Dana White has laid down a challenge for Kiwi lightweight fighter Dan Hooker – “show the world who you are.”

Hooker, the UFC’s No 8-ranked lightweight, returns to the octagon on Sunday at UFC 266 in Las Vegas to face unranked power puncher Nasrat Haqparast – the only match-up he was able to find for the date.

Hooker was in an interesting and unfortunate position as he looked to find his next opponent. The 31-year-old had been informed the UFC would have a spot for him on the UFC 266 card, and he was able to acquire an MIQ voucher for soon after the September 26date.

However, coming off losses to former title challengers Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler in his last two bouts, Hooker found himself slip back to the low end of the division’s top 10 and unable to find a highly ranked opponent.

It wasn’t without trying. Hooker constantly put the call out for an opponent on social media with little response, and the UFC matchmakers were having just as much trouble. But with an MIQ voucher already secured and not knowing when he might be in that fortunate position again, he was determined to head overseas to do his job – accepting a fight with Haqparast.

While not a ranked opponent, Haqparast is the next best thing – a well-rounded fighter with knockout power who has only lost once in his last six bouts.

But while Haqparast is a dangerous opponent, UFC president White has challenged Hooker to use the booking to full advantage.

“When you’re in the top 10 like Dan is, everybody’s dangerous, but you shouldn’t be worrying too much about an unranked opponent,” White told the Herald.

“It’s a pain in the ass because he’s number eight, so he wants to work his way back towards number one, but he’s got to fight a guy that could do more damage to his ranking than anything good.

“If he wins spectacularly, he’s supposed to. That’s what everybody feels, so it’s a tough position to be in, but not a horrible one either. He’s going to come out here, he’s going to get some work in and he’s going to get paid, so I guess that’s the mindset he should have coming into this fight.

“Don’t take the guy for granted. You train hard, you come in a use this fight as a way to really showcase yourself again and show the world who you are.”

White added that there were several factors involved in being unable to find Hooker a ranked opponent, from travel issues to fighters already being booked or simply being unavailable to fight.

“It’s all those things,” White said. “You could throw Covid in, you could throw visa issues in, you can throw personal problems in. It’s just a whole melting pot of bullshit that can stop a guy from getting a fight.

“Like, right now, I’ve got (welterweight contender) Gilbert Burns terrorising me for a fight. We’re trying to get him a fight; sometimes they all come together and it works out perfectly, and sometimes they don’t.”

For Hooker, it wasn’t easy to make it to Vegas for the fight. Auckland went into level 4 lockdown just days after he signed the contract, so he and other fighters and coaches of the Auckland’s City Kickboxing moved into the gym before the lockdown started to form their own bubble – which lasted about a week before they were forced to disband.

He was again warned by police after trying to put work in with a couple of others who were with him in the gym bubble at his own gym, and has since had to rely on training he could do by himself.

It then took a frantic rally for a last-minute meeting at the US Embassy for Hooker to get his visa, with lockdown delaying the process. Hooker was supposed to fly out to Vegas last Sunday, but had to delay that – acquiring his visa on Monday, and flying to Vegas on Thursday night – arriving less than 24 hours before having to weigh in.

Haqparast had similar travel issues, making it one of the more bizarre lead-ins to a fight. Although he was training in the States, Haqparast travelled back to Germany last week after his mother’s death in order to attend her funeral. He had similar issues to Hooker with getting his visa to get back into the States, securing it with a last-minute meeting on Thursday, and as a result was travelling on a similar timeframe to Hooker.

The two will square off in the preliminary bouts, which get underway on Sunday at 1pm.

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