“At the end of the day, it’s just trying to ground yourself and be like, I’m not doing this for other people’s opinions,” Hooper said Monday on The MMA Hour after his third UFC win, a third-round stoppage of Felipe Colares. “I’m not doing this to satisfy what you people think of me. I’m doing this for myself and my family, to support my wife and all this, and bring a name to my gym. And that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on, and not focusing on the noise.
“People will [say], ‘Oh, future champ, can’t wait for you to get the belt.’ Those people, I appreciate the positivity, but their comments are just as out of place as the people who tell you you suck. The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Hooper was barely 20 years old when he splashed onto the scene as a gangly, coily-haired teen able to roll over older opponents. He got a big boost with a running internet gag about family ties to Ben Askren and a viral clip with Jorge Masvidal. He worshiped M&Ms as much as armbars.
Hooper still loves the candy and can grapple with the best of them — it’s his mindset that has shifted. He listens to sports psychologists and tunes out noise from the fans, even when it’s positive and especially when it’s negative.
“I’ve already seen the worst people can write about me,” he said. “It doesn’t really affect me. Like, people are like, ‘Ah, you suck.’ It’s like, ‘Hey man, I’ve seen that 1,000 times.’”
This past Saturday, Hooper took on another older opponent and avoided the concussive damage that came with his previous appearance, his second UFC loss in a decision against Steven Peterson. He also showed signs of growing into his frame, which suggested he would struggle less against future opponents who’d reached their athletic peak.
But even more important, Hooper said, he no longer feels out of place on the biggest stage for MMA.
“For so many fighters, they don’t get the opportunity to adjust to that level,” he said. “You’re jumping in to the deeper pool each time, and the UFC, the depth of that is infinite. I’m now in the same weight class as Max Holloway; I could potentially fight Alexander Volkanovski one day. That’s crazy to think about when you’re debuting. And rubbing elbows with Demian Maia, Israel Adesanya, Colby [Covington], [Kamaru] Usman, all these crazy high-level guys I’ve been on cards with, it’s so hard to jump in there at 20 when I debuted, and you’re like, ‘These are my co-workers now?’ It’s so hard to adjust to.
“But now, this is my fifth fight. So many things went perfect in the lead-up [to Colares], and I know exactly what to expect with the UFC fight week now, and I feel like I adjusted to it well. I’ve pressurized to the level of the depth of the UFC, and I’m ready to start working my way forward.”
That’s quite a shift from where Hooper said he started. In school, he said he was a “skinny little weird poor kid” who rarely spoke to people. He started jiu-jitsu at 8 and went straight to the gym after school, missing many of the rites of passage for teens.
“I was a poor kid on the reduced lunches and all that,” he said. “One pair of shoes for the year, one pair of jeans. Just growing up as a poor white trash kid. My sister, we both have different dads. Just classic white trash folk moments, as far as you can get for Washington. Some substance stuff with the parental side of things, but it is what it is.
“Everybody’s got a reason why things should have went wrong, and it’s whether you embrace that and are in the woe-is-me mentality, or if you use that to strengthen you and move past it. I feel like I’ve done that pretty well.”