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On the cusp: Dan Hooker looks to continue his dream run at lightweight

On the cusp: Dan Hooker looks to continue his dream run at lightweight

Dan Hooker of New Zealand kicks Marc Diakiese of Congo in their lightweight bout during the UFC 219 event

Since moving up from featherweight to lightweight, New Zealand’s own Dan “The Hangman” Hooker has looked unstoppable, crushing his way through four straight wins and finishing them all in emphatic fashion. He joins a growing list of fighters who have reaped early success by moving up weight classes. Think Donald Cerrone’s first four fights at 170-pounds, or Kelvin Gastelum’s run, or Robert Whittaker’s, who hasn’t lost a fight since moving up to middleweight.

And we’re not talking wins over just any old competition, either. Hooker’s beaten veterans and young prospects alike with two fearsome knees, a guillotine and a monstrous left hook. That’s a smorgasbord of finishing moves. A buffet of skills. A salad bar of leafy talent. And so on. At this weight, we’re finally getting to see Hooker’s evolution and rise to a well-rounded, confident and dangerous fighter.

Without having to chop that extra weight, he’s put on a truckload of muscle, and it’s paying dividends in his punching power. He’s come through a lot of tough fights, growing up into the UFC rather than making a name for himself in other promotions and then crossing over in his prime. As such, he’s been able to evolve with the sport and now finds himself on the cusp of breaking into the top floor of the promotion’s toughest division. Title aspirations are firmly at the forefront of Hooker’s mind, and it shows in his performances.

But in order to bust into the top five in a shark tank loaded with killers, he has to pass through the gatekeeper. Edson Barboza is the keymaster, and if Hooker forgets the secret passwords and fumbles this chance, the win-streak train will be derailed.

Without a doubt, this will be Hooker’s toughest test to date. He’s up against a vicious, fast, skilled and powerful striker, and it’s a gamble of long odds to say that he will adopt the game-plan that’s seen Barboza’s last two opponents cruise to victory. He wants to knock people out, not grind them through the mat and into the floorboards.

Hooker likes to strike. He’s been training with his little buddy Israel Adesanya, and despite their bromance in the gym, his skill-level has improved by leaps and bounds. Aside from that, his calm-headedness and ability to see opportunities and seize them—as with both the Pearson and Miller fights—make him hard to overwhelm and intimidate.

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Likely this next test will be a stand-up affair, with Barboza looking for his trade-mark thunderous leg and head kicks. Against him, Hooker will look to plod forward and put Barboza onto the back-foot where his striking isn’t so clean and crisp. The Brazilian has been known to crumble under pressure and if there’s one thing Hooker does well, it’s zombie his way through a forest of blows that would drop lesser men.

It’s that rock-hard chin that’s one of Hooker’s strengths, but it could also prove his undoing. Even the most hard-headed succumb to a well-placed head kick. Just ask Cormier after his second fight with Jon Jones. Barboza’s kicks are lighting fast with very little wind-up, and if there’s one knock on Hooker, it’s that he’s slow, with little head-movement. He doesn’t mind taking shots to get into range, but Barboza’s power is on a different level. His shins are made of concrete. Toughness is one thing, as we saw last week with Brian Ortega almost being murdered inside the Octagon, but flaming shins to the side of the head are something else entirely. If Hooker wants to win this, he absolutely cannot put himself in Barboza’s crosshairs with the space to pull the trigger. He’s never been knocked out, but there’s a first time for everything.

Hooker’s four fight win-streak has his confidence riding high, while Barboza is trying to dig his way out of a deep rut. If Hooker can win, he’ll be up against a murderer’s row of potential opponents. His finishing ability may even see him land a crowd-pleaser spot against the likes of Justin Gaethje or Anthony Pettis. Along with the main event between old rivals Al Iaquinta and Kevin Lee, this weekend’s card is set to be lit af, or whatever the kids say these days.

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