Kicking off the 2011 World Lightweight MMA prospect rankings is Team Serra-Longo product Al Iaquinta (3-0-1). The 23-year-old Wantagh, New York-born wrestler turned mixed martial artist has enjoyed early success in the sport as he's went undefeated in four appearances under the New Jersey-based promotion Ring of Combat, the same promotion that current UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and current UFC lightweight Jim Miller both called home early in their careers. While Iaquinta's strength of competition is rather weak, his background, lengthy amateur tour, and support from the Serra-Longo team place him in high regard among the current available prospects in the world.
Offensive Skills: For a neophyte professional fighter, Iaquinta has shown a vast array of offensive weapons in his arsenal from the beginning. He possesses solid collegiate-level wrestling that gained him a #2 ranking in a mid-season poll of the 141 pound division in the 2005-2006 NJCAA season, a division that featured former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Soto. While that foundation serves as a typical background for many of North America's better fighters, Iaquinta has branched out and rounded out his repertoire of skills with boxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
A more in-depth look indicates that Iaquinta mixes it up well with a balanced attack in both the stand-up and ground game, utilizing his knockout power, a damaging clinch game, and effective takedowns to keep opponents guessing. That well-rounded conglomeration of skills will prove to the key to his success in 2011, and it will likely put a spotlight on him in the regional scene.
Defensive Skills: His best asset in the defensive arena is his speed and quickness on the feet, but it's likely a necessity since there are many lightweights, even in battles he's already endured, in which his competition looked much bigger than him.
Unfortunately, that quickness doesn't come with a bulwark for his chin. While he has made the few opponents he's faced in his pro career look amateurish in comparison to his striking, his chin has felt the sting from opponents as his hands steadily progress downward as a fight drags on. Even in the opening moments, he has problem maintaining his stance to block incoming bombs, and that could possibly derail his chances at a quick progression to a top promotion if someone happens to expose that weakness.
On the floor, he hasn't truly faced a dominating wrestler or high-level grappler yet, but in his early performances -- his submission defense has been solid. Most of that stems from the fact that Iaquinta perfectly places himself in side control or in another dominant position after the takedown, allowing him to ward off any submission attempts as he shoots.
Progression & Learning Ability: It's tough to gauge exactly where Iaquinta will end up at this point in his career. In terms of progression, it's much too early in his career to see any real improvements in his overall game. One thing we can say for sure is that Iaquinta is a much more intelligent fighter than most, spending roughly two years in the amateur circuit honing his skills before going professional, and that should pay dividends for his future. He certainly won't be surrounded by discussion that he moved his way up to a pro level too quickly.
Once his level of competition increases, I think we'll steadily see some improvement from Iaquinta in the context of his defense. Right now, I can't make a judgement call as to whether he will improve at a quick pace or not.
Environment: He trains with the Serra-Longo team out of Long Island in New York, which provides him with the grappling and Muay Thai training he needs to progress to the next level. While many of Serra Jiu-Jitsu's professional fighters haven't had a profound impact on their respective divisions, they have amassed a lot of experience at the upper levels of the sport, and that should help Iaquinta get himself acquainted with a professional level of training that he needs to improve.
Potential: Iaquinta has some improvements he needs to make in order to be successful at a more challenging level, but from what I've gathered from his amateur and professional bouts to date -- he has the diversity in his skill-set along with the support to trend upwards. His defensive skills need the most help at this stage in his career, but he'll need to progress in all areas as he moves onto bigger and better opponents.
The only troubling question mark is whether his size may be an indication that he may need to drop down to featherweight. That will work itself out in the future, but he seems perfectly suited for crushing the opposition at lightweight right now.
Iaquinta was initially a bit higher in our discussions, but his relatively small record signals a lot of questions that will need to be answered. For that reason, Iaquinta makes his mark at #10 on our ranking. Rumors are that Iaquinta may be headed to Bellator, although a stint on the The Ultimate Fighter could be in his future as well.
Al Iaquinta vs. Will Martinez Jr. - Ring of Combat 24 - April 17, 2009
Al Iaquinta vs. Tim Sylvester - Ring of Combat 25 - June 12, 2009
Al Iaquinta vs. Mervin Rodriguez - 1st professional fight - Ring of Combat 23 - February 20, 2009
Al Iaquinta vs. Joshua Key - Ring of Combat 27 - November 20, 2009