Exclusive interview: New Zealander talks to The Independent ahead of his co-main event at UFC 257
Seven months ago, Dan Hooker walked into the UFC’s Apex facility in Las Vegas to take on Dustin Poirier, hopeful of walking away with a main-event win and a new ranking as the No. 3 lightweight in the world.
Instead, he left on a stretcher, having suffered a unanimous decision defeat by ‘The Diamond’ after 25 hellacious minutes of attritional combat.
“You’re definitely present,” the New Zealander tells The Independent of the moments after the fight, which were documented by the UFC in a sobering video. “It’s something I don’t wish I was used to, but it’s a situation I’ve been in many times – it was like my sixth trip to the hospital after a fight.
“Being on the stretcher, I’m just sitting there relaxing. I was disappointed in the loss, in myself. You’re definitely in a lot of pain, but you can observe the pain or experience it. So rather than rolling around or acting a fool, I can stay calm and patient and observe the situation. It’s funny how the UFC added the music [in their video]. But if someone would have walked up to me and asked me a question, I would have been able to respond pretty coherently. They told me it was a 35-minute ride to the hospital, so I knew what I was in for and was just mentally prepared for it.”
Hooker (20-9) might once have taken solace in being involved in a Fight of the Year contender, but admits that the defeat by Poirier in his last outing altered his perspective. “My whole approach needs to change,” ‘The Hangman’ wrote on Instagram three weeks after the fight.
He tells The Independent: “I could’ve just said: ‘Ah no, it was close, it was a five-round fight on short notice – all I need is full notice and that’ll sort the problem.’ But that’s just one part of the problem. One of the things I had to be real honest with myself about was: ‘How did I end up in this situation?’ Well, I went out too aggressive, got too heated or too set on a finish, or too emotional.”
The former kickboxer says he learned from watching City Kickboxing team-mates Alexander Volkanovski and Israel Adesanya in successful UFC title defences last year, noting Volkanovski’s “composure” in a featherweight rematch against Max Holloway and Adesanya’s “patience” in what many fans called a “boring” middleweight victory over Yoel Romero.
“I felt like if, I had that patience, I would already be a world champion,” the 30-year-old says. “I love to fight more than I love to win, and that’s a funny thing for people to try to understand. It’s not like you can just click your fingers and make an adjustment like that, you have to change your whole approach to the sport.
“Fighting for $50,000 bonuses when I had no money and it could really change my life… you’re gonna hunt it. But I’m in a position now where that kind of money is not gonna change my life. So, going out there and just fighting for $50K bonuses at the stage I’m at now would be a mug’s game.
“You have to decide: Do you wanna be known as a tough, exciting fighter that goes out there and puts on great performances, or do you wanna be a world champion? I’m taking the second one 10 times out of 10.”
In the co-main event of UFC 257 on Saturday, Hooker has a great opportunity to move closer to that target when he welcomes former three-time Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler (21-5) to the UFC.
The promotion has made much of the American’s arrival, begging the question: Does the UFC want Chandler to beat Hooker?
“The UFC has probably spent a lot of money to get Chandler over and he’s bringing a lot of hype, so if he does well, kudos to them,” Hooker says ahead of the fight, which will take place in Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena moments before Conor McGregor’s lightweight rematch against Poirier in the card’s main event. “But on the other hand, if they bring him over and he gets beaten badly and stopped, well then it shows the UFC is better than all of these other organisations.”
Many fans would love to see Hooker prosper at the expense of Chandler, who fully believes he belongs at the top of the UFC’s lightweight division yet has avoided ruffling feathers since signing with the promotion in September.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s a great family man, – he’s right as rain,” Hooker says. “You ask him a question, I can probably tell you what he’s gonna say. It’s gonna be a perfect answer, and that doesn’t resonate with a lot of fans – like they’re maybe not seeing so much honesty.
“When I tell someone, ‘I’m gonna smash your face in,’ I’m just expressing my honest opinion about it, it’s not cockiness. So, you kind of get that love-hate thing with fans.
“With Chandler, it’s like… just say you’re gonna smash Dan Hooker’s face in! You think he’s taking this fight and he doesn’t think he can knock me out? Just say it then! I’m not gonna take it to heart, it’s not gonna change the outcome of the fight – it’s just gonna get the fans excited.”
In October, Chandler weighed in as a back-up for the lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, and he was also rumoured to be fighting Tony Ferguson late last year before ‘El Cucuy’ was instead paired with Charles Oliveira. All the while, Hooker has solely been preparing for Chandler, he says.
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“I feel like stylistically this fight matches up really well for me,” he tells The Independent of his bout against the former collegiate wrestler. “He’s a fast starter, likes to get in guys’ faces. When he starts ducking his head and shooting for takedowns, that’s welcoming to me, man. Most of my game comes from fighting shorter wrestlers who wanna throw me on my back. I see him coming to me, me setting traps, him slipping on a banana peel and running into a knee.”
Hooker wouldn’t necessarily take pleasure in ruining Chandler’s ambitions of establishing himself as the best lightweight in the world, but it would hardly be a new feeling for the New Zealander.
“Everything I’ve bought with this sport has been off someone else’s dreams,” he says. “Two guys come together, they both dream of success and world titles, and my career is built off stopping other men’s dreams. It’s just the nature of the sport.”