UFC 234: Kai Kara-France in his happy place inside the Octagon

The Octagon is Kai Kara-France's happy place and that spells trouble for his Brazilian opponent at UFC 234 in Melbourne this weekend.

The Kiwi flyweight will make his second appearance in the 'big league' of mixed martial arts (MMA) against Raulian Paiva Frazao at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena.

Kara-France successfully opened his UFC account with a decision win over Elias Garcia in Adelaide last December. The diminutive Aucklander recovered from a shaky first round, in which he was dropped with a strike and then almost succumbed to a triangle minutes later.

The City Kickboxing prospect dominated the final 10 minutes in a tremendous bout that earned the pair a 'Fight of the Night' bonus.

Kara-France admits nerves were at the surface, as he looked across the cage at his opponent, but wise words from coach Eugene Bareman cleared his mind.

Bareman reminded his protégé that the cage was his happy place.

"That was my 20th professional fight," Kara-France told Newshub. "It's not like the Octagon is a trigger to make you forget how to fight.

"One thing I learnt in Adelaide is that it's just another cage. The UFC is such a big stage with the bright lights and all the people in attendance, but once you get past all of that, it's just another fight.

"I was more than ready to put on a show and showcase what I can do, and that gave me confidence.

"I was just really happy that I was able to show more than just my striking. It was my conditioning, my submission defence and my cool head in those heated moments.

"The triangle choke he had on me was really tight, but my experiences outside the UFC had taught me all those valuable lessons early on in my career.

"I knew I was still breathing and I was still okay and once I got the position back, I could see in his eyes that he was broken and he knew he couldn't finish me.

"That fight kind of reassured things for me that what I am doing is keeping me on track."

UFC 234: Kai Kara-France in his happy place inside the Octagon

Kara-France is currently riding a career-best six-fight win streak.

The 25-year-old made his pro debut back in 2010 and has fought as high as lightweight through his 25 fights. With a current record of 18-7, Kara-France acknowledges it took him some time to figure out the easiest way to victory, but 11 wins in his last 12 fights suggest he is finally comfortable.

The man known as 'Don't Blink' has travelled the world to hone his craft, including stints at the famed Tiger Muay Thai in Thailand and Arizona to train with UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, and he spent time on the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality series.

But Kara-France bases himself at home now, at the ever-growing City Kickboxing gym in central Auckland.

With teammates including Dan Hooker, Israel Adesanya, Shane Young, Junior Fa and most recently Commonwealth boxing champion David Nyika, 'CKB' is establishing itself as one of the fastest growing fight camps in combat sports.

In 2018 alone, City Kickboxing fighters scored 10 wins inside the Octagon, with the sole loss being Hooker's stoppage defeat at the hands of perennial lightweight contender Edson Barboza.

Kara-France senses a huge shift in momentum surrounding MMA in New Zealand and points to his team's success as the turning point.

"I feel like there is a blueprint now," Kara-France says. "Having guys like Dan Hooker and Israel Adesanya, they have paved the way," 

"I'm really excited to show the younger generation that this can be a sport you can gain success at fighting at home. Myself, Dan and Izzy all travelled overseas to get better, but we all realised everything we needed was back home.

"We utilised all those experiences and techniques from overseas, and brought them back to New Zealand, and now we have passed that on to a system at City Kickboxing that really works.

"As a gym, we were 10-1 in the UFC last year - we are really keen to continue that into 2019.

"There's nothing we haven't done to ensure success. We don't take breaks.

"I have been here every day throughout the holidays. Christmas Day, I was here at 6am - on New Year's Day, I was here at 6am.

"That gives us confidence going into these fights, knowing that we have all done all we could have to prepare ourselves the best for such a high platform that is the UFC."

UFC 234: Kai Kara-France in his happy place inside the Octagon

The latter end of 2018 proved to be a time of uncertainty for UFC flyweights, with murmurings the company was looking to disband the division.

Long-time champion Demetrious Johnson was traded to ONE Championship after his title loss to Cejudo and more than a dozen flyweights were cut from the roster soon after.

But Cejudo's recent triumph over bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in a super fight has quashed that talk.

Cejudo was a big betting underdog going in and the thought was a Dillashaw win would effectively end the division.

Cejudo, who was Kara-France's coach on the Ultimate Fighter, stopped Dillashaw inside the first minute and made it clear that flyweights were here to stay.

Kara-France was delighted with the result and spoke with his former coach through a text message after the fight.

"It was a massive achievement for Henry to step up against the bantamweight champion and finish him so quickly

"TJ Dillashaw is truly one of the best fighters in the UFC, but I was so happy when he got stopped.

"The way he was talking in the lead-up, you could almost sense he was way too overconfident. I think he thought he could take the heavy shots that he normally takes in his weight class, but he cut so much weight for the fight with Henry.

"Henry sent me a message after the fight, saying 'I did this for us', so it's reassuring that the flyweight champion isn't just out for himself - he wants to keep the division alive and exciting.

"There are only 21 or so of us at the moment, so we are all fighting for our careers. Everyone is putting it on the line and keeping it exciting."

The UFC represents Kara-France's lifelong dream. There were never thoughts of wearing a Blackcaps or All Blacks jersey. He flirted with football at school, but the cage was always where he felt comfortable and his call-up to the world's premier organisation vindicated his ambition.

A student at one of Auckland's most famous sporting high schools, Kara-France is weeks away from joining some of the greatest sportsmen in New Zealand history.

"I have been asked by Mt Albert Grammar to join their sporting honours board.

"My high school had such a rich history of elite athletes like Sonny Bill Williams, Ray Sefo, Peter Snell, so to be a part of that is a true honour.

"This has been my dream to be in the UFC. Growing up the UFC was my All Blacks jersey. "

UFC 234 doesn't quite represent Kara-France's Rugby World Cup, but a few more wins as impressive as his first will have him competing for gold in the near future.

Join Newshub for live updates of UFC 234 from 12:30pm Sunday February 10.

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