One of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s most recently signed flyweights, Auckland, New Zealand’s Kai Kara-France knows that it’s an inopportune time to be a 125’er. With the UFC president being non-committal about the future of the division, and its long-reigning champion having recently departed to One Championshipafter his upset loss to Henry Cejudo in August, there’s a prevailing sense of insecurity that’s characterized his short time with the promotion.
Three weeks ago, “Don’t Blink” wowed MMA fans in his debut at UFC Fight 142, where he cut through late replacement Elias Garcia with a unanimous decision (30-25, 30-25, 30-26) and earned a $50k fight of the night bonus in the process; a week later, Garcia received his walking papers.
“It’s really cutthroat. From that fight night, two flyweights have been cut already. My opponent Elias Garcia and Ben Nguyen” Kara-France told Sherdog.com. “When I signed [the UFC] gave us the option [to fight at 125 or 135 pounds] and my coach Eugene [Bareman] thought that 125 was better. It’s a shallow division, and that’s my natural weight. I’m not the tallest, so I can be a bigger threat in that division. We weren’t expecting all these rumours about the division being cut when we signed. We didn’t have that in mind.
“Going into that fight there was a bit of pressure on me,” he added. “People were saying ‘this is your last fight, win or lose.’ To go into a fight knowing that even if you win, you might not get another chance … people were saying I’d have to go up to bantamweight. All I focused on was putting on a performance. And it was the best performance of my career.”
Kara-France has already booked his next opponent, facing the debuting Brazilian Raulian Paiva Frazao at UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia. It’s a quick turnaround, but the 25-fight veteran figures he has to strike while the iron is hot. “The spotlight can come and go just like that” he said. “While I have momentum, while people are watching me, I want to put on a big show.”
The fact that Israel Adesanya, Kara France’s longtime friend and training partner at New Zealand’s famed City Kickboxing gym, will serve as one half of the co-main event at UFC 234 also serves as something of a consolation for missing out on Christmas indulgences. “I’ve got no injuries from my fight, so. I can recycle my last fight camp into this one” Kara-France said. “I celebrate[d] the last two weeks, went away with the missus. Soak[ed] in that little break. And now we start to pick up again. It’s eight weeks out. No real Christmas or New Years for me. I’ll be training right through. But it’s going to be nice to have Israel on the same card to train with and get ready for as well.”
One gets the sense that Kara-France also wants to make up for lost time, having spent the majority of his career competing in smaller shows littered across the globe. Based in Thailand and fighting out of the Tiger Muay Thai camp before he relocated back home to Auckland two years ago, Kara-France was flying by the seat of his pants, networking with fellow fighters and promoters and taking fights from all comers. Over the course of eight years, the Kiwi has fought in no fewer than 13 different countries, and once found himself fighting on international waters, on a cruise ship traveling from Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand.
“It was like the wild west … you just met a lot of people, you get messages saying ‘hey you want to fight on this card?’” Kara-France said. “That’s how I got fights, I was managing myself. I would just set them up -- ‘yeah that’s OK, I’ll fight for that much, I’ll make that weight.’ I’d go over with a corner-man, sometimes not though, sometimes by myself. End of the day, you just have to fight.”
Now, Kara-France looks back at those formative experiences and reflects on how far he’s come. “Living in Thailand was a great experience,” he said. “Just picking up so much exposure over there. Living, eating and breathing mixed martial arts. The cost of living was cheap. I wasn’t making great money, but I made enough to kind of live the lifestyle. That really made me appreciate the UFC going from like, fighting in Muay Thai stadiums where people are smoking and drinking where you’re warming up, to going to Adelaide where you get looked after. It’s just nice where you’ve come from, and where you are now to get appreciated like that.”
The road from the Asian regional scene to the UFC wasn’t quite straight forward for Kara-France, though. He looked briefly on his way to a UFC contract in 2016 after joining the cast of The Ultimate Fighter’s “Tournament of Champions” season and earning a scintillating walk-off KO victory over No. 8-seeded Terrance Mitchell in the first 30 seconds of the contest. But he subsequently lost via decision to Alexandre Pantoja in the quarter finals and didn’t get picked up after the show ended. That left him at something of crossroads, but Kara-France never doubted that he’d make it to the big leagues. He also says he benefited immensely from training under Henry Cejudo, his coach for the season, and will be rooting for him when he attempts to fend off T.J. Dillashaw in their “superfight” in January on the organization’s first show on the ESPN+ streaming platform.
“Yeah I was on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ with Henry Cejudo, he was my coach.” Kara-France said. “We’re still friends, we still talk. He could potentially be an opponent of mine in the future. Which would be awesome. I’m definitely rooting for him to win [against Dillashaw]. I feel like he does have a skillset that can beat T.J. He’s going to be faster. People think his striking isn’t on T.J.’s level. He improves so much from fight to fight. I feel like he’s going to be a lot more well-rounded that people give him credit for. T.J.’s first time at flyweight, the weight cut is definitely going to be a factor.”
“Hopefully it’s going to be one of those fights [that is] back and forth, showcases why us flyweights should be in the UFC,” he continued. “I want Henry to win, it would be awesome ... an Olympic gold medallist, the flyweight champion, that took out the bantamweight champion.”
Kara-France also provided an update on the health and spirits of his close friend and City Kickboxing teammate Dan Hooker, who competed in the UFC on Fox 31 co-headliner over the weekend opposite Brazilian striking ace Edson Barboza. “The Hangman” put on a courageous effort, refusing to capitulate to a series of crushing blows in the second round before ultimately being stopped in brutal fashion in the third, leading some to criticize Hooker’s coaches for not throwing the towel in earlier.
“We share the same physio, and the physio told me that he’s in good spirits” Kara-France said. “He hasn’t got too much damage. The only injury that he has is a broken cheek bone or something like that. I think there was also a dent in his face from the fight. He’s not too bad, he’s banged up. But yeah, it was a gutsy performance on his behalf. A lot of people would have crumbled in that second round. I’ve known Dan for a long time, there’s no quit in him. You have to kill him to get him out.”
“Even though he was hurt, there was no way in hell that his corner would have stopped that” he continued. “He’s too stubborn, he won’t stop. In that third round, people are saying ‘this fight should have been stopped [earlier].’ Dan would fight you to death if you told him he couldn’t fight. It’s just one of those things.”
The conversation closes with a discussion of Kara-France’s ambitions for the next 12 months. Though the 25-year old is known for his shyness and soft-spoken demeanor, his ambition is palpable and he isn’t setting any limits on himself.
“I see myself definitely in title contention” he said. “If Henry Cejudo is still the champ, that would be awesome to set myself up to [challenge him]. That would be awesome to market -- when your idols become your rivals.”
While he’s not looking past his next opponent, Kara-France also has his sights set on another UFC card in Auckland, hopefully anchored by Adesanya and middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who was born in Auckland and is part Maori.
“We’ll see what happens. Hopefully in 2019 [the UFC] come back to Auckland. That’s always been the dream for me, to be on a show at Spark Arena. Hopefully Izzy and Robert Whittaker wins, and they can headline. We can definitely campaign for that to happen next year.
I’ve heard rumors that they’re gonna do it, it just depends on what part of the year. I’m not gonna look past this fight either, I’m just focused on Melbourne… I’m expecting a barn burner for this fight against Frazao.”
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.