Mixed martial arts is often times an unforgiving and ever-changing game that forces fighters to either adapt and grow with the times or to get lost in the shuffle and left behind. In other words, fighters must constantly evolve over time in order to see success.
This idea can certainly be connected to UFC on FOX 31, which is set to take place Saturday (Dec. 15) night at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and specifically its main event. The event, which will mark the UFC’s last on Fox before beginning its multi-year partnership with ESPN, will be headlined by a rematch between lightweight contenders Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta.
The First Fight
Lee and Iaquinta met for a first time back in 2014 at UFC 169 in Newark, New Jersey where Iaquinta took home a unanimous decision victory.
In the first round, “Raging Al” proved that he had the edge on the feet, landing some big shots and nearly finishing Lee. Then in the second round, “The Motown Phenom” showed off his grappling skills, controlling Iaquinta and nearly finishing him with a rear-naked-choke. The third round proved to be a bit closer, but Iaquinta did enough to earn the decision victory.
Since that first fight took place over five years ago, much has changed regarding not only the UFC and its lightweight division but with Lee and Iaquinta as well. Both fighters have clearly evolved and grown tremendously and this upcoming rematch could play out completely differently than the first fight did because of it.
Kevin Lee’s Growth
Starting off with Lee, the Detroit native was just 21 years old and making his UFC debut at the time when he first fought Iaquinta. Although he was 7-0 at the time, he was an extremely raw fighter with little experience on the big stage.
Fast forward to present time and Lee has transformed into a world-class combatant. He still possesses the strength, power, and athleticism that made him an intriguing prospect but he’s since rounded out his game tremendously.
A former wrestler, the now 25-year-old Lee has always had solid grappling skills, but his striking game has taken great strides. In the first fight, he was picked apart by Iaquinta on the feet, but he’s now a much more refined striker both offensively and defensively.
And when looking at Lee’s record after UFC 169, it’s clear that he’s evolved. Since that loss to Iaquinta, he’s gone 10-2, gaining a ton of experience and beating multiple top contenders on his way to earning an interim lightweight title shot.
Al Iaquinta’s Growth
Moving onto Iaquinta, some may say that the 31-year-old hasn’t changed as much as Lee, but he too obviously isn’t the same fighter. Stylistically, Iaquinta fights in a similar manner, but he seemed to hit his stride following the fight against Lee, as he won five of his next seven bouts with all five of those victories coming by way of T/KO.
Dangerous in all aspects of the fight game, Iaquinta has developed into a legitimate knockout artist over the years, although he has, at times, also been a bit inactive due to injuries and issues with the UFC. Ahead of this fight with Lee, however, “Raging Al” appears to be in a great place mentally, having put many of his problems behind him.
It’s also important to note that Iaquinta has become much more experienced since fighting Lee for the first time as well, having shared the cage with some veterans and some big names. In fact, in his most recent fight, he took on undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on less than a day’s notice. Although the fight wasn’t particularly close, Iaquinta did take “The Eagle” the distance, proving that he could hang with the elite.
Ultimately, the reality is this: in the five years since their first meeting, both Lee and Iaquinta have grown and changed and both still remain contenders in the stacked 155-pound division. On Saturday night, the two will once again compete against each other, but it will likely look different than it did the first time which is a testament to the evolution of both men.
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