Dan Hooker got a signature win in New Zealand this weekend, his first headlining slot in his home country. It was a hard-fought, back-and-forth split-decision win over Paul Felder in the main event of UFC Auckland on Sunday.
With three consecutive wins, Hooker is in prime position to get another big fight in the UFC’s most stacked division — lightweight. The Kiwi came in ranked No. 5 in the world at 155 pounds by ESPN.
Afterward, Hooker asked for contender Justin Gaethje. Is that the right next bout for Hooker? Or will Gaethje be indisposed with a different foe, one with a high profile? And how about Felder? He said after the tough loss that he might retire. If that doesn’t come to fruition, where does the Philadelphia native go from here?
Here’s one take on who should be next for the UFC Auckland headliners, as well as a pair of dark-horse options.
Who should be next: Justin Gaethje
Hooker asked for Gaethje, so give him Gaethje. The bout does make perfect sense from a lightweight division standpoint. While Gaethje has conceivably earned a title shot, does anyone expect him to wait for the winner between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson? If Nurmagomedov is the victor in that UFC 249 bout April 18, he isn’t expected to fight again until the fall.
All fights from UFC Fight Night: Felder vs. Hooker are available to watch on ESPN+.
• Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker
• Jimmy Crute vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk
• Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Yan Xiaonan
• Ben Sosoli vs. Marcos Rogério de Lima
• Magomed Mustafaev vs. Brad Riddell
• Kevin Aguilar vs. Zubaira Tukhugov
• Jalin Turner vs. Joshua Culibao
• Jake Matthews vs. Emil Meek
• Callan Potter vs. Song Kenan
• Kai Kara-France vs. Tyson Nam
• Loma Lookboonmee vs. Angela Hill
• Priscila Cachoeira vs. Shana Dobson
It’s only February now. And Gaethje isn’t exactly the waiting type. He has not fought since he stopped Donald Cerrone in September. Might as well have Gaethje and Hooker have a Fight of the Year candidate — because of course it would be with these guys — to decide the next No. 1 contender at 155 pounds. Hooker has won three straight and six of seven. He’s an action fighter, a finisher, and has more than earned an opportunity against the division’s best.
Of course, there is one thing that could throw a monkey wrench into these plans. A rather large thing: the presence of Conor McGregor. There is a chance Gaethje fights McGregor next — that is the fight Gaethje and his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, want. But it’s unclear what McGregor’s wishes are, and UFC president Dana White wants to hold him for the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson.
The lightweight division is about to get very, very interesting in the next few months. And now Hooker has put himself right in the thick of it. There’s an Australia pay-per-view event rumored for June, and that would be a really intriguing place to put the emerging Kiwi’s next bout.
Dark horse: Let’s say Gaethje does end up fighting McGregor. What then for Hooker? How about Dustin Poirier? He’s coming off the title loss to Nurmagomedov, and it seems like his bid to fight Nate Diaz has failed. Poirier absolutely remains a top-tier lightweight, and Hooker needs one of those next. Who wouldn’t pay to see those guys go at it?
Who should be next: Al Iaquinta
This fight should have happened already. Twice. It was first booked for UFC 218 in December 2017, but Iaquinta pulled out due to injury. Felder vs. Iaquinta was rebooked for UFC 223 in April 2018 before chaos broke loose.
On that card, the main event was supposed to be Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway for the vacant lightweight title. Holloway, then the featherweight champion, was replacing Ferguson on just a week’s notice after Ferguson injured a knee in a freak accident. The day before the fight, Holloway, known for dropping a ton of weight the week of a fight, had his weight cut stopped by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC). That left the UFC without a main event. Iaquinta was eventually tabbed as the replacement to fight Nurmagomedov. Felder also offered his services, but Iaquinta ended up getting the nod.
Felder was left without an opponent at UFC 223 after the changes. A fight between him and Iaquinta has not been rebooked since then. But now seems as good of a time as any. Felder had his two-fight winning streak snapped Saturday by Hooker, while Iaquinta is also coming off a loss to Hooker. There is also a natural rivalry there, with Iaquinta being from New York and Felder hailing from Philadelphia.
Iaquinta has lost two straight and is discerning in the fights he takes at this point in his career, as he should be. Felder, though, is the kind of opponent who could get a rise out of him. There’s no doubt it would be a fantastic fight, too.
Dark horse: After the tough defeat against Hooker, Felder said that might have been his final fight. If that’s the case, more power to him. Felder has never given less than everything he has in all of his UFC fights. Felder’s manager, Brian Butler, wrote on Instagram that as Felder was transported to a hospital Sunday in New Zealand, he joked that it’s a tradition for him — win or lose, he goes to the hospital after his fights.
Felder also is a broadcast analyst for the UFC. There’s also that acting degree he has, as well as a past career as a critically acclaimed thespian. Felder will be OK no matter what he decides to do next, even if it’s retirement.