The UFC returns to New Zealand this Saturday and we find ourselves with a barnburner lightweight matchup with divisional implications in the main event. Auckland´s own Dan “The Hangman” Hooker meets Paul “The Irish Dragon” Felder in one of the most anticipated bouts of the year among hardcore fans. The winner of this matchup will undeniably receive a top 5 opponent in his next fight in which will undeniably be a non official title eliminator given the current state of the division.

After alternating wins and losses during a six fight stint in the featherweight division, Dan Hooker has been on a tear since moving up to lightweight which fits him much better due to his huge frame. He is big even for lightweight. He enters this matchup on a two fight winning streak, going 6-1 overall at 155 pounds with the only setback coming at the hands of Edson Barboza, where Hooker´s questionable gameplan of fighting the Brazilian at range early cost him dearly and evaporated his chances in the fight. Whe he realised he needed to be on Edson´s face to succeed his legs had already been battered and he proceeded to take one of the biggest beatings of the year as a stationary target. He has finished Ross Pearson, Marck Diakase, Gilbert Burns, James Miller and James Vick as a lightweight, with only Al Iaquinta going the 3 round distance with him, being close to getting stopped himself too.

Philadelphia´s Paul Felder is exactly what you would expect out of a Philly fighter. Though as nails, took him a while to establish his name in the division after a slow start. He suffered losses to Edson Barboza and Ross Pearson after the infamous Danny Castillo spinning knockout. Won his next two only to get stopped via cut induced TKO against Brazilian Francisco Trinaldo. However, he has managed to produce a 5-1 record in his last 6 fights, going 5-0 at lightweight with the only loss coming at 170 pounds, taking a short notice fight against savage fan favourite Mike Perry. In his last two fights he beat James Vick from pillar to post destroying his front leg and then won a split decision in a rematch against Edson Barboza which was surrounded by controversy. This writer has the opinion Felder clearly took two rounds at least and the decision should have been unanimous.

Both these guys are strikers at core, and both can be dangerous on the matt in their particular ways specially from top position. Dan Hooker´s bread and butter is using his long frame and kickboxing ability to lure opposition into the type of fight he prefers, which is an averaged paced striking match where he can play with his best weapons, his long and educated jab, his straight right which comes out as a piston and is deadly on the counter, and his low calf kick. Add to that an uncanny ability to shoot knees up the middle with excellent timing and a sick guillotine choke to honour his “Hangman” nickname that combine to deter opponents from even thinking about changing levels. Hooker´s insane will and solid chin combine with all his technical skills to produce a very dangerous lightweight and a proficient finisher that will walk through hell if needed looking for his next victim.

The best way of describing Paul Felder´s fighting style would be violent. He will walk towards you and start using his fine kickboxing, always improving under the expert eye of Duke Roufus. He has a strong leg kicking game and focuses on short combinations upstairs, throwing powerful hooks and a solid 1-2 from his closed guard. Where the Philly fighter gets really nasty is with his elbows, wether it is during or exiting the clinch, in intercepting form or from top position. He demolished Stevie Ray and Charles Oliveira with ground and pound elbows in sequences that were almost hard to watch. Felder is also well known for his spinning attacks that could come at any moment, and happens to be a gigantic lightweight to go with his ferocious fighting style. Although he normally does not look to change levels and get fights to the ground, he is a capable grappler. All things considered Paul Felder is one of the most exciting fighters to watch in the divison.

So how is this fight going to play out? I expect it to be a pure striking match unless somebody gets knocked down and the other guy takes top position. I think if Felder stays on the outside and lets Hooker dictate the pace he will lose. Dan would establish his long jab while being far enough to prevent the kicking exchanges not being on his terms. I do not see this happening. Felder will go forward and force the issue, and more importantly, he will for sure target Hooker´s lead leg. Felder is probably the most proficient kicker of the two. While both are big punchers, it is not difficult to see Hooker´s power is more dependant on technique and leverage than Felder´s pure explosions. Once Barboza targeted and destroyed Hooker´s lead leg, the fight was essentially done. The thing with Hooker is once you enter the pocket he is fairly easy to hit both downstairs and upstairs, but you will have to walk through fire to do so. Over the course of two fights with Barboza, specially in the second one, I saw Paul Felder walk through Edson´s kicks while kicking and advancing himself, while Hooker got demolished. Felder has tree trunk legs. He was well on his way of stopping an already breaking down Edson barboza if that second fight had been five rounds. This leads me to think Paul will come out on top of the kicking exchanges and Hooker´s leg will turn funny at some point like Vick´s did, and this is not a three round affair. Felder employs a quite traditional very upright stance that I do not see Hooker having much success against with intercepting knees, specially because Paul is not prone to rushing when shortening the distance. I also think Paul Felder is the superior fighter in the clinch and the better boxer in the pocket, where his decent head movement and solid guard will serve him well once he is able to invade Hooker´s space. On top of all that, I think Paul Felder is the bigger, stronger, more durable fighter here, with the better chin.

At the moment of this writing Dan Hooker is the slight favourite at around (-145) while Paul Felder sits at (+125). Both this gentlemen are extremely dangerous and could finish the fight at any moment, but I expect this to develop into a war that goes late into the fight. Savage exchanges will take place, blood will be spilled, but at the end of the day I think the Irish Dragon will be the last man standing in the middle of the octagon while the crowd goes silent.

OFFICIAL PICK: Paul Felder by KO/TKO