The road to the big leagues has been a winding path for New Zealand's latest UFC export, Kai Kara-France.
The Aucklander was a contestant on the organisation's The Ultimate Fighter reality show back in 2016, a proving ground that the promotion uses to identify new talent.
Kara-France made an undeniable impression on the show, living up to his 'Don't Blink' moniker with a devastating walk-off knockout that was the season's clear highlight.
The stars appeared to be aligning perfectly for Kara-France to lock in a long-term deal, but - bafflingly - the contract offer never came and his dream had to wait.
In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.
"When I didn't get picked up after The Ultimate Fighter, it did leave a salty taste in my mouth," Kara-France told Newshub.
"I just wanted to get back on that win streak and show why I should be in the UFC, so that definitely motivated me."
Undeterred, Kara-France took the Asia route, building his CV with fights in Japan with RIZIN, Guam, and China. Through one stretch, he fought an astonishing three times in just seven weeks.
The UFC couldn't overlook him any longer and it eventually came calling. Now he's just a few days removed from his official debut against Elias Garcia at the UFC Fight Night in Adelaide on Sunday.
"It's kind of all worked out. I've matured more as a fighter as well, so I feel like I'm more ready now than I was after the show.
"I feel like I'm just starting to hit my prime right now, so it definitely gives me confidence going into this weekend's fight and into the future."
With six wins from his last seven fights and currently in the midst of a five-fight undefeated streak, the 25-year-old believes the 2018 version of Kara-France is a much different proposition.
"I'm just a lot more focused on where I want to go in this sport.
"Of course, back then, I wanted to get to the UFC, but you’ve got to do a lot of things just at that high level to even compete there.
"I've been fixing the holes in my game. They weren’t necessarily big holes, but you can't have any when you make your debut, especially if you want to stick around for a long time."
Now operating under the tutelage of trainer extraordinaire Eugene Bareman at Auckland's renowned City Kickboxing, the hard-hitting flyweight has come into his own.
In fact, Kara-France puts much of his recent growth down to his decision to return to New Zealand from his Thailand base, where he lived and trained at famed Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.
"Making that full transition and coming back home, being around my family and learning off Eugene fulltime definitely made the difference - just being more set.
"I sat down with Eugene after The Ultimate Fighter and we came up with a gameplan to get back to where we wanted to be. He just said trust the process and everything would work out.
"So that's what I've done - not overthink things. Showed up to training and when it came time to fight, I just listened to my corner and got the job done."
Funnily enough, it was Bareman who encouraged Kara-France to explore offshore training opportunities, all part of an elaborate ploy.
"He always knew New Zealand had the better training and technique, but he kind of wanted us to see for ourselves. You had to go over there to realise the grass isn’t greener on the other side.
"I got to train with a lot of different coaches, bodies, different looks and styles, but to come back to NZ, you realise we've had it good this whole time. We don't need to go overseas to get these world-class training camps, we can do it all in our backyard.
"We're doing all the right things and now people are starting to take notice, with [fellow UFC fighters] Dan [Hooker] and Izzy [Adesanya] leading the way.
Now the pressure falls on Kara-France to maintain City Kickboxing's flawless 7-0 UFC record in 2018.
With that gruelling 12-week fight camp now in the books, the fun part really begins for Kara-France.
Not even an 11th-hour change of opponent could fluster him. Injury forced Sydney's Ashkan Mokhtarian to withdraw from the bout, leaving Garcia to step in on short notice to fill the gap.
"The work had already been done before the opponent got changed, so we didn’t really need to adjust too much stylistically.
"Eugene [Bareman] makes all the game-planning and watches all the fight footage, so I just listen to him and I trust him with everything.
"Focussing on too much specific stuff with your opponent… that can make you overthink things. That's what we're good with at City Kickboxing - not limiting ourselves to a certain technique or discipline.
"We just train for everything."
There are no nerves for Kara-France, just a mixture of anxious excitement and a burning desire to prove he belongs - and has always belonged - on MMA's biggest stage.
"I've been thinking about this moment for quite a while, ever since I was in The Ultimate Fighter and I got the taste of it, but not the full effect.
"I'm not going to be over-confident, just be in the moment - let it happen and take the finish when I see it."
And with the hometown kid making way for an American, and a horde of about 50 friends and family jumping across the ditch for the weekend, Kara-France won’t be short of support at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre.
"That definitely makes you rise to the occasion - when you see people you know in the crowd, cheering you on, you can showcase what you’ve been doing and all the hard work you’ve been putting in.
"I just want to make a statement why I should be in the UFC. All these years of hard work - not being a part of it, I've just got to make up for lost time and keep being exciting, keep getting better and taking it fight by fight."
As for the contest itself, the battle-hardened Kara-France believes he has one very distinct advantage.
"Garcia is only 6-1 as a professional, I'm 17-7. I've had a lot more fights, a lot more ring-time, so you're going to see that in this fight - I have a lot more experience.
"But I'm not taking him lightly at all… I'm not going be over-confident. Just be in the moment, let the fight pan out naturally and take the finish when I see it."
"I'm coming in feeling good, eating good and more than ready."
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