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Dan Hooker Is Always Moving Forward

Dan Hooker isn't looking past Dustin Poirier at Saturday's Fight Night, but Hooker has a plan to keep progressing whether he faces success or failure

On Sunday morning, the day after Dan Hooker fights Dustin Poirier and then prepares to fly home to New Zealand, it will be the sixth anniversary of his first UFC fight against Ian Entwistle.

The reminder came as a surprise to Hooker, but it’s not surprising that a rapidly rising lightweight contender with plenty of good things ahead of him isn’t playing the nostalgia game now. Or ever.

“I've got 30, 40, 50 years of my life that I'm gonna be sitting on a porch doing nothing,” he laughs. “That's the time when I can get sentimental and reflective. Now I need more achievements to look back on.”

Beating Poirier would be a big one, as it would come in a high-profile main event in the middle of a pandemic that has put a halt to practically every sport, but not his, meaning there will be even more eyeballs on a bout with Fight of the Year potential. 

He welcomes all of it, but not for the usual reasons. 

“Legacy is not something that I'm too focused on,” Hooker said. “I'm just trying to make the most amount of money for my family that I can in my lifetime. I need to take care of the people that are gonna take care of me when this is all said and done. When I walk away from this sport, I need to have taken care of my family - my daughter, my wife. Those are the people that are gonna look after me when I'm an old man.” 

UFC Vegas 4: Poirier vs Hooker - Preview
UFC Vegas 4: Poirier vs Hooker - Preview
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The topic comes up when discussing what Hooker is building, even if he doesn’t want to take too much time looking at legacy too seriously. But with each passing bout, the Auckland native is becoming appointment viewing, a talented fighter who leaves fans with not just an appreciation of that talent, but for his heart and willingness to go to places not everyone wants to go to over the course of 15 or 25 minutes in an eight-sided cage.

Sometimes it’s glorious, as in his February win over Paul Felder. Sometimes it’s not, as in his December 2018 loss to Edson Barboza. But win or lose, Hooker has made you feel something, and that’s quite a reputation to have. And he’s expected to dust that reputation off once again this Saturday in Las Vegas. To most, that’s an intimidating prospect to know that at one point he’s going to be tired, hurt, bloodied, or all three, and he’ll have to find an extra gear to push through. Hooker doesn’t have such fears.

“I'm at that stage now where I've been through it so many times that I have a lot of experience going through that,” he said. “I know it's there. I know if I need it that I can get into a fight like that and I'm quite comfortable in a fight like that. You just need the right opponent that can push you to that level.”

Poirier is that opponent, and Hooker knows it.

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“I see the same dog,” said Hooker of the former interim lightweight champ. “He's got that same little voice in his head that tells him not to quit. That's a young man's energy and a young man's drive. I've seen it before as fighters get older, that's when it passes you by. Whenever I'm in a fight and I hear that voice, it's saying, 'Stay in the fight, keep pushing yourself.' The day I'm in the fight and he tells me, 'Maybe just tap out,' or 'Maybe have this round off' or ‘Be happy to just lose a decision,’ well, that will be my cue to look for the door. But I know full well that at the stage I'm at now and the way my body is and the way my training's going that I've got a lot of tread left on the tires.”

It's the beauty of being 30 years old and in your prime. Across the Octagon, Poirier is 31 and in the same situation. That wasn’t always the case for Hooker, who often fought down to the level of his opposition in order to get into the wars he wanted to experience. Now, though, everybody’s good, so to get his hand raised, there’s always the possibility of a grueling battle. And he welcomes it if that what it takes to keep moving forward.
  
“The main part that I enjoy about fighting is the true test of character,” Hooker said. “There's no hiding your personality. If you want a way out, there's always a way out readily available. I used to go into fights against guys I was better than and make it a dogfight and make it a war just because I enjoy that aspect of the sport. Then I came to the realization that I shouldn't drop my skillset to that level. But now I'm at the point where I'm fighting these guys and our skillsets are so equally matched and our drive and motivation are so equally matched that we do end up in those kind of fights. It's something I've come to expect and it's something I look forward to.”

Hooker is also smart enough to know that a fighter doesn’t want too many of those in his career. That’s why he’ll embrace the first-round finishes of James Vick, Gilbert Burns and Jim Miller alongside the wars with Felder and Barboza. 

“I appreciate the fans and I couldn't appreciate them more, but you can't go out there and give the fans your health willingly,” he said. “Those kinds of fights happen naturally. You can't force those kinds of wars. When you force them, you're taking unnecessary damage for your health and longevity.”

The No. 5-ranked lightweight contender isn’t forcing anything. He’s reached the point of his career where he’s become a truth machine at 155 pounds. If you’re not ready for him, he’ll get you out of there quick. If you are, well then the fun begins. Most, especially those outside the fight game, wouldn’t understand. And Hooker’s fine with that. But he also knows just what this most unique sport has brought to his life.

Free Fight: Dan Hooker vs Paul Felder
Free Fight: Dan Hooker vs Paul Felder
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“It takes a special kind of person to get in there,” he said. “The sport is designed for aggressive young men and you can't just tell an aggressive young man to not be aggressive. It's just in his nature. What you need to do with that aggressive young man is give him some direction. Most aggressive young men end up destroying themselves and going down the wrong path. But this sport helped me find a constructive outlet for that aggression. So when people say I'm risking a lot, I feel like I'm risking my life if I'm not doing this sport. This is the most constructive thing I could possibly be doing with the natural attributes I was born with.”

You might just say Hooker was born to fight. He would probably accept that comment but qualify it by saying that fighting isn’t just about what happens when the gloves are on. It’s about using those gifts and that grit to build a future, to live a life like the one UFC vet Tom Watson once described to me years ago.

When asked about his reasons for learning to fight when he was a teenager, Watson said, “I realized that by living a few years of my life like most won't, I could live the rest of my life like most can't.”

That’s the plan for Dan Hooker, no matter what happens against Poirier, because win or lose, this man has a plan beyond Saturday night.

“Focusing on what's in front of me and what's on my plate takes a lot of my focus, but of course you need to plan your next step and your career,” he said. “So when people talk about getting ahead of yourself, I don't feel like it's getting ahead of myself. I've just planned out my next steps. Regardless of success or failure, I have a plan to move forward. It's not as simple as I'm gonna win and then I'm gonna get a title shot and then become champion. That's not the only plan that I have. If I slip on a banana peel in the Octagon and blow my knee out and lose the fight, I will still have a plan to move forward. And that's where a lot of fighters make a mistake. They get knocked back, they get setbacks and it kind of breaks them. If you can't bend, then you end up breaking. You have to be able to move forward regardless of success or failure.”