Las Vegan Kevin Lee hoped that avenging a loss to Al Iaquinta would put him on the fast track to a title shot.
Instead, he lost a unanimous decision after a 25-minute battle in the main event of UFC on Fox 31 on Saturday in Milwaukee.
“What a fight,” Iaquinta said after improving to 2-0 against Lee. “I came to fight tonight because I knew he’d be tough. We had a lot of preparation for this fight, and when I have that, I can beat anyone in the UFC.”
Iaquinta rallied for the victory when Lee found his rhythm after narrowly dropping a back-and-forth first round contested entirely on the feet.
Lee, a 26-year-old who was seeking to avenge a 2014 loss in his UFC debut, took Iaquinta to the mat and punished him in the second round. But Lee couldn’t find the finish, and it proved costly.
While Lee still won the third round by getting Iaquinta to the mat, he couldn’t advance his position and didn’t do much damage.
That opened the door for Iaquinta to seize control by finding a consistent home for his right hand in the final 10 minutes and earn the decision.
“I’m the toughest guy in this division,” said Iaquinta, who wants a shot at Conor McGregor. “Never doubt my cardio, it’s my No. 1 weapon, so I knew if we got to rounds four and five, I’d be able to get him.
“At the end of 2019, I’m going to be holding the UFC lightweight championship.”
Iaquinta was coming off a loss to lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in April, a bout he took on 24 hours notice. Lee had been reluctant to pursue a rematch against Iaquinta because he had passed him in the rankings, but thought he could use Iaquinta’s loss to the champion as a springboard to a title shot.
Now it’s back to the drawing board.
Also on the main card, fellow lightweight contender Edson Barboza bounced back from two consecutive losses with a dominant win over Dan Hooker, who had stopped his past four opponents.
Barboza looked revitalized as he flashed the speed and power that made him a top contender before his recent slide against the elite in the division, including Lee and Nurmagomedov.
The end came midway through the third round when Barboza crumpled Hooker with a body punch.
“He’s one of the best in the world, but I’m back, guys,” Barboza said. “I’ve changed everything in my life, and you better believe the best is coming. Be ready for the new Edson Barboza.”
Bantamweight Rob Font scored a unanimous decision over hometown hero Sergio Pettis, and lightweight Charles Oliveira opened the main card of the UFC’s final broadcast on Fox with a quick finish of Jim Miller.
UFC on Fox 31
Main card results:
— Al Iaquinta def. Kevin Lee via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46)
— Edson Barboza def. Dan Hooker via knockout (strikes), Round 3, 2:19
— Rob Font def. Sergio Pettis via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
— Charles Oliveira def. Jim Miller via submission (rear-naked choke), Round 1, 1:15