Hooker beats Felder by split decision in Auckland

Dan Hooker kissed his daughter, hugged his wife, Isabella, and went down the front row embracing his teammates. As he walked toward backstage, he let out two loud roars.

With a badly swollen jaw late in a pivotal career fight, Hooker was able to stave off an incredibly game Paul Felder with a split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47) victory in the main event of UFC Auckland on Sunday. Hooker, an Auckland native, was one of the first Kiwis to rise to prominence in the UFC. And now he has a headlining victory on his home soil that will help him further climb up the UFC’s lightweight ladder.

“I’ll defend this land, no matter what the cost,” Hooker said.

Two judges gave Felder the last two rounds. But Hooker was able to do enough early, nearly shutting Felder’s right eye with punches and bloodying his nose, to hang on for the win. Hooker won the first two rounds on two cards and the third on two cards, as well.

It was an extremely close fight and a decision some might dispute considering Felder’s strong finish. Moreover, it was perhaps the best fight of the year so far in the UFC, a war from the first bell. Both men threw their best shots and absorbed the best blows of their opponent in a back-and-forth, violent battle. For a fight that was billed as one between two action fighters, it delivered in every conceivable way.

Afterward, Felder said in his postfight interview with analyst Dan Hardy that he is considering retirement, citing constantly having to leave his young daughter, Arizona.

“That might be it for me,” Felder said. “Man, I got a 4-year-old at home that misses me every time I go away like this.”

Hooker, meanwhile, was thinking ahead to his next bout. He called out Justin Gaethje, one of the top lightweights in the world — and one of the most exciting.

“I want the battle of the highlight reel,” Hooker said. “I want Justin Gaethje next. Let’s go!”

Hooker started off strong in the first round with counters. Felder pushed ahead constantly, but Hooker was able to keep him on the end of his punches and leg kicks for the most part. By the end of the first round, Felder’s right eye was nearly swollen shut. And in the second, Felder was bleeding from his nose.

That’s not to say Felder didn’t have his moments — he did. In the second, he stunned Hooker with a spinning back fist. In a very close third, Felder and Hooker went back and forth like rock ’em, sock ’em robots with punching combinations, leg kicks and knees.

The fourth is when Felder began to take over. He wobbled Hooker with a one-two combination and landed a sharp elbow against the cage after stuffing a Hooker takedown. Hooker’s jaw began to swell badly in the fourth. In the fifth, Felder did more damage with right hands. But Hooker was able to get him down finally and take his back briefly.

“I knew it was close,” Felder said. “I hurt him a lot in the fight, but he got the takedown.”

In total, Hooker outlanded Felder in significant strikes 122-110, according to UFC Stats. Both of those marks are career highs for each fighter.

Hooker (20-8) has won three in a row and seven of his past eight fights. The City Kickboxing product is tied for the most wins in the lightweight division since the start of 2017 (7) with Charles Oliveira. Hooker, 30, is 7-1 since moving up to lightweight from featherweight in 2017. He entered as ESPN’s No. 8-ranked lightweight

Felder (17-5) came in ranked No. 4 at lightweight by ESPN. The Philadelphia native had a two-fight winning streak and five-fight winning streak at lightweight snapped. Felder, 34, has gone to split decision in three of his past four fights.

“It was an honor [to fight Paul Felder],” Hooker said. “He’s a tough son of a gun. I enjoyed myself.”