The Happy Hangman: A Q&A with Kiwi UFC Rising Star Dan Hooker
© Matt Roberts-USA TODAY Sports
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The Happy Hangman: A Q&A with Kiwi UFC Rising Star Dan Hooker

"I don’t really have time to think about sitting on my porch with my cigar and telling my grandkids about how I used to be a bad-ass."
June 5, 2017, 7:56pm

Combat sports are full of strange and unlikely arcs in fortune, but the rise of Kiwi mixed martial artist Dan Hooker to the ranks of the UFC certainly makes him one of sport's true feel-good stories.

Hooker - a.k.a. 'The Hangman' - learnt a lot of his early skills from YoutTubing fights and training videos, before he scrapped his way to a 10-4 MMA fight record in New Zealand, and around the Pacific Rim, between 2009 and 2013.

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With the first UFC event announced in Auckland for June the following year, the Auckland featherweight - largely thanks to through a grassroots Kiwi social media campaign - made himself known to the UFC's big names and secured a spot on the card.

With a comprehensive first-round TKO, Hooker would beat Ian Entwistle in UFC Fight Night 43 and become just the fifth New Zealand born fight to make the UFC's ranks, after James Te Huna, Mark Hunt, Dylan Andrews and Robert Whittaker.

Since then, Hooker - now 27 - has compiled a 3-3 record and secured a US$50,000 Performance of the Night bonus at UFC Fight Night 65 in Adelaide on May 10, 2015.

'The Hangman' has trained around the world since devoting himself to the sport, spending significant time with Elevation in Denver in the United States, Vietnam - and a year with Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand before moving home six months ago.

Hooker now trains at City Kickboxing in Auckland. He admits costs are a bit more in the infamously expensive Kiwi city - "living expenses have shot up a bit, but it just means you've got to work harder" - but believes his approach and preparation to fighting has never been better.

We'll find out for sure this Sunday, when Hooker - now a lightweight - takes on English veteran Ross Pearson at UFC Fight Night 110 at Auckland's Spark Arena (formerly Vector).

An interview with Dan Hooker from his former training team, Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. Source: Tiger Muay Thai/Youtube.

Outside the Octagon, Hooker is one of the most open, affable blokes you'll likely find in the UFC. His passion for all things MMA is infectious, as is his quest for becoming the most possible version of himself as a fighter.You can tell Hooker is a man who truly loves what he does.

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VICE Sport AUNZ caught up with 'The Hangman' recently, and talked about his search for perfection, his admiration for Mark Hunt - and why he doesn't plan on being an old man smoking cigars talking about the old days, any time soon.

Gidday, Dan. You've made the move to New Zealand after training and living abroad for the most of the last two years. What's it like being based back here again?

"It was the best decision I've ever made, coming home. Training is amazing, and the team is phenomenal. The coaches are great and so are the training partners. I've got that 100 per cent confidence in my team and training I'm doing.

"It's just as good here as anywhere else I've been. That's in full knowledge of having seen what is out there globally, too. It's not like a false sense of confidence. It's backed up, because I've seen it myself."

It's nearly three years since you made your UFC debut, in Auckland, in 2014. How do you reflect back on that night, now?

"A lot of people, for this fight and throughout my career, have followed me pretty close since that night. They comment on what that moment meant to them, and it's a bit weird.

"It was a big moment for me, but I don't spend too much time reflecting because I have so many more goals I want to accomplish. I don't really have time to think about sitting on my porch with my cigar and telling my grandkids about how I used to be a bad-ass.

"A lot of other people have so much riding on this; friends, family, supporters, team, sponsors. It's everyone around me – it's not purely for me. It gives everyone in New Zealand something to be proud of, when they see a homegrown boy who started here and came up here, succeeding in the UFC."

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Your path to the UFC was a bit of a grassroots, underdog story that was helped by social media. How do you reflect on that now?

"It was definitely the New Zealand public that got me across the line. I put up my hand and said 'hey, I'm the best Kiwi out there right now. If the UFC is coming along and putting on a show, I need to be on this card.'

"I put that out there, and everyone jumped on it and supported me 100 per cent. The people got it done, more than anything. It shows the power that New Zealand MMA fans have. It made me realize how massive the sport is here in New Zealand – it's huge.

"It's becoming such a mainstream sport. This fight night coming up is our second [UFC] event. Huge cities and countries with much larger populations have not had the attention that the UFC provides to New Zealand."

SInce his first fight in the UFC in June 2014, Hooker has compiled a 3-3 record. Photo credit: © Matt Roberts-USA TODAY Sports.

With Mark Hunt, Luke Jumeau and yourself on the card this weekend, that's a record number of Kiwis in a UFC event. Do you feel like the sport is on the march here?

"Yes, it is. To be honest, I've noticed that more so with the support and attention. If I compare the attention we got with my first in the UFC to this one, it's polar opposites.

"Now there's TVNZ and all these big media companies jockeying, trying to get the UFC's attention and interviews – trying to be the first ones in. I remember we had a press conference for the last one [in 2014] and only a handful of people were there.

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"Me and Mark did one the other week, and there was people everywhere. There was a bunch people, cameras and TV crews. I was kind of in awe of the attention, compared to the first one."

Kiwi MMA legend Mark Hunt is at the top of the card in Auckland this Saturday. As a fellow New Zealander, what does his career and legacy in the UFC mean to you?

"Long before the UFC, I was a fan of Mark Hunt. To me, he was a big star before he stepped foot inside the Octagon. Jamie was the first, but Mark's success has been a big hand [for the sport in New Zealand].

"Just to see someone keeping on that level is such an eye opener. It completely opened my eyes. Coming from a small country in the middle of nowhere where people fight on basketball courts and down at the YMCA, to see someone competing and having success at the highest level of the sport, was like a Eureka moment for me.

"I thought it was possible. If he could do it, I could too. I just hope I can follow his footsteps and get the same level of success."

You've got three years and six fights under the belt in the UFC now. What are some of the biggest lessons you've learnt about the UFC in that time?

"With every fight, there's been so much growth. Not only as a fighter, but as an athlete. Everything that surrounds this sport like how much you want it and how much you put into training – it's so professional.

"In training, I was always a professional. But it takes so much more than that to compete at the highest level in the UFC. You have to be perfect and you have to be hungry.

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"I could write a twenty chapter book on the developments I have made throughout my time in the UFC, but I'm looking at it like I've got so much more to show. I think I've shown one tenth of my ability inside the UFC Octagon.

"It's so exciting for me. I'm looking to get more and more opportunities to showcase more and more of my talent on that big stage."

After training for teams in USA, VIetnam and Thailand, Hooker now bases himself in Auckland. Photo credit: © Matt Roberts-USA TODAY Sports.

I read in an interview that you said your goal was to be the smartest, most intelligent fighter in the UFC. Expand on what you meant there.

"It was more that I was aiming for perfection. I'm not trying to say I'm the smartest fighter, but I'm saying that, in this sport, you have to aim for perfection.

"Any elite level sportsman aims for perfection. You look at golf. You are really trying to get a hole in one every time, but that's not how the game goes. You have to aim for that perfection.

"That's what I was trying to get at. I'm trying to get perfect in this sport. It's something you're never going to achieve, but that's what draws me to it."

Your passion for MMA is pretty much famous amongst the ranks of the sport in New Zealand. It seems like it's more like an entire lifestyle than a sport for you – is that about right?

"I'm in love with this sport. I'm in love with everything around this sport. I follow every event. I watch the Russian shows, the English shows, the shows in South Africa – I'm always watching fights.

"You can just learn constantly in this game. You have to be ever-evolving. You have to be picking things up from everywhere. It's constant growth and development in every aspect of the sport.

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"The word 'obsession' has been thrown around, and I agree wholly with it. But it's more combat sports, in general. I'll watch boxing, jiu jitsu, judo if that's on – anything and any aspect of martial arts as a whole."

You're fighting Ross Pearson on Saturday. What do you know about him, and what is your plan to defeat him?

"I've seen Ross' career from early on. I remember watching him on Ultimate Fighter and he was just destroying guys on there. No one could touch him.

"He's had like 23 or 24 fights in the UFC and so I can go back and watch all that film now. I see what he's done – and there's a huge amount of respect for what he's achieved in the sport.

"It's just a massive honour [to fight him] and opportunity moving forward. Watching the film, I can only prepare for the hardest fight of my life. He's an elite level guy. Even his last fight against Will Brooks – I watched it again and believe he should have won that fight.

"Jorge Masvidal – a massive fight at short notice and he went three rounds – wow, man. This guy has still got it and he's still one of the best in the world. I'm prepared for the hardest fight of my life, and what will be will be when we step into the Octagon."

Where do you think the line is between success and failure in MMA? It's such a demanding sport – how have you made it work?

"It's a fine line in this sport. It's razor thin between getting your hand raised, and waking up inside the Octagon. You can only do your best. A big part of this sport is timing and opportunity.

"I truly believe I only reach this stage because I stuck it out longer than everyone else who was around. If you look at my generation in New Zealand of fighters coming through, I don't believe I was the most talented, or best, fighter. But I just kept doing it, and kept improving.

"Now those guys aren't here, and I am. Purely because I stuck at it, and I think I love it more than them."