UFC 253: Peek inside City Kickboxing COVID-19 bubble with Kai Kara-France

Spending more than two weeks in a coronavirus-forced isolation bubble was the perfect remedy to cure the longest inactive period of Kai Kara-France's UFC stint.

The Kiwi flyweight contender will enter the Octagon for the first time in seven months next weekend, when he takes on American Brandon Rovyal in Abu Dhabi.

UFC 253 on Fight Island will see four Kiwis in action, with headliner Israel Adesanya joined by City Kickboxing teammates Kara-France, Brad Riddell and Shane Young.

But for Kara-France, the fight is a long time coming, after his unanimous decision win over Tyson Nam in February.

The 27-year-old has seen his path to a UFC title stunted by the coronavirus pandemic that has limited fight opportunities for anyone based outside the United States.

But that ends on September 27 and after a 17-day lockdown stint with his teammates at their Auckland base, the No.7-ranked contender is more prepared than at any other stage of his 30-fight career.

"This is my longest layoff since I started fighting, so I want to showcase myself," Kara-France tells Newshub. "I'm coming in sharp and fully fit, and can't wait to get in there."

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced last month that Auckland would return to lockdown, Kara-France received a call from head coach Eugene Bareman.

The mixed martial arts supremo had a plan in place should the unthinkable happen as his charges prepared for battle - live and train at the gym, in a safe, family-orientated environment.

So Kara-France joined seven training partners, wrestling coach John Vake and Bareman, and hunkered down in a gym bubble.

"Eugene told us the day we went into lockdown to get all our gear, our mattress and a bit of food, because we were moving into the gym,

"Having a group of 10 guys training for fights, all in the same headspace with the same mindset... you can't get better.

"He wanted to make sure the quality was really good and the whole team is firing off the back of it. It was one of our best camps."

Kara-France draws comparisons with the NRL's NZ Warriors, who have performed beyond expectations in a 2020 season that has seen them based exclusively in Australia.

Coach Todd Payten said recently how proud he was of his team for coming together and becoming true teammates over the course of the last several months.

And while the City Kickboxing bubble situation was vastly different to that of their rugby league counterparts, Kara-France relates to Payten's assessment.

"I can kinda see the correlation with how the Warriors season has been panning out and then how we have had to do the same thing.

"This lockdown is all about perspective and making the best out of the situation.

"The Warriors are on a bit of a form streak right now, and that's because they have been together in close quarters and riding it out.

"We have been doing the same thing."

The CKB family culture has become legendary within the MMA community. Bareman has created a winning attitude, based on teamwork and support for your fellow fighters.

Kara-France tells Newshub that culture only strengthened during their isolation time together.

"Going for runs together as a team, running up Mount Eden when the sun was rising... these small things add up and help create that bond.

"It makes us closer and now, when we go in there and fight, we already know what we are made of. If 10 guys couldn't break me, what's one man going to do to me?"

But the CKB bubble wasn't all training and combat. Game and movie nights, barbeques and home-cooked meals helped bring some normality into an otherwise unusual experience.

"A lot of guys love hunting, the outdoors and camping, so they were already fully kitted out with their gazebos and barbeques - all the bells and whistles to survive a zombie apocalypse - so we were fully spoiled on that note.

"We are lucky enough to be next to a catering company and they didn't want their food going to waste, so we were more than happy to take that off their hands.

"It was all fresh produce, so very healthy stuff - big shout out to Urban Catering for that.

"We had plenty of things to keep us active outside of training - the guys had their PS4s playing Call of Duty and that kept everyone entertained. 

Kara-France, Israel Adesanya and Shane Young
Kara-France, Israel Adesanya and Shane Young Photo credit: Photosport
Brad Riddell
Brad Riddell Photo credit: Getty

"We had NetFlix too, so yeah it was easy to help pass the time by.

"It was important to maintain some normality, so we had home-cooked meals, a weekly barbecue to bring the team together and that's important to have, outside of all the training and gruelling sparring sessions. 

"It helps with the family environment."

Join us for live updates of UFC 253 from 2pm Sunday, September 27