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UFC on ESPN 12 this Saturday in Las Vegas wraps up things before the Ultimate Fighting Championship heads off to Fight Island, and it is all about the headliner. This is not an absolutely terrible main draw—Sean Woodson has shown some promise, and Brendan Allen is quickly becoming a prospect to watch—but the matchup on the marquee shines out above everything else. UFC cards typically live or die with their main events, and this is the best one on paper since UFC 249. Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker at their best are two of the lightweight division’s most entertainingly violent fighters. With a bye week to follow, the UFC should go out with the type of bang that will leave fans wanting more.
Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN 12 main card:
LightweightsDustin Poirier (25-6) vs. Dan Hooker (20-8)
ODDS: Poirier (-220), Hooker (+180)
What a difference a fight makes. Heading into UFC 242 in September, Poirier was poised to become the next great man at lightweight, as a decent-sized portion of fans thought he could be the first man to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov. For years, the book on Poirier was that while he was a fun and well-rounded fighter, his willingness to engage in a war would prevent him from getting over the hump as a true contender. Even after moving up to lightweight in 2015, that criticism persisted. While “The Diamond” could hit harder and throw more volume up a weight class, Poirier mostly had success seeking a knockout first and asking questions later. Even as recently as UFC 208 in 2017, he was joking in post-fight interviews that he had come in with a plan, only to abandon it as soon as the opportunity to spark a brawl presented itself. However, Poirier suddenly turned a corner in 2018. The Justin Gaethje of that time was the exact type of violent puzzle box that Poirier previously would have tried to meet head-on. Instead, this version of Poirier fought smart, stayed out of danger as much as possible and eventually picked Gaethje apart on route to a fourth-round stoppage. That began a run of career-best performances for Poirier, as he took apart Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway to set up the title fight with Nurmagomedov. The thought was that Poirier would be able to pressure Nurmagomedov, make the champion uncomfortable and fight back from adversity enough to give the Russian the toughest test of his career. Instead, it was a deflating loss, particularly for Poirier's supporters. Poirier did get Nurmagomedov on his heels at the beginning of the second round, but he was otherwise content to let “The Eagle” have his type of fight, which eventually resulted in a third-round submission. Since then, Poirier’s suddenly gone from ascendant star to the forgotten man in the division, as the spotlight has moved on to fighters like Gaethje, Tony Ferguson and the ever-present Conor McGregor. However, Poirier is still just 31 years of age and should be able to get himself back into those discussions in short order. That all starts here against Hooker.
Hooker’s rise has been a pleasant surprise since not much was expected of “The Hangman” when he arrived. At first, Hooker looked like a token signing. The UFC happened to be running his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, in 2014, and Hooker was one of the better locals available. Hooker acquitted himself well enough and won his debut but otherwise treaded water for a few years at featherweight. Like Poirier, a move up to lightweight turned his career for the better. For his first few bouts at 155 pounds, Hooker’s style was somewhat formless. He flashed some skills here and there, but there was not much of a sense that he was accomplishing anything until sudden finishes of Ross Pearson and Marc Diakiese. Come 2018, Hooker seemingly settled on a pressure style that earned him quick and dominant victories over Jim Miller and Gilbert Burns. Unfortunately, it also earned him an absolute beating against Edson Barboza to cap off the year. Barboza repeatedly teed off on Hooker, who offered little defense while continuing to move forward—until the Brazilian finally caved him in halfway through the third round. There was some worry that this was the type of career-altering loss that would cause Hooker to fall off a proverbial cliff, but after taking a few months off, the Kiwi picked up where he left off and looked better than ever. James Vick was unable to handle Hooker’s similarly long frame, but the City Kickboxing standout had his true breakout performances against Al Iaquinta and Paul Felder. Hooker’s length and newfound willingness to fight from distance completely neutralized Iaquinta and led to a ton of success against Felder. Hooker took his lumps, but between hitting Felder from range and holding his own in the clinch, he managed to get the narrow decision for the biggest win of his career. With that victory, Hooker is suddenly in position to credibly face the lightweight elite, and possibly join them by beating Poirier.
This is Poirier’s fight to lose and essentially comes down to how many of the problems that he had in the Nurmagomedov fight were specific to that style matchup—or, more specifically, about the aura that Nurmagomedov exudes inside the cage. Again, Poirier’s path to victory in that fight was to apply pressure, and despite succeeding when he did so, he was mostly content to back himself up and lead Nurmagomedov into taking over the fight. While this is obviously a much different style matchup, the basic fact remains the same: If Poirier pressures, he should win. Hooker looks to have settled into a nice approach, starting with his range kickboxing game and relying on his clinch if his opponent decides to close the distance. While Iaquinta and Felder are solidly Top 10 lightweights, they are nowhere near as quick as Poirier, who can just blow up Hooker’s game if he stays aggressive early and often. Hooker has said in the leadup to this fight that Poirier is nowhere near as durable as Felder. That might be true, but Poirier has only gotten starched by fighters with extremely quick hands, which certainly does not describe Hooker. Poirier’s win over Holloway serves as a template here. Even if Hooker might be a harder shot-for-shot hitter, which is debatable, Poirier just kept bringing the pain once he realized that he would get the better of every exchange. That should be the case against Hooker, too. Even if Hooker can land, Poirier is much more effective at landing combinations, so attritional damage should favor Poirier as the American keeps hitting more and more shots. Hooker should keep fighting back, but as was the case in the Barboza fight, there is going to be a point where the damage is too much. The pick is Poirier via third-round stoppage.
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