LightweightsDan Hooker (18-8) vs. Al Iaquinta (14-5-1)
ODDS: Hooker (-160), Iaquinta (+140)
Sometimes part of success is just showing up in the right place at the right time, and that was certainly the case for Iaquinta. The Long Islander spent a few years establishing himself as a top lightweight prospect, but after early 2015, it was hard to tell exactly where he stood in the overall pecking order of a deep division. A combination of injuries, an ongoing feud with UFC management and a focus on his real estate business led Iaquinta to only have one fight in a three-year stretch from 2015-18; and given that the lone bout was a quick starching of late-career Diego Sanchez, it did not say a whole lot. Iaquinta was finally set to return at UFC 223 against Paul Felder, but the chain of late changes to that card left Iaquinta as the best choice to face Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event for the lightweight title. That bout ended in a one-sided decision win for Nurmagomedov, but Iaquinta survived and had his moments, which was seemingly enough to establish him as an upper-tier name at 155 pounds. Since then, Iaquinta has had two more headlining affairs. He looked good in a win against Kevin Lee, but a loss to Donald Cerrone laid bare a lot of issues with Iaquinta’s style. He has skill, but he is a bit plodding as a wrestle-boxer, and once Cerrone managed to establish his power from range, Iaquinta did not do much in terms of pressuring or putting his stamp on the fight. Iaquinta will always have a bit of cult favorite status, but in order to keep his standing as a viable main eventer and a potential title contender once again, he badly needs a win here against Hooker.
It has been an impressive run for Hooker, especially since his signing initially looked like little more than the UFC trying to find a local standout for its debut card in Auckland, New Zealand. Hooker made a successful debut on that card against Ian Entwistle and from there set off on an inconsistent featherweight campaign. Hooker came up as a grappler on a wrestling-sparse Anzac scene, and to his credit, “The Hangman” quickly realized he had to adapt his style. It took him some time to find something coherent. Hooker had enough dynamism to score enough finishes to stay on the roster, but his lack of defined fighting style and absence of high-level athleticism quickly gave him a ceiling and forced him to move up to 155 pounds. Since then, everything has clicked for Hooker, as he is no longer at such a defined speed disadvantaged and has developed a pressure striking game that has allowed him to run through some strong competition. The athleticism questions still remain, however, particularly after his December bout against Edson Barboza. Pressure fighters typically give the Brazilian a ton of trouble, but Hooker just found himself stepping into damage that eventually cascaded into one of the most brutal beatings of 2018. Thankfully, Hooker showed no ill effects from that fight in a quick win over James Vick in July, and he will look to re-establish himself as a contender with the biggest win of his career against Iaquinta.
This should be an excellent fight either way, but it will be an interesting test for Hooker, since he has shown the skills -- if not necessarily the approach -- to win this one. Hooker is quite the lanky lightweight, and while he is more plodding than Cerrone, he could follow a similar game plan: establish his power early and use his considerable range advantage to keep Iaquinta at bay and slowly rack up damage. However, the pressure style on which Hooker seems to have finally settled might neutralize a lot of those advantages; if Hooker brings the fight to Iaquinta and looks to exchange, Iaquinta does seem like the sharper and more powerful boxer. With that said, Hooker has cycled through enough styles and looks to fight intelligently enough that he is the pick here to fight against type and score the win. Plus, there is also the threat of Hooker’s submission game. There was a run of Iaquinta fights where the New Yorker would get himself nearly submitted, and while he has seemingly gotten that out of his system, Hooker is tricky enough on the mat that he could find the Serra-Longo Fight Team standout’s neck if the two start to wrestle. Despite that chance of a finish, the pick is for Hooker to stay measured and earn a decision win.
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