The moment was not too big for Dan Hooker, and he emptied his tank to prove it.
The City Kickboxing standout continued his unlikely climb to contention in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s cutthroat lightweight division, as he eked out a split decision over Paul Felder in the UFC Fight Night 168 main event on Saturday at Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand. All three judges scored it 48-47: Howard Hughes and David Lethaby for Hooker, Barry Foley for Felder. It was as hotly contested as the scorecards indicated. Hooker outstruck the former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder in the first, third and fifth rounds, zapped his mobility with a sustained barrage of kicks to the lower leg and executed a pivotal takedown late in the fifth round. Still, both men had a legitimate claim to victory. Felder wobbled “The Hangman” with a straight right in the fourth round and staggered him again in the fifth.
In the aftermath of UFC Fight Night “Felder vs. Hooker,” here are five matches that ought to be made:
Dan Hooker vs. Dustin Poirier: Hooker has rattled off three consecutive victories—wins over James Vick and “The Ultimate Fighter 15” finalist Al Iaquinta preceded his encounter with Felder—since he was on the receiving end of a brutal beatdown from Edson Barboza in December 2018. The 30-year-old now finds himself in position to target the elite fighters who populate the top shelf at 155 pounds. Hooker’s loss to Barboza remains a concern, but the 14 months that have passed and the Aussie’s subsequent appearances should have eased any apprehension for matchmakers. Poirier has not fought since he submitted to a rear-naked choke from reigning lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in September.
Jim Crute vs. Ion Cutelaba-Magomed Ankalaev winner: Knowing the dangers associated with exchanging punches with Polish knockout artist Michal Oleksiejczuk, Crute executed his grappling-centric game plan to perfection. The promising Dana White’s Contender Series alum struck for eight takedowns, wore down Oleksiejczuk with his persistence and submitted him with a kimura 3:29 into the first round of their co-headliner. Crute, 23, has the look of a future contender in a light heavyweight division largely devoid of young talent. Cutelaba and Ankalaev will lock horns at UFC Fight Night 169 on Feb. 29 in Norfolk, Virginia.
Xiaonan Yan vs. Carla Esparza-Michelle Waterson winner: Yan used former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz as a steppingstone, as she tore into her with blistering combinations, mixed in five takedowns and cruised to a lopsided unanimous decision in a three-round women’s strawweight showcase. All three judges scored it 30-26 for the China Top Team export. Yan tripled Kowalkiewicz in the total strikes landed (157-51) and significant strikes landed (93-38) departments, leaving the former KSW champion with visible damage to both eyes. Esparza has been booked opposite Waterson at UFC Fight Night 172 on April 11.
Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Greg Hardy-Yorgan De Castro winner: In a main-card heavyweight confrontation that never felt competitive, Rogerio de Lima cut down an overzealous Ben Sosoli with punches 88 seconds into the first round. The Brazilian dropped Sosoli to all fours with a clean right hook, then finished the job with a standing-to-ground left to the head that prompted referee Neil Swailes to act. It was the 13th first-round stoppage of Rogerio de Lima’s 24-fight career. The American Top Team-trained Hardy on March 28 will face Yorgan De Castro at UFC on ESPN 8 in Columbus, Ohio.
Brad Riddell vs. Drew Dober: Riddell extended his winning streak to five fights and improved to 8-1 overall, as he took a split decision from Magomed Mustafaev in a three-round lightweight feature. The 28-year-old City Kickboxing representative withstood eight takedowns from Mustafaev, floored the Russian with a straight right in the first round and rocked him again with a right hook in the third. Riddell outlanded his counterpart by a 31-to-6 margin across the final five minutes, putting his stamp on the bout. Dober lifted his stock to an all-time high with back-to-back finishes of Marco Polo Reyes and Nasrat Haqparast in a little more than two minutes combined. The Elevation Fight Team rep owns an 8-5 record in the UFC.