The biggest name in combat sports admits he has one eye on a no-nonsense New Zealander ahead of UFC 257.
Auckland lightweight Dan Hooker was set to welcome much-hyped new signing Michael Chandler to the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organisation at the event in Abu Dhabi on Sunday (NZ time).
Ranked sixth in what was widely considered the sport’s most stacked weight class, Hooker’s fight would be immediately followed by a main event involving the Irish superstar sitting fourth in those same rankings.
And Conor McGregor, who faced second-ranked Dustin Poirier, said he was definitely interested in the outcome of the co-main event involving one of New Zealand’s best.
“[Hooker and Chandler] are potential future opponents and I’m excited about that. That’s what halted me in 2020; nothing really presented itself,” McGregor said at the pre-fight press conference for the four lightweight division headliners.
“I’m very excited to see how the bout goes in the co-main event; I know the two men know the magnitude of where they are at. That’s going to be an excitement-filled fight. There’s going to be a lot of power thrown.
“I would tell the two gentlemen if there’s any stalling, they should be separating and let the shots fly because there’s a lot at stake here and I wish both men the best of luck.”
For his part, Hooker was well aware of that.
It was, in fact, the exact reason he jumped at an opportunity others are said to have passed up because of their high standing in the division and Chandler’s un-ranked status as a UFC newcomer.
“This is big, this is huge. I can definitely feel it.
“You feel it from the attention it’s getting … being on a McGregor card, the build-up to it just has a feeling that I’ve never felt around any other card.
“I feel like it’s the biggest fight, the biggest opportunity and the biggest show that I’ve ever been in.”
Further stoking the fires of interest in the event is the situation involving reigning lightweight world champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The Russian announced his retirement after his most recent win took his unbeaten record to 29-0.
But he was yet to be stripped of the belt and, after a meeting with Nurmagomedov earlier this week, UFC boss Dana White said the champion could fight one last time if a particular performance got his attention.
Hooker said it would be counter-intuitive to force something special, but was also clear about what could be waiting on the other side of an eye-catching display.
“The work has been done, what is going to play out is going to play out.
“I definitely feel like all you have to do is watch my fights. If anyone is capable of an impressive performance, I think I’m definitely in with a shot.
“Whatever happens after this fight, I know it’s going to be a huge reward because I feel like it’s a huge risk. The guys above me [in the rankings] are only not here because they didn’t want to take the risk.
“I’m flying over here, I’m fighting the new guy, I’m taking months off. Huge risk equals huge reward, whatever that may be. Whether that may be from the main event (McGregor and Poirier) or Khabib, only time will tell.”
All that remained was to convert on that risk.
Something Hooker admitted wouldn’t be easy against an opponent in Chandler who was a former champion of rival organisation Bellator, with wins over two former UFC champions on his record.
But with a substantial height and reach advantage – and the experience of 15 fights in the UFC to his name – the cool, calm and collected Kiwi was confident the match-up was in his favour.
“I bet if [Chandler] could have picked anyone, it wouldn’t have been me,” Hooker said.
“I’m a long, tall guy and my game is built around defending wrestlers. I’m expecting by the end of that first five minutes we’re going to know how this thing’s going to play out.
“I’m expecting him to come at me and I’m expecting a fast start, but I’m not one to back down to a challenge.”
Jamie Wall will be running a blog on the event on the RNZ website from 4pm today