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What it takes to be a UFC fighter

Newshub logoNewshub 12/09/2018 Fiona Connor

The usual traits of success are front of mind - determination, passion, recognition of skill and a drive to be the best.

But to be a UFC champion Dan 'Hangman' Hooker must also be fearless, focused solely on bettering himself, applying lessons he learns through his mistakes to immediately advance.

He has to be prepared to stop at nothing to outwit, overpower and, ultimately, be better than his opponent - from the second he steps into the cage.

It means ditching other people's definition of success, trading free time for perfecting his ability and adopting a fearless perspective through the challenges.

So, how did a young kid from Mt Roskill take on all of the above to become one of the UFC's rising lightweight contenders?

Hooker's interest in sports developed at a young age, after he figured that if he was a part of a school team, he could get a day out of the classroom.

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"I think I signed up to 14 teams in intermediate, just to get the day off and play sport," the 14th-ranked UFC lightweight told Newshub.

He liked rugby and rugby league, enjoying the physical nature of the game and crashing into other people.

His love for mixed martial arts began at the age of 18 after he saw a family friend compete in a fight.

He was immediately drawn in by its fierce nature and raucous culture, holding power to  send a crowd into hysterics off the back of an intense or damaging strike.

"[The fighter] knocked this guy out in 10 seconds, and the whole crowd went nuts. I just felt the energy of the crowd cheering for him and I just thought 'This is what I want to do'," Hooker recalled.

The fire within was ignited, and he threw himself in head-first - training four or five days a week and realising unarmed combat was what he wanted to do.

From that moment, Hooker has been solely committed to improvement, showing up to training to strategise and pledge his life to a single purpose.

"I followed that guy to the gym that next Tuesday. When I showed up, I went into it thinking 'How do I fight'. I wasn't 'How do I train' or 'How do I dabble in martial arts' - I was like 'I want to fight'.

"I think that sped up my advancement a lot quicker than other people.

"It was like an aggression release for me; I was an aggressive teenager, so I needed to channel that into something constructive before I found something destructive to channel it towards.

"It's been this big progression. First I just wanted to learn the techniques because that would make me fight better, but then learning the techniques went to understanding the discipline to get to the next level, and then the discipline it takes to get to the next level, then the next level.

"With diet, with training, first one, can't drink anymore because then I can't train seven days a week, can't have late nights, or can't eat cheeseburgers. Then I have to train harder, so it has been a life of being more and more disciplined until I got to this stage.

"I'm good at nothing else besides this. When it comes to this, when it comes to the sport, that is what I am good at, that is what I have been put on this planet for.

"I'm just taking a guess, but when it comes to this, that dedication of time is what has got me to the UFC and to success."

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Hooker credits the people who didn't believe in him with the motivation behind wanting to keep persevering, even when he had every reason to quit.

"When I started my pro-career, I was three wins, three losses.

"People would say 'So you're going to chuck it in now? You're going to quit?' because I guess that's what most people would do.

"'You're three and three, you're never going to be the best, you can't even be the best in New Zealand - how are you going to be the best in the world?'

"But it was just something inside myself that I knew I was capable of. Even those losses, I knew that I was capable of doing better - so it's been inside of me the whole time, instead of someone whispering in my ear and motivating me. 

"If someone says I can't do something, then I'm enraged and want to pursue it and do it. If someone holds my hand and says 'you can do it champ' and gives me a pat on the back, I'm far less motivated. So I think I am more motivated by negativity than positivity which is different to a lot of people.

"Win, lose, success, failure: this is what I am going to do with the rest of my life."

That mindset means it's never been difficult for Hooker to maintain his drive.

"It's been the people along the whole way who say 'you'll never do it' and something inside of me just wants to prove everyone wrong."

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As he honed in on doing whatever was necessary to forge a way of life around mixed martial arts, Hooker ventured abroad in search of the best training, under the impression that staying in New Zealand could hold him back. 

Hooker trained in Vietnam for six months, Thailand for a year-and-a-half and Denver for six months, amid years of travel. After spending both a bundle of money and time away from his loved ones, he eventually arrived at the realisation that what he'd been chasing had been, in fact, right on his doorstep all along.

"The best coaches and the best place I can be training is here in New Zealand.

"If the best training was not here, I would not be here. If it was on the moon, I would be on Apollo 39 and I would be living on the moon, but it is here.

"My best coaches, and my best team is right here in Auckland. I am very lucky… it was just a very long-winded discovery for that.

"I had to travel all these places and spend a lot of time, but I now I know and now I can tell other New Zealand fighters 'you don't have to go overseas', 'you don't have to train over there', 'quit looking over the fence, the grass is not greener over there, it's damn green over here - all you got to do is stick your head down, pull your ass up and go to work'."

Hooker admits he wouldn't have got as far if he had been anything less than 100 percent committed from the beginning, developing over time practises that saw him train smarter.

"It used to take a lot more energy, I would train about five times in one day, train twice in the morning, then go and do some hill sprints, train again and then go for a run at night.

"That's more being a busy idiot. You're going backwards. You're doing more work for less results, so when I started getting smarter - and it's not about training volume, it's not about training intensity - it's about training smart and using your intelligence."

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He's now launched his very own gym, Combat Academy in Ellerslie, where he teaches streamlined training techniques to up-and-coming fighters established off the back of his own errors.

"I've done the wrong way so many times, I now know the easy way. We don't have to be in here taking shots to the head, getting beaten up in sparring like I did, you don't have to train five times a day until you're sick and throwing up like I did.

"There are better ways to improve, and there are smarter ways to train - so now to share those smarter ways to train and the right way to do things, gives me a lot of satisfaction."

Coaching is something Hooker always wanted to do, viewing it as a necessary part of growing as a fighter.

He believes it isn't possible to be the best fighter in the world if you don't have the ability to share that knowledge and inspire others, just as he once was.

"It's another aspect of understanding the sport that comes only through teaching - and so it is giving back to the next generation, it's something that I want to do.

Hooker places an emphasis on encouraging his students that every journey is going to be different, and reiterating that even if someone mirrored exactly what he did, the outcome wouldn't be the same.

"You have to find it out for yourself, you have to experience it for yourself and take the lessons that you learn for yourself and your own journey.

"I tell my own fighters 'I've done this, don't do this' but they go and do exactly what I told them they shouldn't do and they have to learn things the hard way.

"I say 'If you do this, it will be easy' but I still see them doing it the hard way."

Highlighting an importance on the people he keeps around him as he chases down goals, Hooker says it's fine to cut anyone who makes you feel negative or uninspired.

a man looking at the camera © Provided by MediaWorks NZ Limited

He sticks by people who he is motivated by, similar-minded people on the same path, coaches who are hungry as him and people in the gym who have goals of their own.

"My family as well, they are super supportive, they understand where I want to go and my dreams, and they see how much commitment I have had.

"They have seen that I dedicated my life, and they know I am going to do this regardless, and they have seen how unhappy I am when I step away from the sport. When I step away I am not a very nice person, but when I am doing this and when I am training, I'm realising that aggression - I am very calm, relaxed, very sane and nice."

a man looking at the camera: What it takes to be a UFC fighter © Provided by MediaWorks NZ Limited What it takes to be a UFC fighter

There are never any nerves when it comes to fight day. For Hooker, it's more about quelling the excitement and anticipation after he awakes until the evening rolls around and fight night kicks off.

"I love it man, I live for stepping in that cage - I'm not scared. I've accepted what can happen; live by the sword, die by the sword.

"I am in there to knock his head off; if he knocks my head off I'm cool with that. I can live with someone beating me; I can't live with beating myself," he said.

He's a simple man with a passion, who has dedicated his life to two things.

"One thing is winning a world title and the other is training someone else to winning a world title.

"I went all-in, regardless of success. Those are two ultimate goals I have, and I will be doing those until the day I die."


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