MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. — It’s about midnight at McCann’s Pub & Grill, and Aljamain Sterling has the energy of an overhyped toddler. Above him, playing on a quartet of television screens, Kelvin Gastelum and Israel Adesanya pummel each other through the fourth round of their UFC interim middleweight championship fight as Saturday lurches into Sunday.
Sterling’s Funkmaster hat is turned backward, and he’s jumping up and down. Behind him, Chris Weidman gasps. Al Iaquinta is off to the side, sitting on a wood-plank-covered pool table getting ready for the final round — saying nothing, but shaking his head.
They’ve all been in similar spots before, fighting on major UFC cards on TV as fans around the world watch the action play out in front of their eyes. But as this Gastelum-Adesanya fight moves into its final moments, they are fans as much as fighters.
Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya look to be headed for title unification bouts, but the future for Max Holloway and Kelvin Gastelum doesn’t appear to be as clear.
Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya both earned UFC interim titles Saturday after vastly different paths to their belts. Their wins set up two career-defining fights.
Nights like this one happen on a semi-regular basis, as Longo-Weidman MMA fighters and their friends and family gather for fight nights when they aren’t on the cards — outings that serve as part-bonding, part-night out.
Even for seasoned fighters, there’s something different about this title fight that’s different. There’s applause after the second round. Cheers with every big blow. Strategy yelled by people who would know.
Two fans spotted Iaquinta at the bar earlier. They are from his hometown, Wantagh, and on Long Island, hometowns are often like family. That’s how Aaron Gottlieb ended up standing between Weidman and Iaquinta.
Gottlieb turned to his friend in amazement. “This has got to be our spot for fights from now on,” said. His friend responded with a knowing nod.
The fifth round starts and Sterling can’t contain himself. No one in the semi-private room off to the side of the bar can. A fight they felt would be good — Iaquinta called it the “moment of truth” before it started — turned out even better than they could have imagined.
“How unbelievable was that,” Weidman asked anyone who would listen after Adesanya’s unanimous-decision win.
“That was crazy,” Iaquinta said, shaking his head, as Weidman and Sterling debated the judge scoring. “48-46, though?” Sterling questioned. “10-8 last round,” Weidman guessed as the reasoning.
It would’ve been a fitting end to the night. But they still had one fight to go.
Three hours earlier, the room was empty when Iaquinta and two friends showed up at 9:02 p.m. to catch the last hour of the UFC 236 preliminaries — most importantly teammate Matt Frevola, who was in the last preliminary fight on the card.
Every time someone from Longo and Weidman MMA walked into the side room at McCann’s, which was guarded by a bouncer at the front to keep the party semi-private, a giant cheer went up. Each was greeted with bro hugs and fist bumps, all while making sure to pay some attention to the eight television screens hanging just below the ceiling.
Iaquinta and his friends found the bar years ago, when he was new to the MMA circuit and they were just fans. Only a handful of bars showed UFC at that point, and the Hooters in East Meadow had too long of a line.
Within weeks of discovering McCann’s, one of Iaquinta’s friends, Matt Pellicane, got hired as a bartender. Everything lined up, and McCann’s even sponsored Iaquinta for $200 for regional MMA fights in Atlantic City, New Jersey, before he joined the UFC.
Now, McCann’s is home. Iaquinta knows everything will be taken care of when they come in for a fight night. A woman tried to get into the room to play pool at one point, saw the tables covered up and left annoyed after learning it was closed for their party. The Longo-Weidman crew eventually grows to 25, including a handful of fighters at varying stages of their careers, as well as Iaquinta’s parents — educators who were initially squeamish about their son fighting. In December, at Iaquinta’s last fight, his father, Jay, sat cageside for the first time. In the Atlantic City days, his mom, Agnes, would wait in the hall outside the arena unable to watch her son fight.
“Got comfortable,” Agnes says now, in the midst of a crowd where everyone knows their names. “Because we realized it was what he was going to do.”
Now they watch. They understand. Their son has turned it into a career. In this room, in varying degrees, they all have. The main event should be of particular interest to Iaquinta, as the Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway fight could have a direct impact on his career. At least on the surface, however, he didn’t seem to be thinking about it beforehand; only when a visitor brought it up did Iaquinta consider the ramifications of this title fight atop the lightweight division he currently calls home.
“Tonight I’ll enjoy it,” Iaquinta said amid the pre-fight madness. “Last fight I was impressed with Max. I’ll be impressed by whoever rises to a good performance. I’m a fan [tonight]. Hang out with the friends. Relax.”
He’ll worry later.
Sterling doesn’t have to watch Saturday’s action with the same intensity he tends to have with most cards, with the thought “that I might fight them,” as none of the five pay-per-view fights feature the bantamweight division. On Saturday night, he has another type of battle on his hands.
Frevola closes out the prelims with a unanimous decision win over Jalin Turner — one that elicited applause and a long “Yeeaahhhhh,” from Iaquinta when it’s announced as his first UFC win. They’ve all been there before.
Weidman looks in the corner and sees a life-sized Connect Four set. He goes to pick it up, but it breaks apart.
Not to worry. He brings it to the pool table, and after some issues in putting it back together, the most competitive portion of the night inside of McCann’s begins. The UFC card switches over to pay-per-view, but while they wait for the opening fight, attention briefly leaves the television. A crowd gathers around Connect Four, and the trash talk begins.
“As I scratch the hairs on my chinny chin, chin,” Sterling says, as they collectively put the board back together. What they don’t know is that Weidman is really good at this, assisted by having played the day before with his 3-year-old.
He smokes Iaquinta, leaving him shaking his head. Then Weidman dominates some of Iaquinta’s friends. Sterling gives him his toughest match — twice, in fact. Weidman compares Connect Four strategy to UFC, always thinking one or two steps ahead of the opponent. Not surprising from the former UFC middleweight champion, as well as the new Connect Four titleholder in this room.
The trash talk carries all the way until the start of the Gastelum-Adesanya fight. Then it’s all UFC.
“That fight had everything. If this one is like that, my heart will stop,” Iaquinta said.
The Gastelum-Adesanya fight has been over for about 10 minutes, and Iaquinta is still enthralled. They all are. It’s a buzz that carries over to the start of Poirier-Holloway, with Iaquinta and Sterling imitating Bruce Buffer’s well-known introduction cadence at the front of the room. They consider him the best announcer around, calling the biggest fight — a fight they deem pretty even at its start. As the fight goes on, Iaquinta grows more attentive.
After the first round, Iaquinta questioned the boxing-heavy strategy from both fighters. He cracked a smile as Round 2 started. Even if he didn’t intend to, Iaquinta is learning from this fight, just in case that intel is useful in the future.
Holloway starts hitting back at Poirier, who dominated the first round, but Poirier’s strikes eventually open a gash on Holloway’s nose.
“When Dustin hits him, it hurts him,” Iaquinta says between the third and fourth rounds, pointing to the strikes landed number that pops up on screen.
He watches the last two rounds, arms folded. It has been a long night, but a good one. He watched two great fights, and spent time with good friends. Before the final round, Gottlieb approaches to thank Iaquinta for letting him in. Iaquinta tells him it’s no problem. Glad to do it. Weidman asks Iaquinta what he’s thought so far. This is, after all, his weight class. He thinks Poirier has won every round.
At fight’s end, he claps and quietly says, “That was crazy.” Poirier had to fight through a war to earn the belt he has been waiting 30 fights for, and the lightweight division picture has become a little clearer.
Meanwhile, Iaquinta watches Poirier’s interview next to his parents. They chat for a few minutes, but it’s after 1 a.m. Time for them to go, as Al has a fight in three weeks against Donald Cerrone, and he has to be up to train in a few hours.
“It definitely motivated me,” Iaquinta said of watching the UFC 236 main event. “They are both two high-level guys. It shows I’m right there, you know.”
The next night, back at the gym, his trainer, Ray Longo, would call Iaquinta’s sparring session “perfect.”
When Iaquinta fights Cerrone on May 4, in a UFC Fight Night main event, the fight will be on most of the TVs at McCann’s — only Iaquinta will be on the other side, in the Octagon.