LightweightsAl Iaquinta (12-3-1) vs. Diego Sanchez (27-9)
THE MATCHUP: Another squash match sets up shop in the co-main event slot. Sanchez is on a nice little run right now. After losing to every top fighter he faced from 2012 to 2015 -- Yes, you can include Ross Pearson on the list of losses -- Sanchez had a strong showing against an admittedly depleted Jim Miller in 2016. Joe Lauzon prevented that from turning into a streak with a stunning first-round knockout in Sanchez’s next fight, but “The Ultimate Fighter 1” winner went on to beat Marcin Held in November.
Iaquinta has been at odds with the UFC for two years now, and the resultant layoff is the only thing that gives Sanchez a twinkle of hope in this fight. If Iaquinta returns in good form, however, he will be a nightmarish matchup for “The Nightmare.” Iaquinta is a boxer first and foremost and a good one, too. “Raging Al” does have a tendency to square up and hang out a little too long in punching range, but he takes small angles very well to negate some of the defensive liabilities created by these habits. The angles also allow Iaquinta to set up his own punches, which almost always fly in combinations. Iaquinta attacks the body with bad intentions and occasionally sets up chopping low kicks with his hands. Iaquinta will occasionally shoot for takedowns, though is more likely to fake a snatch single in order to keep his opponent guessing. Defensively, he stops 84 percent of the takedowns attempted on him. He has not been successfully taken down since his fight with Kevin Lee in 2014.
There is some cause for concern as far as Iaquinta’s submission defense is concerned. Though he is a capable technician on the ground, being trained by the venerable Matt Serra, Iaquinta seems to suffer from the same problem that used to plague Matt Brown. He grapples impatiently, knowing that his chances are best on the feet, and gives up bad positions. Mitch Clarke and Michael Chiesa, both dangerous submission grapplers, managed to submit Iaquinta with chokes. This represents Sanchez’s clearest path to victory. He will have a difficult time getting Iaquinta down, but grappling skill is the one aspect of Sanchez’s game that has not seriously eroded over time. Still, it has been many years since he last submitted an opponent, and he tends to spend more time charging forward on the feet than controlling opponents from half guard. Sanchez’s striking is as wooden as ever, and his chin will be a ripe target for Iaquinta’s fists. While Sanchez could once brag that he had never been knocked out, Lauzon put an end to that idea for good.
THE ODDS: Iaquinta (-400), Sanchez (+315)
THE PICK: Sanchez has two paths to victory here. The first is to relentlessly pursue the takedown and control Iaquinta on the floor, hopefully setting up a submission. Given Iaquinta’s takedown defense, footwork and vicious counterpunching, this does not seem likely. The second will only come to fruition if Iaquinta’s layoff has affected his abilities. If Iaquinta slows down significantly in the latter half of the fight, Sanchez’s nonstop pace and reckless aggression could open a few doors for the ancient veteran. Even then, Iaquinta will not be easy to hurt on the feet, and he will still have opportunities to use his calculated counterpunches. Sanchez clearly still has it in him to surprise, but his methods are too obvious and his body too worn down to have any chance of catching a well-prepared Iaquinta off-guard. Iaquinta by second-round TKO is the pick.
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