improve your skills?

I’m always training, always in the gym. I’m always in great shape, I just pick it up a little bit when I have a fight and the weeks leading up to the fight. It’s not like I’m out of shape and then going into a hard six-to-eight week training camp. I’m just turning it up a notch when I get that call for the fight.

Is this a kind of pace you’d like to keep up?

Sure, I don’t see why not. I was out for a while when I had a couple of injuries and my knee surgery. This is what I want to do. That’s how you get to the top quicker — staying as active as you can, staying healthy, and staying in the public eye, getting people behind you who want to see you fight and compete.

How did your years wrestling at Nassau Community College help you become the fighter you are?

It was definitely a grueling season. I cut a lot of weight. I know that I can make 155 no problem. I worry more about becoming a better fighter than focusing on the weight cut. I definitely picked up some great skills and great connections at Nassau. Nassau Community College has a bunch of guys in the UFC now and in the past. It’s one of the better junior colleges around and a great place to finish off your wrestling career, or progress your wrestling career if you’re looking towards MMA.

What weight did you wrestle at?

I wrestled at 141.

Wow. I guess I should ask if there’s any chance we’ll ever see you go down to featherweight?

I’m going to say as of right now, no. You never know. Right now I’m enjoying fighting at 155. I’ve grown into the weight class and I’m a pretty good size lightweight. I think I’ve got it down to a science, making the weight and feeling good, being mentally ready to fight and all that.

You’re one of many wrestlers who have really fallen in love with the boxing game. You’ve got heavy hands and you’re usually keeping it on the feet as opposed to using your wrestling. Why do you think so many wrestlers fall in love with boxing?

You know, it’s just something I picked up. I always enjoyed doing it. Even when I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a boxer. I enjoyed watching boxing and just never got into it. I never really knew how to go about starting to box.  I wrestled in school and I found myself boxing in the mornings just to help keep my weight down. That’s how I really got into it. I really enjoy the science behind it. I discovered how it’s not just two guys going in there and just slugging it out. Me and my friends bought gloves and we’d go 30 seconds at a clip and we’d be exhausted. I really learned how to pace myself and use the right technique behind the boxing science. You’re always evolving and learning, always learning new things. Even the best boxer in the world is still picking up new tips in their training.

Your last fight was overseas against Piotr Hallmann. What was that experience like fighting in the United Kingdom?

It was a great experience. I really enjoyed traveling. I got to see Manchester, part of another country I may have never gotten to see if not for that fight. To top it off, I got the victory. It was a great trip all around.

Is there anywhere else you’d like to fight?

I think it’d be really cool if they did a show in Hawaii someday, I’d love to go out to Hawaii. Really anywhere I haven’t been. Anywhere tropical or near the water, I’m always down to take one of those fights for sure.

On the flip side of that, your next fight is in Newark — not too far from your home, certainly nowhere exotic. This will be the closest you’ve had to a hometown advantage since your Ring of Combat days. How does the crowd play into the fight for you?

It should motivate me. I haven’t put too much thought into it. I’m sure in the next few weeks I’ll start to see how many people are going to be coming. It’s good to have my friends and my family there, something that I haven’t had in a while. A lot of them travel to come see me fight, but now everyone is going to be able to go. It’s as close to home as it gets so I’m really excited.

I read on your website that you had 14 amateur fights. That’s quite a few considering the somewhat dismal state of amateur MMA in North America. Why did you have so many amateur fights?

I was just really having fun with it. I was transitioning from wrestling. My first couple of fights I was just looking for the takedown. I was just trying to take guys down, put them on their back and beat them up. I evolved throughout my amateur career. Towards the end I started to get knockouts. I got to do some traveling. I fought an amateur fight in Mexico, which is pretty cool. I was at a gym where I didn’t have anyone pushing me, telling me I was ready to go pro. I got with Ray and Matt and they put me in with some guys sparring who were already in the UFC at the time and I did well. They said, “Look, man. You’re ready to go.” When those guys tell you you’re ready, you gotta believe them. They’ve been around the game long enough and they know what it takes.

Would you advise more young fighters to go out there and search for those amateur fights? We see so many young fighters who just want to be a pro MMA fighter, or be able to say that they’re a pro MMA fighter. 

It depends on the individual for sure. For me, I think I definitely needed that amateur experience, but there’s other guys who might come in and don’t need it. Chris Weidman is a perfect example. He skipped the amateur ranks and went right to the pros and look at him now. It all depends on the individual and where you start. That’s why you’ve gotta have a great trainer. You have to put your trust in their hands.

We’re about two years removed from your stint on The Ultimate Fighter. Looking back, what do you think of the experience?

It was a great experience. For someone who wants to be a fighter, that’s the best environment that could be. I’ve seen these guys on some of the seasons complaining about six weeks and whining. My season was 13 weeks and I loved it. Every day I was eating, getting fed what I needed to be fed. I didn’t have to worry about going grocery shopping or anything. I didn’t have to worry about obligations outside of training. It was just eat, sleep and train. I had people driving me to the gym. I had a gym full of guys who were top prospects at 155. I was on Urijah Faber‘s team so I had the whole Alpha Male team there to work with. For a 155-pound fighter looking to do good in MMA, there’s really no better place in the world.

What are your thoughts on Urijah Faber as a head coach? I read that you were out training with team Alpha Male a little bit before this fight.

He’s a great coach. Once his fighting career is over, I think coaching is something he would definitely be good at. He’s such a positive person to be around. It’s easy to get motivated around a guy like that. I’ve been out there to Sacramento, training with those guys for a few weeks at a clip. I always come back so much more motivated with a whole new outlook on the sport and life in general.

You mentioned his positivity and motivation, but what else about Urijah Faber makes him a good coach? 

It’s just the energy he gives off. No matter what happens in training, he puts it into perspective that it’s just a 15 minute fight so give it what you’ve got. The lifestyle of being a fighter, he’s always in shape to fight. He’s always thinking about what he’s putting into his body. He’s always trying to be a better person the next day than he was the day before.

You spent over a year on the sidelines with injuries. How frustrating was it to be on the sidelines and watching other fighters from your season, even fighters you defeated like Myles Jury, really establishing their names in the UFC?

It was tough, for sure. I just kind of kept it in the back of my head that when it’s my time it will be all about me. I just had to wait it out. I think having that year kind of helped clear my head after that long season of The Ultimate Fighter. I got to clear my head, take some time, re-evaluate my weaknesses and turn them into my strengths. It was good for me and now I’m healthy and ready to go. I got some time to make up for and I’m looking forward to doing that.

Your opponent for this bout is the debuting Kevin Lee. After two straight wins, and looking good in both, did you think you’d get an opponent a little bit farther up the pecking order?

For sure. I was definitely surprised when I got an opponent I hadn’t even heard of. Looking at his record and resume, he’s a tough kid. He’s taken care of everyone who has been put in front of him. I don’t think he’s faced anyone even near as good a fighter as I am. I’ve fought guys that are way better than the guys he has fought. He hasn’t fought a Ryan Couture of Piotr Hallmann and he’s taking a big step up. I’m going to definitely welcome him the right way.

Have you had a chance to study Lee yet?

I watched some video when I first signed the fight. Every now and then I’ll throw on the computer and look at some of his fights. For the most part, I’m really worried about myself, my game and improving myself every day.

What’s it like to train with Chris Weidman on a regular basis?

It’s awesome. It’s great seeing a guy who works that hard and has the confidence in himself to do great things and then go out there and do it, it really shows how all this work pays off. We have a good little template over here at Serra-Longo. If it’s paying off for him and I’m doing the same thing, I’m definitely on the right track.

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