Dan Hooker ‘leaning’ towards Justin Gaethje beating Khabib Nurmagomedov as he targets winner

Dan Hooker ‘leaning’ towards Justin Gaethje beating Khabib Nurmagomedov as he targets winner

The biggest test of Dan Hooker‘s career awaits on Saturday night when he faces former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC on ESPN 12. A win puts the New Zealand native on a four-fight winning streak with victories over Paul Felder and Al Iaquinta.

It also puts him in a good position to challenge for the title, which goes up for grabs later this year when Khabib Nurmagomedov faces off with Justin Gaethje in a unification bout to determine the undisputed 155-pound champion.

Nurmagomedov has been virtually unstoppable during his career with a perfect record while losing only one round since joining the UFC in 2012. Meanwhile, Gaethje has rattled off four straight wins of his own — all by knockout or TKO — as he decimated contenders such as Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.

Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly the favorite to beat Gaethje. But Hooker sees this as the undefeated Russian’s toughest test to date. That’s why he believes an upset could be in order.

“I’m definitely interested,” Hooker told MMA Fighting when asked about the matchup. “Gaethje, if you’re describing a skill set that would give Khabib trouble, it is Gaethje’s skill set. An incredibly strong defensive wrestler who’s very handy on his feet and can dish out a lot of damage. Great cardio being five rounds. Very comfortable being in a main event spot.

“He has the game you would put together to definitely give Khabib his toughest test. I’m leaning more towards Geathje in that fight.”

A former NCAA All-American wrestler, Gaethje definitely has the grappling to oppose Nurmagomedov’s suffocating offense, where he typically takes down opponents and mauls them on the mat.

Gaethje also has the ability to punish his opponents round after round with fight ending knockout power in his hands at all times. That’s a dangerous combination, which is why Hooker feels like the former World Series of Fighting champion might become the first person to hand Nurmagomedov a loss.

If that happens and Hooker gets past Poirier at UFC on ESPN 12, then he could be staring across the octagon at Gaethje with the lightweight title on the line. They’ve engaged in a back-and-forth war of words on Twitter, so the fuse has already been lit on a potential fight down the road.

“That sounds like a perfect way to cap off the year,” Hooker said. “I’ll stay ready, I’ll stay sharp, but I’m looking for that next title shot. I feel like this win, especially a knockout win, really solidifies my spot as the next No. 1 contender.”

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