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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will visit Auckland, New Zealand, for the first time in nearly three years, as Paul Felder locks horns with Dan Hooker in the UFC Fight Night 168 main event. While the headliners have drawn an overwhelming majority of the attention, stakes are high across the board.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?
Paul Felder: Having won his last five fights that have taken place at 155 pounds, “The Irish Dragon” heads into his first UFC main event with more momentum than ever. Currently ranked sixth in the lightweight division, Felder could conceivably transition from fan favorite to true contender with an impressive victory. Though he prefers to strike, the former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder would be wise to look for takedowns against Hooker, at which point he can posture up in top control and land the kind of heavy elbows that paved the way to his last three finishes. Felder finds himself knocking on the door to becoming a more regular featured attraction.
Dan Hooker: “The Hangman” has just as much to gain from his first headlining assignment as Felder does. As it stands, Hooker is 6-1 since he moved up to the lightweight division, and after back-to-back wins against James Vick and Al Iaquinta, it could be argued that his stock has never been higher. The City Kickboxing standout is currently ranked seventh in the UFC lightweight rankings, and a third consecutive victory might see him cross the threshold from prospect to contender. Hooker is a proven finisher, and whether it be through a well-timed guillotine or a check knee, he is ready to seal the deal wherever the fight goes. Hooker has made it clear that he plans to stand with Felder, as he believes he has a better chance of landing a knockout blow across 25 minutes on the feet.
Angela Hill: “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 20 alum has made the most of an abundance of short-notice opportunities and now looks to break into 115-pound rankings, as she hunts for a third consecutive win in her sixth outing in 11 months. Hill has been an above-average striker from the moment she set foot in the Octagon, but her growth as an overall mixed martial artist has been a treat to watch over the past few years. With added experience and more activity, Hill has transformed herself into a surprising dark horse in the women’s strawweight division. How much higher can she climb?
WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Jim Crute: Lofty expectations were placed on the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate after Crute kicked off his UFC career with consecutive finishes. However, his momentum was halted by a submission loss to Misha Cirkunov—the first setback of the 23-year-old’s career. While Crute remains one of the most promising up-and-comers in the light heavyweight division, he finds himself in an unforgiving sport where a second straight defeat would stunt the hype he has worked so hard to create. His keys to victory? Distance control and grappling. Opponent Michal Oleksiejczuk is a dangerous striker but tends to fade late in fights. If Crute can outlast the aggressive Pole until the second and third rounds and go to work with his grappling, then he can erase the stench of his first career loss and get back to trying to reach his goal of becoming a Top 15 light heavyweight by the end of 2020.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz: Once considered one of the brightest young contenders in the women’s strawweight division, Kowalkiewicz has compiled a 2-7 record across her last nine appearances—an unexpected fall from grace made all the more surprising by the fact that she started her UFC career with three straight wins. Now on a three-fight losing streak, the 34-year-old is almost certainly on her last leg with the promotion unless she can find her way to victory. UFC matchmakers did her no favors: She has been booked opposite Xiaonan Yan, a woman who has won all four of her fights inside the Octagon. Kowalkiewicz’s best bet involves trying to lure the Chinese prospect into grappling exchanges, as Yan figures to seek out a firefight on the feet. The Pole’s absence of fight-finishing power and lack of aggression could get her in trouble on the scorecards in a prolonged standup battle.
Jake Matthews: Since he moved from 155 pounds to the welterweight division, Matthews has performed exceptionally well—a fact to which his 4-1 record there can attest. However, his confrontation with Emil Meek represents a significant obstacle if he wants to continue to climb the ladder. Still just 25 years of age, Matthews has been in the UFC for nearly six years; and while has always had potential, he has come up short whenever he appears to be closing in on a breakout moment. A victory over Meek would offer “The Celtic Kid” additional momentum as he works toward the Top 15 at 170 pounds. Matthews figures to be the vastly superior grappler, so the quicker he can close the distance against the powerful Norwegian, the better off he will be.