24 Sep 2020

Next Gen passion for Kiwi UFC star

9:06 pm on 24 September 2020

Turning youthful aggression into a constructive career is behind a mentorship programme set up by one of the biggest names in New Zealand's thriving mixed martial arts scene.

Dan Hooker is ranked fourth in the UFC's lightweight division - one spot ahead of Irish megastar Conor McGregor.

But the fighter known as "The Hangman" isn't content with simply hanging his hat on his own career.

Hooker has a passion to bring through the next generation of Kiwi combat sports talent, and with good reason.

"This sport saved me," the 30-year-old said about finding MMA soon after he finished high school.

"This sport gave my aggression a direction, and I could channel it. This is the most constructive thing you could possibly do with your aggression."

That first hand experience played a key role in Hooker opening his own gym, The Combat Academy in Auckland, back in 2018.

It was also behind the mentorship programme he had created, which offered aspiring youngsters several perks, most notably the chance to have their career guided by Hooker himself.

Trials for the second edition of the programme are set for this Saturday, with 70 invited from a list of 120 applicants.

Hooker said it was a process about much more than strength, skill and athleticism.

"I can teach someone how to fight. That's why there's no experience required to apply for the mentorship.

"I can't teach perseverance, I can't teach someone to be on time. I'm looking for those intangibles some people possess, and to find them you have to do some pretty deep digging."

Aaron Tau knew all too well just how tough the day will be.

One of two winners when Hooker first put mentorships up for grabs in 2018, he flew all the way from Australia to take part.

Tau said the gruelling testing process pushed the applicants in every possible way.

"My spirit kind of just took over and ignited a bit of a flame inside me.

"I knew this was a place I wanted to be, and I was going to fight for it like it was my life."

A level of determination driven in no small part by a challenging upbringing.

Raised in Rahiri, a small settlement in rural Northland, Tau grew up around domestic violence and gang affiliation.

It was an environment which eventually forced his mother to take action, giving her then 15-year-old son some money, a bag of clothes and a one-way plane ticket to Australia.

Tau initially stayed with his mother's aunty, getting his "mind back together" before heading out on his own.

However, finding MMA was the real catalyst for change, adjusting his attitude towards aggression and putting his life back on track.

Having gone on to win the scholarship under Hooker and moving back to New Zealand with his young family, Tau is now 2-0 as a professional and preparing to fight for a title with the XFC promotion in Dunedin next month.

It was a path, he said, that was setting an important example for those close to him.

"For all of my nephews, nieces, cousins and friends, there's a new way to live.

"You can channel all those things that are inside you that could have defined you in a bad way, that people could have frowned upon you for.

"Now I'm showing them you can channel them into something so positive someone wants to pay me to do it."

Saturday's trial day was the next step in reaching the same place for Tururai Te Wano.

The 20-year-old moved north from Taumarunui just three months ago, and said MMA has also been an avenue to turn her life in a positive direction.

"I was in a spot and wasn't working towards anything and wasn't challenging myself for about three years.

"[Starting MMA] has just made me work, and I've been working, hard."

That included being at the gym six days a week, while also working as a Kohanga Reo teacher.

But motivation wasn't hard to come by.

Dan Hooker

Dan Hooker Photo: Photosport

Te Wano said the success being had by Hooker and several other Kiwis on the world stage, including world champion Israel Adesanya, made it easier to stay committed to her goals.

"That energy goes through everyone.

"Everyone here is inspired by them, so then you're just feeding off the energy others have picked up from Dan and the rest of the team [at City Kickboxing]."

That inspiration flowed both ways.

Hooker said the love he had for coaching and helping the next generation gave him more than enough fuel to balance his own career with his responsibilities at his gym.

"I'm going to be fighting for a very long time, so if I wait until I'm finished I feel like I will have missed out on potentially 10 years of building something.

"Building a gym and building a community with the knowledge and skills I have that can help as many people as possible."

That process continued on Saturday.

And having had two years with Dan Hooker in his corner, Aaron Tau said it was a chance which could not be overstated.

"This opportunity could change someone's life.

"It has for me. It's fully changed my life."