UFC Auckland is on the horizon, and what better way to mark the promotion’s return to New Zealand than with a blockbuster main event featuring Kiwi Dan Hooker against Paul Felder.
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Along with Hooker, various other Oceanic competitors will be making an appearance such as Ben Sosoli and Brad Riddell. One well-known fighter the card is none other than New Zealand’s own Kai Kara-France, who will be fighting at home for the first time in almost two years.
The hard-hitting flyweight spoke to John Hyon Ko about returning home, getting back into the win column and the landscape of the 125-pound division.
A long-awaited homecoming
Kara-France had a thrilling start to his UFC campaign, capturing three wins in under a year which not only increased his fan base but his ranking in the division.
It was a no brainer for the flyweight that the UFC’s return to Auckland would mark the perfect return fight for him.
“It’s something I couldn’t miss out on. Injured or not, I would’ve taken this fight,” Kara-France said to John Hyon Ko.
“I didn’t have any injuries after that last fight. It was all bruising and superficial stuff. So now we’re good, I’m ready to go. I could go this week.”
It wasn’t until UFC 245 last December where the 26-year-old met his match in the organization. Kara-France battled it out with Brandon Moreno over the course of three rounds in what turned out to be a slugfest. Although he lost the contest, the flyweight gave a fantastic showing of himself and was eager to return to the Octagon as soon as possible.
“I thought I definitely took the first round, because of a few knockdowns,” he said to John Hyon Ko.
“He adjusted well in the second round. So the third round was kind of the decider; both landing hard punches, he was coming a bit more forward than I was so I think the judges were scoring his ring control and aggression. But I feel like I was landing the cleaner shots.”
“I would love to run it back this year. I know he’s fighting number three Formiga, so we’ll see what happens in the next few months. But I would love to run it back, hopefully on this side of the world as well.”
In his upcoming fight on February 22, Kai Kara-France will be squaring off against fellow veteran of the sport Tyson Nam, who is ten years his elder.
Despite not having a long time off to recover from his December scrap, “Don’t Blink” feels extra motivated and rejuvenated as many of his teammates will be competing on the same card, including headliner Dan Hooker. He will also be performing in his hometown in front of friends and family, an experience martial artists dream of attaining.
“I haven’t really had too much time off, I haven’t been dwelling on the loss, I’ve kind of been staying in the gym and surrounding myself with all the guys that are getting ready for their fights. It’s been a good transition because there’s been no halt in the lead-up, it’s just kind of been straight into this next camp. I feel ready, I feel motivated – you can’t get much more motivated than fighting in your hometown.”
This wasn’t the first time Kara-France petitioned to compete in his hometown of Auckland under the UFC banner.
The promotion first touched base in Auckland, New Zealand, back into 2017, which saw the nation’s own Mark Hunt capitalize on an injured Derrick Lewis, walking away with the knockout victory.
At the time, Kara-France was riding a three-fight win streak at bantamweight, which included two knockout victories. He collected all three of these wins in under two months as a means of showing he was ready for the big leagues. Unfortunately, he never got the call-up he rightfully deserved and witnessed the event as a fan instead.
“I was in the front row seats the last time the UFC came. That was back in 2017, I was campaigning for that card. If you’ve been following my journey, I fought three times in seven weeks, just to have the best shot to get on that card.”
“It’s been on my bucket list since I started the sport, to fight in my hometown at Spark Arena. That’s only five minutes away from my house.”
“I was picturing and visualizing what it’d be like when I fought here. And when Dan brought me up in his post-fight speech and said ‘who wants to see Kai fight here in Auckland in the UFC,’ I got a good reception. I remember everyone asking ‘why aren’t you on this’ and ‘I really want to watch you fight,’ so when they did announce they were coming back, even though I already had a fight booked, I knew I had to be on this card.”
Last year was a remarkable year for New Zealand gym City Kickboxing, who won The Body Lock’s 2019 MMA Gym of the Year, with head coach Eugene Bareman also picking up recognition for his efforts.
The gym is currently home to UFC champions Alexander Volkanovski and Israel Adesanya, who both captured gold late last year in two individually stunning performances. Along with the titleholders is crafty veteran Dan Hooker, Brad Riddell, and Kai Kara-France, all of whom will be competing at the upcoming UFC Auckland card on February 22.
On top of being apart of the best gym on the planet, Kara-France spent a prolonged period of time before his UFC days training in Thailand at the world-renowned Tiger Muay Thai. He recounted the time where he first met the formidable and ruthless bantamweight contender Petr Yan for the first time, and how the two would bring the heat during sparring sessions.
“I remember when he came to Tiger for the first time, and I was like ‘who the hell is this little guy’ because he looks similar to me,” Kara-France said.
“Everyone called him the Russian Kai cause from behind we looked similar. There’s always been this little beef – not beef, friendly competition. We just always wanted to one-up each other, so we always used to spar due to being the same size. So to see what he did to Uriah Faber really solidifies that he needs to fight for the world title.”
Fast forward back to the present and Kara-France currently has his sights set on Tyson Nam, who has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to sharing the octagon with the best. Nam has fought for the UFC, Bellator, WSOF (now PFL) and Elite XC to name just a few, however, this will only be his second outing for the world’s top promotion.
The Hawaiian lost his debut against Sergio Pettis back in September but now has the chance to pick his first UFC victory and spoil the homecoming of Kara-France.
“I know he likes to strike,” said Kara-France when asked about his upcoming opponent.
“I watched his last fight with Sergio Pettis. He does a few good things really well, so we’re definitely going to respect his strengths. But coming into this fight I’m more focused on myself and what I can bring to the table rather than what he’s going to bring. I’ll leave all that stuff to Eugene and our other coaches to breakdown, but for this fight, I’m bringing it to him.”
“I’m also gonna be mixing it up you know, I’m not just gonna be a one-trick pony and look for the knockout, I want to be patient, take my time, feel it out and then kind of go from there.”
Although his opponent is yet to win in the UFC and isn’t ranked, Kara-France is not taking him lightly.
“When you’re in the UFC, you’ve just got to prepare that you’re fighting the best in the world, and give the best version of yourself. I feel like being in a familiar space, where I know what’s on the line and having my whole country and team behind me watching this fight is going to help me rise to the occasion.”
In less than a month’s time, the UFC will once again have a male flyweight champion. Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo will battle it out in the main event in Norfolk, Virginia, to determine who’ll walk away with the 125-pound crown.
Kai Kara-France weighed in on the upcoming title fight, breaking down the skillset of top-ranked Benavidez.
“It’s a great place to be right now in our division because every fight is fun. In the top 15, anyone can beat anyone, and one or two [wins] in a row and you’re back in the mix for title contention.”
“The Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez fight I’ll definitely be watching closely because [they’re] future competition. I feel like Joseph Benavidez is going to be too crafty for Figueiredo; he [Figueiredo] is good at what he does: he hits hard, he’s got a good ground game, he’s aggressive but I feel like he’s going to walk into a trap against Joseph Benavidez and that’s going to be the difference.”
Steven specialises in MMA and Lethwei. He loves a good 1-2 down the middle.