Recently, image quality assessment (IQA) has achieved remarkable progress with the success of deep learning. However, the strict pre-condition of full-reference (FR) methods has limited its application in real scenarios. And the no-reference (NR) scheme is also inconvenient due to its unsatisfying performance as a result of ignoring the essence of image quality. In this paper, we introduce a brand new scheme, namely external-reference image quality assessment (ER-IQA), by introducing external reference images to bridge the gap between FR and NR-IQA. As the first implementation and a new baseline of ER-IQA, we propose a new Unpaired-IQA network to process images in a content-unpaired manner. A Mutual Attention-based Feature Enhancement (MAFE) module is well-designed for the unpaired features in ER-IQA. The MAFE module allows the network to extract quality-discriminative features from distorted images and content variability-robust features from external reference ones. Extensive experiments demonstrate that the proposed model outperforms the state-of-the-art NR-IQA methods, verifying the effectiveness of ER-IQA and the possibility of narrowing the gap of the two existing categories.