Dan Hooker's years of on-the-job training culminate in mega-bout vs. Dustin Poirier

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — Timing is so critical in the life of an athlete. Over the years, there have been countless athletes who had the physical skills necessary to succeed in a significant way in their sport of choice but who failed to make it because of bad timing.

Perhaps it was a pitcher who had great stuff but was rushed to the majors before he was ready, got rocked, lost his confidence and never made it back. Maybe it was the quarterback who had all the attributes, but had only one year starting in college and after being drafted high and paid big money as a rookie, was thrust into the starting lineup before he was ready.

The stories are plentiful throughout the sports world.

And that could have been Dan Hooker’s plight, as well. He joined the UFC in 2014 before he was fully formed. He had all of the physical skills required to succeed, but he had much to learn about the sport and himself at that stage.

He opened his UFC career with a 3-3 mark, which is remarkable in retrospect, considering he was fighting the world’s best well before he had the knowledge and the experience required to do it at the highest level.

Because the UFC was patient with him, it’s benefited in a major way. Hooker has blossomed and become one of the elite in the loaded lightweight division. He’s won seven of his last eight and is the last man to defeat Gilbert Burns heading into his five-round main event lightweight bout Saturday at Apex against former interim champion Dustin Poirier.

“I feel I came into the UFC pretty underdeveloped,” Hooker said. “I was learning and growing and developing as a fighter in front of everyone’s eyes. There are a lot of fighters who get the opportunity to develop outside of the UFC on the regional circuit and get to the level where they have all of these things in place, they have their training camp down and their coaches in place. They have their form when they finally get to the UFC.

“With them, you’re seeing the finished product. What you’re seeing with me is a guy who developed in front of everyone’s eyes. You can go back and see the improvements I’ve made and where I have been and the camps I’ve moved around to. My success I’ll put down to moving back to New Zealand and committing full-time to my coaches at City Kickboxing. That’s where the development in my skillset and my consistency has come from.”

Dan Hooker of New Zealand prepares to step on the scale during the UFC weigh-in at Spark Arena on Feb. 22, 2020, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dan Hooker of New Zealand prepares to step on the scale during the UFC weigh-in at Spark Arena on Feb. 22, 2020, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

To do what Hooker did, to learn on the job against the best fighters in the world, takes a lot of mental toughness and intestinal fortitude. Even the greatest athletes can doubt themselves at times, but Hooker said he didn’t.

He knew he belonged, but he knew he needed to acquire the skills required to be a high-level fighter.

And so even as he lost fights he felt he probably should have won, he never gave up or lost faith.

“It was always kind of a puzzle to me,” he said. “The mistake a lot of people make in that they think they’re made of papier-mache. They take a loss and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s it. I’m done. I can’t get better.’ Man, that gets me. There’s good days and bad days in sports. You have to understand that. If you go out and have a bad day, you can’t give up. You can’t quit your career over one bad day.

“That’s the great thing about a sport like fighting: It’s on you. You have the ability to make the changes, to get better and turn a negative into a positive. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you’re finished. You go back and figure out what caused them, and you make the improvements that are necessary.”

Hooker has made them and he finds himself in a mega-bout against Poirier, who is ranked No. 3 and is the former interim lightweight champion.

Poirier is 5-1 with a no contest in his last seven fights, so both have been in outstanding form.

Hooker has kind of crept up on everyone because of his up-and-down start to the UFC. But he’s never been better and if people don’t recognize his ability now, they surely will after he spends time in the cage with Poirier, one of the sport’s greats.

“I don’t think I’ve been overlooked,” Hooker said. “But it was hard to build me into this mythical, unbeatable character that fans like to build guys into because I lost three times at the start of my career. People saw that I went 3-3 in my first six UFC fights and they saw I’m beatable. They, as a result, never could see me developing into this super unbeatable larger than life creature they like to create. I’ve never viewed the sport that way.”

It’s all about timing. If he’d spent more time on the regional circuit honing his skills, he might be that mythological figure he speaks about.

He’s not complaining. And after fans see him face Poirier on Saturday, it’s doubtful any of them will have complaints, either.

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