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Paul Felder (pictured) fights Dan Hooker in the lightweight main event of UFC Auckland on Saturday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Forget for a second what Saturday’s fights at UFC Auckland could mean for the title picture or the rankings or even the competitors’ records.

This card is going to be fun!

From the lightweight main event featuring Paul Felder and New Zealand’s own Dan Hooker to the preliminary flyweight opener between Shana Dobson and Priscila Cachoeira, almost every fight has the potential to be entertaining due to the hunger of the athletes involved and the style matchups.

Felder’s emphasis on in-your-face aggression has led him to five straight wins at 155 pounds while Hooker has long been one of the division’s most distinguished knockout artists. You can bet that “The Hangman” will be extra motivated to finish Felder in front of thousands of his fellow Kiwis.

Australian Jim Crute is also likely to have plenty of support in the building, which could go a long way towards him rebounding from the first loss of his career. At 23, Crute is the youngest fighter competing Saturday and he has the tall task of fending off fellow light heavyweight prospect Michal Oleksiejczuk, who is coming off his first loss in five years.

In other main card action, one-time strawweight title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz looks to snap a three-fight skid against the streaking Yan Xiaonan, heavyweight Ben Sosoli hunts for a win against Marcos Rogerio de Lima after back-to-back no contests, lightweights Brad Riddell and Magomed Mustafaev throw down in what could be an instant classic, and Kevin Aguilar and Zubaira Tukhugov meet in what should be a gritty featherweight fight.

What: UFC Auckland

Where: Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand

When: Saturday, Feb. 22. The entire event will air on ESPN+, with the six-fight preliminaries starting at 4 p.m. ET, and the six-fight main card starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.


Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker

“The Irish Dragon” has been breathing fire lately and he’s going to have to put in a complete performance on Saturday to keep those flames burning.

This main event clash between Paul Felder and Dan Hooker is as close a fight as you can book at lightweight. Both love to stand and swing, both can take an ungodly amount of punishment, and both are capable of flicking that off-switch at any moment. There is no moment in this fight where either guy will be able to mentally rest. One lapse and you’re toast.

Felder has a lot of experience dealing with leg kicks, which is a good thing because Hooker is an expert at using them to chop his opponents down. Considering Hooker already towers over most of his opponents, having a way to limit his opponent’s mobility is almost unfair. Fortunately for Felder, his game plan is most likely to just head in one direction anyway: straight at Hooker.

For both fighters, this is their first scheduled five-rounder, which adds another wrinkle. Can Hooker deal with the non-stop pressure of Felder? Can Felder avoid early damage to his legs so that he can maintain his desired pace? Will Hooker risk going to the ground to attack with his sneaky submission game or does he avoid getting into an exhaustive clinch battle with Felder?

This one is a toss-up. I’m favoring Felder, if only because he’s found a smart formula for winning over the judges. Though if it doesn’t go to the scorecards, I still see Felder finishing with strikes in third or fourth round.

Pick: Felder

Jim Crute vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk

You can’t ask for more than matching up two blue chip light heavyweights who are out to prove that their recent losses were flukes.

Though Jim Crute and Michal Oleksiejczuk both suffered submission losses in their last outings, they showed a lot of the flashes that have made them such intriguing prospects. Crute is an excellent athlete and he’s shown that he knows how to use his mobility to set up his strikes. He’s advanced beyond his years when it comes to working the angles.

Oleksiejczuk isn’t quite as dynamic, but he has a killer instinct that can’t be taught. He’s going to throw flurries of punches early and often with the intent of shutting Crute down before he has the chance to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Confidence is key for these fighters and yet overconfidence could also prove to be their downfall.

Crute should be able to make himself a difficult target to hit and if he can maintain discipline, the finish will find itself as opposed to him having to hunt for it. I see him knocking Oleksiejczuk out late in the opening round.

Pick: Crute

Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Yan Xiaonan

Yan Xiaonan is a hard-hitting, always-advancing striker, but unlike her countrywoman Zhang Weili she hasn’t shown the same KO power that bought her a ticket to the UFC. That’s why I like Karolina Kowalkiewicz’s chances to end her losing streak here.

As disappointing as her last few outings have been, Kowalkiewicz remains one of the best technical strikers at 115 pounds. She’s a better counter-striker than Yan has faced so far in the UFC and that style could prove frustrating for Yan over the course of 15 minutes. Kowalkiewicz has a way of lulling her opponents into fighting her fight, which she’ll have to do to avoid being walked down by Yan.

Add in the fact that Kowalkiewicz has her back to the wall here and she should be able to battle through Yan’s pressure to pick up a much-needed decision win.

Pick: Kowalkiewicz

Ben Sosoli vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima

Fearlessness is one of Ben Sosoli’s best traits and it’s what makes this fight with Marcos Rogerio de Lima compelling.

I don’t love how “Pezao” has looked since returning to heavyweight. He doesn’t seem to wear the extra poundage well and the move back up hasn’t translated to any meaningful speed or cardio advantage. Considering Sosoli is fairly springy for a big man, that could be a problem. Because de Lima doesn’t have one-hitter quitter power, he’s going to have a hard time keeping Sosoli off of him. Sosoli has a hard chin and he’s going to wade through shots to get into range to throw those bomb hands of his.

Unless de Lima somehow catches Sosoli early, this fight favors the “Combat Wombat” the longer it goes and he’ll find de Lima’s chin for the KO at some point.

Pick: Sosoli

Magomed Mustafaev vs. Brad Riddell

In his sophomore UFC outing, Brad Riddell has to be quicker out of the gates if he wants to upset Magomed Mustafaev. The New Zealander was a ball of fire in the third round of his debut, but he might not get there if he gives Mustafaev any openings in the first few minutes.

Mustafaev does a great job of controlling distance and his arsenal of kicks makes him a threat to strike from long range. The 31-year-old is allergic to decisions, so perhaps Riddell’s best bet is waiting for Mustafaev to rush in and punish him with a counter. However, he runs the risk of Mustafaev bludgeoning his legs and body, so even that strategy could end poorly.

Like many of his Dagestani brethren, Mustafaev has a legitimate wrestling background, so don’t think because he prefers to apply shin to chin that Riddell can neutralize him with grappling. His takedown defense will allow him to keep this one standing, where he’ll have the advantage over Riddell.

Riddell showed he was tough as nails in his UFC debut, but I doubt he makes it out of the first round here.

Pick: Mustafaev

Kevin Aguilar vs. Zubaira Tukhugov

Kevin Aguilar has good fundamentals. He’s not going to overextend for a knockout, though the pop in his hands and his sharp striking could bring out the best in Zubaira Tukhugov. He’s going to use his jab to draw Tukhugov into the pocket, where he can test his mettle.

Tukhugov’s last three fights were plagued by inconsistency (they also happened over the course of four years, so take that data with a grain of salt) and predictability. His offense is primarily composed of takedowns and a potent right hand. That’s a winning combination, but one that a skilled boxer like Aguilar could feast on.

Wrestling should be the weapon of choice for Tukhugov here. Aguilar is no sitting duck when it comes to defending takedowns, so Tukhugov will have to be smart with his shots so as not to tire himself out. If he can get Aguilar down though, he’ll be in the driver’s seat.

I just don’t think Aguilar can stay off his back for three rounds and he doesn’t have the ground game to threaten Tukhugov on the mat. Expect Tukhugov to grind out a win here.

Pick: Tukhugov

Preliminaries

Joshua Culibao def. Jalin Turner

Jake Matthews def. Emil Meek

Song Kenan def. Callan Potter

Kai Kara-France def. Tyson Nam

Angela Hill def. Loma Lookboonmee

Priscila Cachoeira def. Shana Dobson