Dan Hooker edged a five-round war against Paul Felder via split decision on home soil at UFC Auckland on Sunday, and "The Irish Dragon" admitted it could be his last fight in the Octagon.
All three judges scored the fight 48-47, two for Hooker, who fell to the floor in an outburst of relief and elation when the decision was announced and Spark Arena erupted. Felder out struck Hooker 133 to 119 in a razor close fight but it was the Kiwi's late takedown in the final minute of the fifth round which likely swung it.
"I have to defend this land no matter what the cost," Hooker (20-8) told commentator Dan Hardy in his post-fight interview.
Hardy had to grab a word with his fellow UFC broadcast colleague Felder (17-5), whose face was battered and bloodied and who looked like he could barely stand, having had his lead leg chopped away at by Hooker, as is City Kick-boxing head coach Eugene Bareman's style.
"I knew it was close," Felder said. "I feel like I hurt him a lot but he got the takedowns, he busted me up pretty smart."
"That might be it for me, man," the American added, choking back tears. "I got a four-year-old at home that misses me every time I go away like this."
Hooker, clearly moved by his opponent's words, came over and raised his hand as the crowd showed its appreciation. It was a different tone from the heated build-up to the fight, which saw Hooker refuse to touch gloves after feeling Felder had gone too far with his trash talk.
"I knew this is exactly what I was in for when I came here, I pissed this guy off," Felder said. "Piss a talented guy like Dan off, he's gonna bring it to you. That was fun brother.
"I'll talk to my family but it was honour to share the octagon for 25 mins with this son of a b****. I'll be cageside soon, come see me in London and Vegas."
Neither fighter was in any shape to make it to the post-fight press conference, with both taken to hospital. But No 7-ranked Hooker will now leap No 6 Hooker in the lightweight rankings, and he called out fourth-ranked Justin Gaethje to face him next.
"I got my eye on someone," Hooker said. "I want the battle of the highlight reel, I want Justin Gaethje next. Let's go."
It was constant pressure from Felder in the first round, as Hooker chopped away at his lead leg with calf kicks while circling the Octagon.
There was plenty of damage showing on Felder's right eye going into the second round. Hooker, with his 4 inch reach advantage, was managing the range nicely and avoiding Felder's strikes with some clever head movement.
Hooker was clearly not feeling the pressure of his first main event, in his hometown no less. Felder survived an attempt by Hooker to take his back, and began to pick up his aggression with his striking.
Felder began leaving some marks of his own on Hooker's face with his jabs and left hooks in the third round with both men content to stand and trade in the middle of the Octagon.
Both men moved into new territory with the first fourth round of their careers. There was some evident swelling on Hooker's jaw, with his mouth wide open, which prompted a level change as he went to take Felder down, before trying to take the back again.
It seemed dead even heading into the fifth. Felder was pushing forward with confidence behind his strikes, eating Hooker's shots with a nearly shut right eye as he tried to get inside.
Hooker looked exhausted but then landed a takedown in the last minute, the first of the fight. Hooker controlled Felder on the floor, then scrambled to try to take his back in a thrilling finale.
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