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UFC Fight Night events in Oceania generally follow the same formula—a headliner with some relevance, followed by a series of entertaining matches that feature local talent. UFC Fight Night 168 on Saturday in Auckland, New Zealand, offers much of the same.
Paul Felder and Dan Hooker combine for a legitimately excellent main event, but there is not much in terms of on-the-brink prospects outside of Xiaonan Yan’s test against Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Nevertheless, the remaining fights all promise varying degrees of success on paper. Given that the Ultimate Fighting Championship has begun to sign more and more fighters based on potential, the lineup does not stick out as much as it would in previous years. There are plenty of fights worth watching for those who can spare a few hours.
Now to the UFC Fight Night “Felder vs. Hooker” preview:
LightweightsDan Hooker (19-8) vs. Paul Felder (17-4)
ODDS: Hooker (-140), Felder (+120)
When the UFC announced its return to Auckland, Hooker was a natural choice to headline the card. After all, being from Auckland was probably what got him into the UFC in the first place. Hooker served as the local representation for the promotion’s first card in New Zealand back in 2014, when he scored a quick win over Ian Entwistle. From there, “The Hangman” went on a solid featherweight run, even if he was a bit hard to pin down as a fighter. He obviously had some impressive finishing ability, but he showed a rather formless approach from round to round. However, once Hooker decided to move to lightweight, things started to come together for him: Victories over Ross Pearson and Marc Diakiese were patient comeback affairs, but his 2018 win over Jim Miller was where Hooker officially clicked as a brutal pressure fighter who could march down opponents as needed. After ending the year on a sour note by receiving a beating from Edson Barboza, Hooker rebounded with his best year yet in 2019. He made short work of James Vick, and his October win over Al Iaquinta resulted in the most impressive performance of his career, as he used his lanky frame to keep “Raging Al” at bay on the feet while also winning every grappling exchange. Hooker looks like the next success story to come out of New Zealand, and this five-round affair against Felder represents a huge chance to take the next step in his career.
Felder getting to this point is also a bit of a pleasant surprise. “The Irish Dragon” had some hype ahead of his own UFC debut in 2014, but an impressive win over Danny Castillo a few months later caused the promotion to throw him right into the deep end against Barboza and Pearson—opponents who were too much for the then-prospect to handle. Since then, it has been a slow march upward for Felder, whose skills have often overcome his approach. Felder is the type of fighter who tends to flow with the fight rather than come in with a game plan, but most opponents still find themselves in a difficult situation. Felder has gained a reputation as a dynamic kickboxer, but he also possesses a consistently underrated clinch game that he has used to bull around and sometimes finish opponents. His 2019 campaign saw Felder seemingly adapt to his adversaries for the first time, using an inside-outside approach against Vick and relying on that clinch in a rematch against Barboza. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the table against Hooker in the highest-profile fight of his career.
If the Hooker that took apart Iaquinta shows up here, this is the hometown fighter’s bout to lose. That version was firing on all cylinders, and even as a former featherweight, Hooker is rangy enough to keep most lightweights at a distance; the Kiwi also managed to dictate the terms of the grappling exchanges against a strong wrestler. Admittedly, that version of Hooker would still have trouble against a powerhouse like Barboza, who can simply win every exchange based on power and speed. However, Felder does not have those types of physical advantages. On the feet, Hooker should be able to take apart Felder from range in a manner similar to Iaquinta, and while Felder is more likely than the Long Islander to keep moving forward, Hooker still should have some advantages in the clinch. Felder is typically more of a control artist, while Hooker remains active with his offense and often manages to find his way to some slick submission positions. This should consistently be fun, but Hooker should win a war of attrition as time goes on. The pick is for the hometown hero to eventually wear out Felder and score a fourth-round submission.
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