Australia and New Zealand are home to some of the top mixed martial artists currently competing in the Octagon, including the likes of UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and rising star Israel Adesanya. This Saturday night at UFC on FOX 31 — which takes place at the new Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and which serves as the last-ever UFC card broadcast on FOX — surging lightweight contender Dan Hooker will look to have his own breakthrough moment when he takes on Edson Barboza in the co-main event of the evening.
It’s by far the biggest fight of the young Kiwi’s career, but it’s the fight he wanted, considering he called out Barboza in the media. The UFC gave him his wish, and here we are.
It’s not like Hooker is new to the UFC or anything, but like other fighters such as Anthony Smith who have found a second wind after moving up in weight, Hooker looks like a completely different fighter at 155lbs. As a featherweight in the UFC, Hooker had an average 3-3 record. He showed flashes of brilliance with his stoppage wins over Hatsu Hioki, Ian Entwistle and Mark Eddiva, but he also dropped decisions to Jason Knight, Maximo Blanco and Yair Rodriguez.
He didn’t look like anything special, so you can forgive fans and media who expected him to be nothing more than a .500 fighter at lightweight, but Hooker has proven all of his doubters wrong as he’s looked amazing since moving up to lightweight, and is potentially a couple wins away from being a legitimate title contender.
Since making the move up to lightweight, Hooker is a perfect 4-0 with four finishes. He knocked out Ross Pearson, then submitted Marc Diakese, then got back to his knockout spree with brutal finishes over Jim Miller and Gilbert Burns. Considering how good Burns just looked in his win over Olivier Aubin-Mercier at UFC 231, the fact Hooker blew him out of the water in one round is even more impressive looking back in hindsight. None of those fighters were ranked, but Barboza is.
If Hooker can go out there and beat Barboza, especially if he does so in impressive fashion, he’ll be a legitimate top-10 lightweight and closing in on a top-five opponent. If he beats Barboza and then beats a top-five opponent in his next fight, we could be talking about Hooker as a potential challenger for UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Pretty amazing for a guy who was on the verge of being released by the UFC just a few years ago. Boy, that move to lightweight has paid off.
Hooker has a lot going for him. At 28 years of age, he’s right in the middle of his prime, and we’ve been seeing massive improvements out of him every time he fights. As one of the best fighters from New Zealand at a time when the country is emerging as a hotbed for MMA, he has even more attention on himself at the moment right now, and he’s been making the most of it with all those flashy wins that landed him a top-10 opponent in Barboza.
But what’s especially intriguing about Hooker is that he finishes fights, and he’s hard to be finished. He has a 17-7 record in his career, with 16 of those wins coming by stoppage and only two of the losses coming by finish. Not only can Hooker give a punch, but he can also take one as he’s shown off an iron chin in his UFC career. Now that he’s on a roll and knocking everyone out cold or choking them out with ease, he’s gained a ton of confidence in his game and it’s helped turn him from pretender to contender.
From all indications, Hooker is a very good fighter who’s gotten way better the last two years. But we still don’t know if he’s a top-10 guy. Saturday at UFC on FOX 31 we will find out when he takes on Barboza in the most important fight of his career, a fight that can launch him into stardom at the UFC’s last show on FOX. As the card doesn’t have any major stars on it commanding all the attention, UFC on FOX 31 represents the perfect opportunity for Hooker to take the spotlight for himself and launch himself into stardom with a huge win over a respected veteran in Barboza. Now, let’s see if he takes the opportunity and runs with it.