UFC 267: A Career Breakthrough at Stake for Makhachev and Hooker

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Drew Dober and Islam Makhachev, UFC 259
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 06: (R-L) Islam Makhachev works for a submission against Drew Dober in their lightweight fight during the UFC 259 event at UFC APEX on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

As the UFC lightweight division looks poised to usher in a new era, Islam Makhachev and Dustin Poirier will look to place themselves in the title picture at UFC 267.

One could argue that Islam Makhachev has been overdue for his career breakthrough.  At 20-1 and riding an eight fight win-streak, Makhachev is on the strongest run of anyone in the lightweight division not named Charles Oliveira.  He’s also run through his share of fellow up-and-comers and veterans in the likes of Chris Wade, Nik Lentz, Gleison Tibau, Drew Dober, and Thiago Moises.  While he has had the unenviable task of standing out in a consistently competitive weight class, he has quietly carved his own path to the point that it is rumored the higher ranked fighters in the weight class have turned down matchups with him because he is considered a high risk-low reward fight in terms of getting towards the title.

Of course, the prevailing narrative surrounding Makhachev are the comparisons to his childhood friend and longtime teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov.  Being named the heir apparent to arguably the greatest lightweight of all-time is no easy task, but Makhachev embraces the role.  While he has not faced the level of opposition necessary to compare legacies, another victory will make his place in title contention undeniable as he now faces the most highly regarded opponent of his career.

While he has been a fan-favorite for years, the last month has arguably been the biggest of Dan Hooker’s career.  After a personal campaign to fight at UFC 266 was nearly all for naught due to visa issues in his native New Zealand, “The Hangman” arrived with hours to spare in Las Vegas to come in on weight and then route Nasrat Haqparast.  Just days later, he agreed to fill in for Rafael dos Anjos against Makhachev at the cost of not being able to return to home to his family for another extended period of time.  If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, he will be without Eugene Bareman in-person as the esteemed City Kickboxing head coach returns home while Hooker due to travel restrictions stayed in Las Vegas.

While it would appear that Saturday’s bout was scheduled to showcase Makhachev and his ascension to the elite, it could also be a career changing night for Hooker.  While he has been a perennially ranked contender in the UFC, he has struggled to win the proverbial big one that would turn him into a title challenger.  Last year, he came up short against former interim champion Dustin Poirier in one of the most exciting bouts of 2020.  This past January, he was stopped quickly in the UFC debut of former Bellator champion Michael Chandler who went on to fight for the title following the victory.  While he is expected to have more exciting bouts following Saturday, a win against Makhachev may be crucial if he is ever to crack into the upper echelon of the division and finally secure a title shot.

Hooker should look to use a multi-faceted attack to keep Makhachev from settling into a rhythm.  “The Hangman” has proven himself to be an adept fighter both on the feet and on the ground, but he still wants to avoid getting into a drawn out bout where he’s pinned against the fence and fighting to stay on his feet for the majority of the fight.  As such, he should work his offense behind a stiff jab and try to keep Makhachev with his back to the fence.  Makhachev must use his physicality to get inside the range of Hooker. One of the stockier lightweights in the UFC, Makhachev should vary his strikes to the body and head and force Hooker to take risks so he can change levels and get the fight to the mat where he’s expected to have the strongest advantage.

The future for the winner is likely to be determined by who wins the crucial lightweight bouts in the coming weeks.  Depending on the outcomes and timetable, the Makhachev vs Hooker winner will likely find themselves in a bout with Beneil Dariush in a title eliminator in the first half of 2021.  That said, a scenario where both Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira prevail in their upcoming bouts could lead to a title shot next for this Saturday’s winner.

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