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UFC Auckland: Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker Toe-to-Toe Preview – A complete breakdown

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Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker headlines UFC Auckland this February 22, 2020 at the Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand.

One sentence summary

David: When good men do nothing [but hurt each other]

Phil: Kiwi Smoothie vs Fight Milk

Stats

Record: Paul Felder 17-4 | Dan Hooker 19-8

Odds: Paul Felder +140 | Dan Hooker -150

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: Felder has carved out a nice niche for himself: fresh-faced commentator, and battle-worn creative pugilist. He hasn’t made a ton of noise, but he hasn’t been silent either. Although I have to admit…on the commentary side of things I don’t really notice him in the booth. I think that’s probably an, improvement (?), over the standards we’re used to; over verbal fluff like BIG RIGHT HAND and “the Michael Jordan of BJJ” (or Cormier’s “who has even beat these guys?! Nobody! That’s how good they are!” preamble to Usman vs. Covington). Like most fighters in the booth, the moments of insider knowledge are typically offset by randomness and ‘unprofessionalism,’ which, to be fair, is usually limited to “well when I fought him, I didn’t fall for that bullshit’. It’s been awhile since he’s legitimately lost, so this is a legit, fun fight for the whole family.

Phil: Felder has been great fun. Back when he came on the UFC scene a few meme KOs (notably the spinning backfist on Danny Castillo) got him thrown into some absolutely brutal matchups, including Francisco Trinaldo and Edson Barboza. In a similar way to Mike Perry, Felder was a somewhat formless but iron-tough brawler who had to figure out how he was going to fight. We’ve seen a few developments (Grappler Felder and his newest incarnation, Pressure Brawler Felder) along the way, but as you mentioned the most welcome one has to be his stint as a commentator for the UFC. He combines solid technical nuance with a visceral love for violence which makes him the best fighter-booth crossover since Brian Stann.

David: Hooker’s been on a solid upward trajectory. Before, we knew him as the fun, sacrificial lamb who survived one of those Rube Goldberg, blood machines from Saw (i.e. Barboza). Now he’s got a little momentum after putting James Vick in the dirt, and then outpointing the UFC’s licensed real estate agent. His status is just simmering rather than boiling. I don’t expect Hooker to turn into a dramatic presence in the division, but he’s improved enough that a dramatic win over Felder could be strong smoke signals that there’s a possible fire.

Phil: Like Felder, Hooker has been an object lesson in what it takes to develop as a young fighter if thrown headfirst into the UFC. Primarily, freakish physical and mental toughness. As an enormous featherweight he found himself getting into drag-out fights with guys like Maximo Blanco and getting clobbered by Yair Rodriguez. The nadir was probably getting walked down and beaten up by Jason Knight. For someone who seemed so wedded to being a tall man fighter, the move to lightweight seemed like it would be a rough one. But here we are, with Hooker on the brink of, if not contention, then moving into that Poirier / Gaethje-type space.

What’s at stake?

David: I mean…come on. There’s no bad blood. Just good ole’ fashioned bromancing of the stone. Staredowns like this highlight the UFC’s dumbass routine of making a big deal out of even the smallest grudges. Let’s see something actively must-watch. Like Super Chexx Bubble Hockey tournament winner must throw a three-piece 10 seconds before the end of each round (?). I’m sick of these group therapy sessions that are as interesting as the character arc of a human in a Transformer movie.

Phil: I will say, I did enjoy that moment when Hooker called out Felder after he won. It seemed genuine in a way in which the aforementioned beef is clearly not. Both of them recognized that calling out the guy interviewing you in your post-fight isn’t exactly the typical way to do these things, but they handled it well. Some might call it transactional but I enjoyed it. It felt… honest.

Where do they want it?

David: Early on, Felder developed a reputation he never earned: “Irish kickboxer out for blood, and in for justice!” Like an action movie that ended up being more of a Shakespearean plot involving family ties than a Van Damme crowd-pleaser. His game was based around a blue-collar shell with some abstract spice. He was never overly aggressive, which hampered him against more technical opponents (like Pearson and Barboza), and he was never overly technical, which hampered him against less dynamic opponents, like Perry and Trinaldo. Felder’s issue was always an issue of minding the gap. Closing the distance is not just about being in a position to hit back. It’s about being in a position to transition, counter, attack, counterattack, defend, identify time and space, etc. Nobody’s ever ready to jump into a frying pan — unless you’re this awesome guy — but if there’s no reward, at least you can mitigate the risk. Felder was never comfortable with that (a tradeoff to the cost of trying to setup spinning attacks, which require more time, and stricter positioning), but lately he’s been able to establish more of a flow to his attack, using clinch entries, and Means To An End-style grappling to work more offense into his pressure attack. Before it was just a peak-a-boo assault. Beating the overrated Vick would have meant nothing, except that he avenged his loss to Barboza, which does. We’ll see how much of Felder’s recent success is true evolution, and how much is just stylistic adjustments.

Phil: Both of these men, as mentioned, have been through some changes. Felder started off his UFC career as a plodding mid-range kickboxer with a penchant for spinning shit. In his early fight against Edson Barboza, he tried to just trade with Barboza at range, and got worn down by a diet of mid and low kicks, including one of the gnarliest spinning back kicks to the dick I can remember in this sport. The true limits of this style was exposed by Pearson and Trinaldo, who drew him onto counter shots and left him grimacing and beckoning them on in the face of a growing points deficit. After this, he started to develop into something of a sneaky grappler: chasing people down, locking them up in the clinch and then either dumping them on the mat or clubbing them with elbows. Recently we’ve seen a rough synergy between the new and the old: marrying the clinch game with forward movement and effective pressure, more punch-kick combinations. He’ll always be a bit of a plodder, and he’ll never lose that love for spinning backfists, but Paul Felder is a legit threat to every type of opponent now.

David: On the surface, Hooker seems like your basic modern kickboxer. He can kick dangerously, and punch dangerously — voila! A kickboxer! And that’s basically true. But I think what helps his game grow into more than the sum of its parts. It’s worth noting that Hooker was an MMA coach before he even stepped foot into the cage. His kickboxing background, combined with the fact that he competed in submission grappling during that time speak to his ability to think beyond the mechanics of what offense. His striking reveals a lot of those Spider Senses: the way he’s able to prepare combinations ‘in transit’ , weaving offense underneath and around opponents. His striking is a little like a Tool song: filled with odd time signatures despite what feels like a standard rhythm on the surface. Like Tool, it doesn’t always work, but there’s just enough nuance to his game to make him more than some milquetoast action fighter.

Phil: Hooker’s own transformation has taken him from a clinch and takedown guy, to a range kicker, to a remarkably calm and accurate counter puncher. Throughout, he’s been saved by an inhuman level of durability, and by being one of the most opportunistic finishers around. Seriously, look at the man’s record. Iaquinta was the first win which wasn’t a finish in his entire UFC career. As mentioned, he’s a “tall man” stylist, of the approximate Rothwell / Rumble type. Heavy on the front foot, he leans into a probing jab or calf kick, and leans slightly back to counter what comes back with accurate jabs and hooks from that base. Like Rothwell it does open him up to a body and leg attack (see: Barboza, Edson) but against shorter opponents who look for level changes, he has a nasty array of tools, all of which have polished off at least one decent opponent: the step knee claimed Pearson, the uppercut took out Burns, and the snap down and choke subs finished Diakiese.

Insight from past fights

David: I think of the Vick fight. But only to see Vick get knocked out. Otherwise, I think Felder vs. Vick is a surprisingly good place to look. It’s telling that even with Felder’s more active pressure game, he still wasn’t able to quite find that extra gear against a fighter as chinny and awkward as Vick. I think it says a lot about Felder’s ability to switch-hit: making the most of his first sequence of his attack without losing momentum on the last sequence. The fact that even someone like Vick could use his reach to his advantage, and avoid damage in large portions says about Hooker’s prospects to manage the punch entries.

Phil: From the MMAth perspective this is an easy one. While I don’t think that Felder actually beat Barboza in their second fight, he made it a physical ruckus and did about as well as I think he could. Conversely, Hooker had confidence in his handsy, mid-range game and got torn to pieces. With that being said, I’m not sure if I believe in the MMAth though: Felder isn’t the mid-range threat that Barboza is by any means, and his pressure is learned rather than instinctive. It is also notable that he ate a ton of punches in the early going against Barboza, and Edson is rather feather-fisted in comparison to Hooker.

X-Factors

David: Two professionals. Zero fuss. Great sweater games.

Phil: Not much. I will say, City Kickboxing has to be in contention for the best gym in the world right now, no? They currently hold two of the best belts in the sport at Middleweight and Featherweight. I’ve been impressed with their gameplanning.

Prognostication

David: It’s a close one. I like Felder’s broad ability to attrition war with a style we don’t typically associate as a means to nickel and dime your way to victory. And therein lies the rub. You can nickel and dime your way to victory with a good job, strong takedowns, or whatever invisible juice Jon Jones has with the judges, but with an abstract midrange game, clinchwork, and violent spinning attacks in the interim? I don’t see it. Especially against a fighter like Hooker, who is tough, cerebral, and who has a style that can play nip-tuck to victory. Dan Hooker by Decision.

Phil: Should be a fantastic scrap with clear paths to victory for both men. Hooker is the cleaner counterpuncher, but has been outkicked on multiple occasions. Felder is less of an effective finisher, but has a more brutal and physical game. Both men are absurdly tough, so a finish is going to be tough to conjure up. In general I do like Hooker to get some early offense going, and to just be able to land more cleanly and with more power in a fight which has the potential to be the best we’ve seen in 2020 thus far. Dan Hooker by unanimous decision.



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