MMA: Dan Hooker on bringing UFC back to NZ, Al Iaquinta and perseverance

Hooker.
Hooker. Photo credit: Getty

Most fighters building towards a bout are reluctant to look beyond their next opponent - and understandably so. 

Keep your eye on the prize and all that.

Although Kiwi UFC lightweight Dan Hooker is in this very boat, he has one clear objective in the distance, as he builds towards his contest with Al Iaquinta at UFC 243 in Melbourne next month - but it's not another fighter.

'The Hangman' - now the longest-tenured Kiwi in the world's premier fight promotion - wants to see the UFC make its long-awaited, long-overdue return to Aotearoa.

"It's about time we brought it back over to these shores," Hooker told Newshub. "And I feel like a win over a guy like Al Iaquinta deserves that.

"Rumours were swirling around that it was going to be at the end of this year, but obviously this mega event in Melbourne took its place. That just pushes the Auckland card back to early 2020." 

The UFC has held two previous events in New Zealand - the last more than two years ago in June 2017, when Hooker stole the show by putting veteran Ross Pearson to sleep with a knee to tell your grandkids about.

"I feel like its brewing, it's definitely brewing and there are a lot of people that are expecting it.

"Me and Israel [Adesanya] doing our thing - I think it's about time we came back to New Zealand and I get a crack at a top five after that."

But for now, Hooker is deep in the throes of preparation for the ever-dangerous Iaquinta, a gritty New Yorker with a deep bag of tricks, plenty of heat on the feet and the only UFC fighter yet to take a round off arguably the greatest lightweight of all time - Khabib Nurmagomedov. 

And he did it on six days' notice.

Sitting 14th on the UFC's official divisional rankings, if the 29-year-old has his hand raised against the sixth-ranked Iaquinta, his stocks would spike significantly. 

Even Hooker was slightly shocked that Iaquinta accepted their bout, considering the imbalance of reward on offer.

"It's a crazy opportunity. It's pretty rare… I wasn't really even expecting him to take that fight, because it was so risky for him, but it just shows you the exciting match-ups that I put on.

"He obviously sees the fight with me as an exciting one for the fans on a huge card and he can't miss the opportunity."

Hooker puts the finishing touches on James Vick.
Hooker puts the finishing touches on James Vick. Photo credit: Getty

Hooker is well versed in the fickle nature of a fighter's prospects. His path to the upper echelon of the lightweight division - the UFC's most talent-rich weight class - was derailed by a stinging loss to Edson Barboza last year, snapping his four-fight win streak in disheartening fashion.

The manner of the loss prompted questions about Hooker's willingness to even continue with the sport. Looking back now, he laughs at the mere suggestion, insisting the experience was simply part of the often-cruel reality of his chosen profession.

"That was funny, but I always knew it was just a bump in the road. It's kind of the definition of a fighter - not letting things like that knock you back or get you disheartened, to keep picking yourself back up and stay the course, even when times get tough.

"I definitely took my lesson from that fight and I'll use that, but it's just fuel to the fire. It only adds to the hunger."

In fact, Hooker - one of the division's most active fighters - really struggled with the mandatory stand-down period. 

"I'd never, in my entire career, had that amount of time between fights, and it brought my passion and hunger back.

"Tough times don't last, tough people do, so I bounced back like I knew I could and now I'm back with the exact same opportunity."

Responses don't come much more emphatic than the one Hooker offered in San Antonio, where he enhanced his must-see reputation with a knockout of James Vick and sent a timely reminder to the rest of the division. 

The first-round dismantling cemented his 100 percent finishing rate through his eight UFC wins - as appointment viewing as Succession.

Vick's body barely off the canvas, Hooker took to the microphone in his post-fight interview and literally demanded he be included on the likely history-making UFC 243 in Melbourne on October 6, demands that were quickly answered.

Almost 60,000 are expected to pack into Marvel Stadium, where Hooker's clash with Iaquinta will be featured as the co-main event, before 'frenemy' and City Kickboxing stablemate Adesanya's title-unification bout with Robert Whittaker.

It shapes to be a landmark occasion for ANZAC combat sports and it only makes sense that Hooker - a staunchly proud New Zealander - has the honour of draping that flag over his shoulders and soaking up the deafening roar of a partisan sold-out crowd. 

"You want to create milestones in this game. You want to look back at the end of your career and have no regrets as to opportunities you should've taken.

"That's kind of why I just jump on everything. On such a big card like this, it's historic. 

"I'm going to look back, when me and Israel are old men, and we're retired, and big and fat. We're going to look back on it and just soak it in, and just enjoy it for what it was."

Kiwi fight fans will be hoping Hooker's next entrance to the Octagon comes even closer to home.

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