9 Jan 2021

Kiwi UFC star ditches tough guy desire

2:36 pm on 9 January 2021

In a sport renowned for tough guys, there's a reason Dan Hooker is no longer hell-bent on being one.

New Zealand UFC fighter Dan Hooker.

New Zealand UFC fighter Dan Hooker. Photo: Photosport

The no-nonsense New Zealander has developed a reputation during almost seven years competing on the world's biggest mixed martial arts promotion.

Firstly, as a very good fighter. Good enough to be ranked sixth in a UFC lightweight division widely considered the most competitive weight class in all of MMA.

But Hooker has become equally well-known as an athlete who relishes a true toe-to-toe battle, and refuses to accept giving up as an option.

All the above were on show in his most recent octagon appearance six months ago, a torrid five-round tussle he lost to Dustin Poirier but which went down as one of the best bouts 2020 had to offer.

The loss temporarily halted Hooker's pursuit of the the ultimate prize.

But it also taught him a valuable lesson as he prepared to welcome the highly-touted Michael Chandler to the UFC in Abu Dhabi on January 23.

"You've got to be real honest with yourself in this sport and you really have to face the music and face the facts if you want to make any real kind of improvement," the 30-year-old Aucklander told RNZ.

"I had to come to the realisation that I like to fight more than I like to win. That's a very difficult thing for a lot of people to understand and if I'm going to change that I have to acknowledge it, face it and make the adjustments.

"It's like, what do you really want out of this sport? Do you want to go out there and be known as a warrior and a tough guy or do you want to be known as the best?

"I want to be known as the best and I want to be known as a talented, skilful fighter, rather than my initial goal of being known as the toughest, baddest or gamest guy.

"It's taken me this long but I realised that's not who I want to be."

Hooker stopped short of calling the change the last piece of the puzzle in his quest for a UFC world championship.

Ditching that desire to be the toughest, he said, was one of several things he had faced with the same honesty since losing to now No 2-ranked Poirier.

Having come to those realisations, the City Kickboxing team captain had been busy implementing the appropriate changes in training camp at the central Auckland gym.

A camp which started as soon as the UFC approached Hooker about the fight seven weeks ago, and one he said was barely comparable to his lead-up to the Poirier fight.

"It's not even close. In terms of the time that's been allowed, or the conditions that have been allowed for this fight [because] we were locked down leading into that Poirier fight.

"I'm a guy that likes to stay fit and in the gym year-round, so if something does come up I can make the most of the opportunities but that was such a different circumstance because the gym was shut.

"You had to stay in your house and you're stuck to running around the block. I own a gym and I couldn't even go to my own gym and use the empty space.

"Yeah, it's a whole different ball game [this time]."

What hadn't changed was the magnitude of the opportunity.

The hype Chandler brought with him from rival organisation Bellator meant a decisive victory would have Hooker right back in the lightweight title conversation.

Kiwi UFC fighter Dan Hooker at his Auckland gym.

Kiwi UFC fighter Dan Hooker at his Auckland gym. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Especially a victory as the co-main event to Poirier's fight against MMA's biggest name and the division's fourth-ranked fighter, Conor McGregor.

Hooker revealed the Irish superstar's involvement was a major motivating factor in agreeing to welcome Chandler to the UFC.

The co-main event pairing are back-up for the main event fighters and, if it was Poirier who was forced to pull out, the Kiwi had no doubt who deserved a massive opportunity against McGregor.

"To be honest, it comes down to whoever Conor McGregor chooses to pick as an opponent but, to me, I feel like I make a lot more sense.

"Like are you're gonna throw the biggest name in the sport against an unranked fighter from a different organisation, or are you going to compete against the guy who just had a very close match-up with, who landed more strikes on, the guy you were going to fight."

Whether or not that happened, the event presented Hooker with a big chance.

Big enough that, given he was unable to get a spot in a managed isolation hotel until later in February, he was willing to sacrifice two months away from his wife and young daughter.

"I love to travel, I love to explore new places and I've passed through Abu Dhabi before but I haven't spent a good amount of time there.

"You just have to look at the bright side of things. No-one at this point in time is being able to get out and travel and see the world so you just have to appreciate that you're able to do it under these circumstances."

Hooker departs New Zealand next week with greatness, not toughness, top of mind.