UFC Auckland: NZ's Kai Kara-France channeling Māori warrior spirit for homecoming

Ask any of the Kiwi UFC contingent about the luxuries afforded by fighting in their hometown and they'll talk about sleeping in their own bed during fight week, returning to the creature comforts of home everyday and how much easier that makes the dreaded weight cut.

That is, everyone except Kai Kara-France. 

He'll be taking every possible measure to ensure optimal performance, come Sunday's showdown with veteran Tyson Nam at UFC Auckland, which means eliminating all potential distractions.

"I'll be staying in a hotel room," Kara-France tells Newshub. "Just so people can't come and bother me, asking for tickets on fight day and stuff. 

"I'll be reachable, but my head still needs to be focused. Everyone kind of knows how it is. 

"I've got to be professional and I have a job to do, even though it's going to be great to have my own home crowd watching me go to work."

Kara-France has taken few days off, since his tight decision loss to Brandon Moreno at UFC 245 in December, and Waitangi Day is no exception. The morning workout at his second home at Auckland's City Kickboxing is already in the bag and he'll be back a few hours later to endure the special kind of hell that goes with wrestling training.

In the fight game, coping with defeat typically sends athletes one of two ways - a spiral into a mire of self doubt or an extra dose of fuel is poured on their competitive fire.

Kara-France has taken the latter approach, as he comes to terms with the end of an eight-win streak by immediately identifying, then rectifying the areas he was found wanting.

While it'll go down in the loss column, the relentlessly action-packed affair would've done little harm to his stocks.

"It was bittersweet," Kara-France admitted. "It was one of these things where we could take positives away from our performance. 

"But I had a few holes that I wanted to fix up, so straight away, I was in the gym, working on those with [trainer] Eugene [Bareman].

"Just looking to become more well rounded and more comfortable in the line of fire when I'm under pressure... making sure that I'm covered and I'm doing all the right things to be protecting myself."

"It definitely lights a fire underneath you and I feel like that's what you need to stay hungry. You just know that you can't take winning for granted."

Kara-France and Brandon Moreno show mutual respect, after their entertaining clash at UFC 245 in December.
Kara-France and Brandon Moreno show mutual respect, after their entertaining clash at UFC 245 in December. Photo credit: Getty

Although he's still just 26-years-old, Kara-France has 10 years of professional fighting under his belt. He knows how to navigate these waters.

"That was my first loss in three years, but I know how to pick myself up - it's not my first time being in this position. It's not like we got blown out. 

"It's a game of inches and it's just one of those things where it could've gone either way. 

"It's not my personality to dwell on things. I'm just going to move forward... we didn't get the result. but we'll pick ourselves up and we go again. 

"You always come back twice as good."

And what situation could be more tailormade for a return to the win column than a fight on home soil.

Kara-France unsuccessfully campaigned to be part of the UFC's last visit to NZ shores in 2017. He had to settle for a cageside seat to watch teammate Dan Hooker's flying-knee knockout of Ross Pearson. 

Two-and-a-half years and three UFC wins later, he's about to share a card with Hooker, as well as stablemate Brad Riddell.

"I've been picturing my walkout ever since then. I had to be a part of this card, and I'm glad it's kind of  all worked out and it's all about to actually happen. 

"It's all planned out the way we thought it would've and it's going to be amazing. I have a lot of friends and family who are all coming, and this time, they don't have to fly over to Australia or over to the US - it's all going to be happening just down the road."

But does competing with loved ones and thousands of raucous fans in your corner bring an added weight of pressure? Kara-France quickly dismisses that suggestion. 

"I've already fought under these conditions before in my last fight in Vegas on one of the biggest cards of the year and in the The Ultimate Fighter, where I fought in a warehouse with Dana White right in front of me. You can't have much more pressure than those kinds of fights.

"I feel like it's going to make the difference and help me rise to the occasion… show them all this hard work we've been putting in at the gym. You use that energy of the stadium and harness it to add to your performance. 

"This is just another day for me. I'm focusing on the things I can control and that's Tyson Nam."

The 36-year-old Hawaiian dropped his only UFC bout to date to Sergio Pettis back in September, but has a wealth of professional experience behind him, with a record of 18-10.

"I've taken this fight very seriously. A few people have been saying he's not ranked or sleeping on him, but I know about Tyson Nam.

"I've got to make sure I'm covered in every aspect of this fight. He's going to feel it straight away that he's in hostile territory, right from the get go. 

"There's no way I'm letting him come in here and take this from me. 

"Looking at his last fight against Sergio, he was a bit hesitant, maybe a bit too stand-offish, waiting for Sergio to lead the dance. I want to make sure that I'm first to go."

Flyweight has a heavier concentration of talent than any other UFC division, and Kara-France realises he's only ever a victory or two away from title contention. Add to that equation Henry Cejudo's decision to vacate his belt and the championship picture is wide open.

The next step towards that belt comes at Spark Arena, where 'Don't Blink' intends planting a flag for his people and representing Aotearoa the best way he knows how.

As his saying goes, he'll be keeping it "loyal to the soil" and the Aucklander plans to give Nam a unique tourist experience.

"I'm going to be channeling all my ancestors, all my tīpuna, who would've been doing this hundreds of years ago on our battlefield, fighting over land.

"This is the modern-day version of that, where we're laying it down for my people and for the gym and myself. I'm hungry, I'm motivated and I can't wait to get in there."

"That's what I'm bringing for this fight - that Māori warrior spirit - and I'm not going to stop until I get that win."

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