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Dan Hooker: Beating Islam Makhachev is ‘next best thing’ to beating Khabib Nurmagomedov

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UFC 266: Hooker v Haqparast Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Even in retirement, Khabib Nurmagomedov still casts a rather large shadow over the UFC lightweight division thanks to his dominant and undefeated run before calling it a career.

While no one will ever get the chance to hand Nurmagomedov his first defeat, Dan Hooker jumped at the opportunity to face the fighter who he hand-picked as his successor.

At UFC 267, Hooker will square off with Islam Makhachev, who comes into the contest on an eight-fight win streak that includes back-to-back submission wins as well as a whole lot of hype that he’s a future champion in waiting. Makhachev also counts Nurmagomedov as one of his closest friends and his head coach, which only deepens the ties they share when it comes to the UFC lightweight division.

In a perfect world, Hooker would’ve loved the chance to test himself against arguably the greatest 155-pound fighter of all time. But since Nurmagomedov is no longer an option, beating his progeny will have to do.

“If I could fight any lightweight on the face of the planet, it would be Khabib,” Hooker told MMA Fighting. “I want to see how I measure up with him. It’s no lie that Islam’s the next best thing.

“Beating Islam is the only opportunity you’re going to get to show what would have happened if you got in there with Khabib when he was champion. There’s a lot of exciting aspects about this fight. It’s just another one. I feel like it’s a perfect time for this fight to come together.”

It’s interesting to hear Hooker say the “perfect time” considering he accepted the fight just days after his win over Nasrat Haqparast at UFC 266, and with only a few weeks remaining until he’ll face Makhachev at UFC 267.

To hear him tell it, there was no hesitation whatsoever when the UFC came calling with the offer, because Hooker wants the chance to compete for gold and there may be no faster path there right now than going through Makhachev.

“Everyone’s putting him on a pedestal,” Hooker said about his opponent. “Every guy is showing a lot of respect for his abilities and making a lot of comparisons with Khabib. It will be a great opportunity.

“I feel like this is a massive fight. A win here puts you in title contention. That’s another thing that’s obviously exciting.”

Thanks to the odd timing for this fight coming together, Hooker will have a really unconventional camp that’s essentially being pieced together while he’s staying in the United States.

His head coach Eugene Bareman had already left to return to New Zealand and thanks to quarantine rules, he’ll be stuck in lockdown for the next two weeks.

While that might seem like a major concern for such a monumental fight, Hooker is confident in the people surrounding him as he trains at the UFC Performance Institute and he certainly never backs down from a challenge.

“Just jump in the fire,” Hooker said about his approach to the fight. “I wrestled today. I’m a guy that’s not ever been scared to put myself in terrible positions or bad positions in a training environment. I feel like that’s where a lot of these other guys, they kind of crumble because they get a lot better at certain things and so they avoid terrible positions.

“I don’t shy away from these terrible positions. This is the kind of fight where I can show what you very rarely get to show off — all that hard work cause that doesn’t really come out until you’re tired, exhausted, in a fourth and fifth round and need to gut it out and pull some rabbit out of a hat. This is a good fight for me where I get to show all of that kind of stuff, because it’s not easy to train that for over a decade. It’s very difficult to put yourself in those positions. You get sick of it, but I’m not sick of it. I like fighting.”

Of course, Hooker also understands that the weight of the world isn’t coming down on his shoulders for this fight, especially with the attention being paid to Makhachev right now.

Since he’s compared to Nurmagomedov so frequently because of their relationship and similar style in the cage, Makhachev has to live up to some very lofty expectations when it comes to his performances in the UFC.

Lately, the 30-year-old Dagestani lightweight has looked like the second coming of Nurmagomedov, but that also means his room for error is almost nonexistent — and Hooker knows it.

“I feel like all the pressure’s on him,” Hooker said. “We’re fighting in Abu Dhabi. He’s got to go out there and look dominant. ‘What, you can’t beat Dan Hooker with no camp and no training and no team?’ All the pressure’s on him.

“I’m obviously confident I’m going to get the job done, but I don’t feel like the pressure’s on me, even though I’m the bigger-named fighter. I feel like the pressure’s on him and we’ll see how he handles the pressure, ‘cause that’s not a position he’s been in during his career yet.”

For the last few days, Hooker has enjoyed the appreciation he’s been shown that he was willing to accept a fight like this against Makhachev on such short notice.

That said, Hooker didn’t take this fight for the attention or a couple of pats on the back telling him ‘way to go,’ because ultimately the results at UFC 267 are all that matter to him.

“You’re the man if you win,” Hooker said bluntly. “I don’t fight for the sake of fighting. I fight to win. That’s my main concentration right now. I don’t want to live off the credit of taking fights. I want to life off the credit of beating the best guys in the world.”