UFC Auckland: Can The Hangman Slay the Irish Dragon?

Paul Felder UFC 242 UFC Auckland
Paul Felder Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Both Paul Felder and Dan Hooker will be looking to take a big step forward in the lightweight division when they collide in the main event of UFC Auckland.

“The Irish Dragon” Paul Felder is on the cusp of breaking into the upper echelon of the UFC lightweight division.  One of the UFC’s most popular commentators is riding a 5-1 streak going into Saturday’s contest, with the lone loss coming at welterweight on short notice to Mike Perry in what was an exciting bout.  Since then, he has notched victories over perennial contenders such as James Vick and Edson Barboza, avenging his loss to the Brazilian powerhouse from several years earlier.  Now booked for his first UFC main event, a victory for Felder could set up bouts with the big names of the division that are currently dominating the conversation in mixed martial arts.

When looking at the lightweight division, the title picture resembles a dam that is ready to burst after April when Khabib Nurmagomedov finally faces long-time contender Tony Ferguson.  By the time the fight takes place, fighters such as Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje, and Conor McGregor will all need bookings going into the second half of 2020.  Felder would be a serious candidate for such match-ups, any of which would undoubtedly be scheduled as part of a big event or event as a headliner.  Felder even drew the attention of McGregor last month.  Despite already having welterweights Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal in attendance to watch him, McGregor took the time to single Felder out in his post-fight speech.

Dan “The Hangman” Hooker is looking to ride the momentum in his home country to a breakthrough performance that launches himself into the aforementioned title situation.  His teammate Israel Adesanya has ignited increased attention on the New Zealand MMA scene.  His coach at City Kickboxing, Eugene Bareman, was recently named the Coach of the Year by ESPN.  While much of the attention is centered on the electrifying middleweight champion, Hooker’s 2019 campaign was a large part of earning Bareman and the award last year.

Inside the cage, Hooker has developed into a ranked contender in the UFC lightweight division.  Entering the UFC in 2014, Hooker faced early struggles in alternating wins and losses in his first six fights.  In 2017, he embarked on an impressive 6-1 run that includes victories over Marc Diakiese and UFC veteran Jim Miller.  Last year, he posted the most impressive victories of his career with a stoppage of James Vick and a victory over perennial contender Al Iaquinta at the UFC’s stadium event in Australia last fall.

Stylistically, the rangy Hooker will be looking to use his reach to keep Felder on the outside and pick him apart.  The New Zealander has one of the more slick striking attacks in the lightweight division with an impressive ability to slide smoothly in-and-out of range.  By comparison, the always game Felder will be looking to chop away at Hooker’s mobility with leg kicks and create openings to attack with bigger combinations in closer quarters.

A victory for either man will put them in a great position as the lightweight division appears to be on the cusp of a major shake-up.  By the time April rolls around, anticipation will be high for match-ups to be made with the likes of the aforementioned Poirier and Gaethje, and the winner of Saturday’s main event would figure to be in the conversation for a fight with either man in a marquee contest.