Dan "The Hangman" Hooker, the New Zealand lightweight fighter, on what’s behind his thrilling fighting style, the charismatic persona that captivates crowds, and his newfound love for tattoos.
New Zealand might be a small nation, but they’re big on warrior spirit. It’s a mindset guided by a legacy of powerful Maori strength, a gritty pioneer heritage, and a cultural identity formed around resilience in sport. So, when Dan Hooker shrugged off multiple broken bones as "just a scratch," you can bet he wasn’t just talking tough. He is truly tough from the inside out.
The Hangman is becoming more than just a fighter. He's becoming a symbol of resilience, determination, and the Kiwi warrior spirit. It’s a trait that’s made him stand as one of New Zealand’s most famous athletes who has earned the respect of fans and fighters alike. While he might not be an All-Black, he’s very close to achieving this legendary status in his home country’s eyes. We pulled off the gloves to find out what makes him tick.
In New Zealand, rugby is the beating pulse that holds the country together. Small wonder Hooker played rugby throughout school and only took up MMA after graduating. It was a transition that changed his life, as he wrote in Athletes Voice.
"We all came up with that bravado, wanting to challenge each other and prove that we were tough," he wrote.
"That’s the Auckland culture. Being a guy that liked a bit of a fight, I thoroughly enjoyed myself growing up in that environment. But it wasn’t until I got into MMA that I found a sense of direction. That really started when I went to watch a friend of mine, Steve Warby, in his first MMA fight. I still train with Steve to this day, but back then, he was the toughest guy in our area. He was someone I looked up to and the first of my friends to really take MMA and jiu-jitsu seriously. He knocked the guy out in about 20 seconds. I felt the rush of the crowd and the energy in the room, and I just wanted to be a part of that.
"From that moment, dabbling in a bit of MMA wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to feel what Steve felt. I wanted to be the one to excite the crowd. I definitely wasn’t in it for the money because back then, there weren’t any Kiwis in the UFC. There weren’t really any Kiwis making a living off MMA at all."
Like the All Blacks, who are near impossible to beat when playing a home game, Hooker has never lost a UFC fight in New Zealand. That’s pride and passion right there.
City Kickboxing is responsible for creating some of the world’s most unique and highly successful athletes, like Hooker and Adesanya. This is undoubtedly thanks to the expertise of Eugene Bareman, winner of the Fighter’s Only Coach of the Year, who is possibly the world’s best at cultivating a fighter’s strong points.
Hooker has a rangy build and style that suits the unique brand of kickboxing that helped him win a King of the Ring Middleweight Kickboxing Championship. Does he have the fastest kick speed? Probably not, but he brings a subdued pressure to fights that lulls opponents into a false sense of security and is a strategy.
"In my fight against Hatsu Hioki, the head kick had been landing consistently throughout the fight," explains Hooker in UFC’s Signature series.
"Hatsu kicked me in the body, and I think he thought I was hurt more than I was, so he came in to finish me off, but I had that kick there."
This created one of Hooker’s favorite wins against a fighter he'd idolized for many years.
Great range, accuracy, and power applied over several rounds are some of the reasons Hooker has added five Fight of the Night bonuses to his bank balance. However, it’s his left hook that’s a secret weapon.
"We work with the left hook a lot," he said.
"In the gym, they just have me drilling it, so when I’m out there, it just comes out. You can use a left hook from all different ranges. Out longer, it’s a bit like a jab. If you’re on the inside and nice and close, it’s a nice little short hook that you can put a bit more power on—in my fight against James Vick, the left hook seemed to be the punch that was working. He likes to pull back a lot, so I decided to throw it a bit longer. It had landed a few times, so I just put a bit more power on it."
An often-overlooked skill is Hooker’s step knee.
"Something that I’ve had in my arsenal for a very long time is the nice sharp knee up the middle," he says.
"The bone on your knee is so dense. The chin and nose are very weak. Knee versus chin is going to win every time.
"In my fight with Ross Pearson, I knew he was going to pressure me, and he had good head movement and was going to try to catch me with some hard punches. So I had to use my footwork just to keep my range. Keep it nice and long and find the knee as he would come in. We drilled that on the pads a million times. It just came up, and that’s just through pure repetition."
Nothing gets done without training, and Hooker isn’t afraid to put in the hard yards to get the results he deserves.
Hooker’s passion for fighting led him to take extreme measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, charting a course that landed him where he is today. During the pandemic fought a 5 round battle with Poirier and then Michael Chandler in Abu Dhabi, clocking up to losses. At the time, New Zealand had some of the strictest COVID measures, and they announced level 4 lockdowns while Hooker had a fight booked with Nasrat Haqparast in UFC 266. Eugene Bareman at City Kickboxing rallied fighters to spar with Hooker, many of whom had to bring mattresses to sleep on in the gym to beat the lockdown rules.
"It's like being on school camp," Hooker told Stuff when asked about the experience. Hooker once left his wife and young daughter, knowing he may not see them for several months.
"I'm a fighter, I need to fight,” he said.
"Covid has not been good to me, it's caused me to spend a lot of time away from my family.”
In this instance, the sacrifice was worth it as he won by unanimous decision.
For Hooker and many other fighters, this was just the beginning of his troubles. New Zealanders who returned from overseas were forced into a 2-week quarantine using what they called the MIQ voucher system. Hooker was very vocal about his disdain for it in a tweet that read, "New Zealand voucher system can eat my whole d**k. September/October booked out, so if I fight in sept I can't come home until November. And the UFC going to come to NZ... Dreaming."
He then posted pictures of his wife and daughters outside his hotel room, who he wasn’t allowed to visit. Understandably, this caused a slight slump in his career, but now that they’re by his side, there’s a positivity and lightness to Hooker in and out of the octagon.
Dan came late to the ink. In 2015, when he was shaping up for a bout with Yair Rodriguez in UFC 192, he was a clean-cut 25-year-old with this to say, "I'm not covered in tattoos, I'm not some criminal, I don't do drugs, and I don't drink."
With experience, things change, as has Hooker’s outlook on tattoos. He’s since inked up with back-to-front designs that look like something straight off a 2000s Tapout shirt. However, his newest bod-mods started with the tribal Maori designs on his feet and shins, famed to be some of the most painful places to get a tattoo.
"I definitely know why more people don’t have their shins and feet tattooed," he said when asked about the pain.
"At no point was that all good. I’m glad I only have two legs and don’t have four legs."
For MMA fighters, motivation comes in many guises, and these may have been a place to share some of that warrior spirit with his opponents.
Considering his current win streak, it’s been a smart move. People who engaged in mantras such as ‘feeling good’ and ‘push through this’ not only outperformed their peers in a cycling test but also thought the workout was way more manageable, found research in Medicine and Science in Sports and Science. That doesn’t mean you can randomly pull a quote off your favorite Instagram feed and slap it on your skin. The paper says the effect will be more effective if the permanent mantra means something personal to you.
Some people have labeled Hooker’s tattoos a mid-life crisis. However, he's honest when pressed about whether his tattoos were impulsive, he’s honest.
"They were actually, after UFC PPV, I was heading back to New Zealand, and a cyclone hit New Zealand," Hooker says.
"They canceled my flight back and redirected it to the Gold Coast. And I have a friend in the Gold Coast who was like, ‘If you need anything while you’re in town.’ You know what I mean. And I ended up saying I’ll get a tattoo while I’m here. Then, like 12 hours later, I ended up getting half my back done. Then I get back to New Zealand, and I’m like, I need something, like another one because one looks dumb, then I’m done. It was supposed to be a lot smaller.
"Then Rod, who did the tattoo back in New Zealand, draws all the way up and all the way down, and I was like, ah well, this is how we’re going this way. It was very unintentional, but I’m very happy with how it turned out."
People who get a tattoo simply for the sake of covering up a little skin are more likely to regret it, according to research in The Social Science Journal. If Hooker continues on his current trajectory, there are no regrets he’ll be feeling.
Hooker’s recent love of tattoos may have affected his ability to recover and tolerate pain. Research at the University of Alabama found having multiple tattoos strengthens your immune system, so you’re better at fighting garden-variety infections. However, the effect only counts if you get a few because having just one might do the opposite.
"They don't just hurt while you get the tattoo, but they can exhaust you," says Dr Christopher Lynn, who published the study.
"It's easier to get sick. You can catch a cold because your defenses are lowered from the stress of getting a tattoo. "After the stress response, your body returns to an equilibrium," Lynn said. "However, if you continue to stress your body over and over again, instead of returning to the same set point, it adjusts its internal set points and moves higher."
So you better take extra care of your health with solid nutritional practices after getting one. Still, if you regularly get them, you’ll strengthen your immune system as if you were painting yourself with a germ barrier.
With his affinity for tattoos, Hooker has cultivated a special relationship with pain. Front and center for this was his bout with Jalin Turner at UFC 290. In his post-fight mic drop, his blonde hair was stained with blood, and he was nonchalant about calling his broken bones just a scratch. He went on to share the X-rays of his fractured wrist and broken orbital bone. 'I think it was a front kick in the first round that I think might have put a little crack in it [the broken arm], Hooker said on The MMA Hour.
“If you look at it, just as round two starts, I look down at my arm because it's not responding the way I want it to, and then in the second, he lands a couple more kicks, and I think that breaks it. I definitely felt it in the second. I was like, ‘Something's up here.’ I couldn't feel my right hand, and then it wasn't until the third round I dropped him, and I tried to finish him. I was following up with punches, and it was one punch, and I was like, 'I'm going to throw my right hand anyways.' I threw my right and felt it completely go out of place. My whole right arm just went dead."
Hooker explains that his body wasn’t accepting every instruction despite winning the fight.
"Second round, he booted me in the head — I would have liked to get my hand there, but it just didn't do what it was told," he explained.
"I hurt him at the end of that round and finished with the rear-naked choke wrapped up. So that's a fight-ending sequence in round two.
"Round three, I was hurting him on the feet and then controlling him on the ground. It's pretty hard to argue against that. I was pretty confident. I was confident that I got the job done."
Hooker has since gotten surgery on both his arm and face and New Zealand hopes to see him back in the Octagon soon.
As we look to the future, one thing is certain – Dan "The Hangman" Hooker's story is far from over. With his skill, heart, and fans' support, he's poised to achieve even greater heights in mixed martial arts.
Beyond the Octagon, Dan Hooker is an ambassador for his sport and homeland. He's a proud Kiwi who carries the New Zealand flag with honor wherever he goes. His charisma and sportsmanship reflect the values instilled in him by his upbringing in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Most of all, Hooker's charisma and authenticity have garnered him a global following.
What’s next? After his sensational Fight of the Night win against Jalin Turner and the UFC potentially returning to New Zealand in 2024, Hooker wants to lift the stakes.
"I feel like you’d need a dance partner where it’s either one of those guys that’s like super exciting that the fans are just like, man, this is going to deliver 100 percent," he said to Submission Radio.
"Or you need an opponent that’s going to tickle the fans’ balls."
If you’ve got a set and have an itch for a thrilling fight, you can bet Hooker’s got the scratch to help you out....