There are eight men’s weight classes in the UFC and if Kai Kara-France defeats Brandon Moreno on Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, in the co-main event of UFC 277, three of them will have champions representing City Kickboxing in New Zealand.
That would be a remarkable achievement for the biggest gym in the United States, but it’s almost mind-blowing to consider coming from a small country that isn’t known for regularly producing world-class fighters.
Kara-France and Moreno will fight for the interim flyweight title in a rematch of a thrilling battle Moreno won by decision at UFC 245. If Kara-France wins, he’ll join middleweight Israel Adesanya and featherweight Alex Volkanovski as UFC champions.
Volkanovski is No. 2 and Adesanya No. 3 on the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings. Kara-France would surely join them in the Top 15 if he defeats Moreno.
“There's something special that's happening in those four walls at City,” Kara-France said.
Success breeds success and having fighters like Adesanya and Volkanovski succeed so wildly at the highest levels of the sport trickled its way down through the team. Their teammates could see what Adesanya and Volkanovski were doing and it was inspirational.
They trained with them. They ate with them. They observed them. And eventually, they began to learn from them.
“We are all pushing each other to get better and to reach greater heights,” Volkanovski said. “There are no egos but there are no shortcuts. Everyone that is a part of this is chasing the same goal, to be the best, and we work to make each other better.”
It’s not like Kara-France came out of nowhere. Before he fought Moreno at UFC 245, he was on an eight-fight winning streak and had won 13 of 14. But he got edged out by Moreno at UFC 245 and after a win over Tyson Nam, was submitted by Brandon Royval.
He seemed as if he’d slide back into the pack, that maybe he’d hit his peak. None of his teammates believed that, though.
“Kai is so talented,” Adesanya said. “He can do so many things.”
Kara-France wasn’t going to settle. He observed the way his teammates pushed through adversity and was determined to do the same. He could have kept doing what he was doing and been one of the better fighters in the world in his class.
But being one of the better fighters in his class didn’t do much for Kara-France. Being the best in his division is the only thing that motivated him. And so he pushed himself and has reeled off three consecutive wins.
He rebounded from the loss to Royval by knocking out Rogerio Bontorin late in the first round of their bout at UFC 259. He dominated ex-bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt at UFC 269, stopping him in the first, and then defeated Askar Askarov over three rounds in March in Columbus, Ohio.
The success of the guys he went to work with every day pushed him to the next level.
“Just about the standards you hold for yourself, and keeping them high, and what you're doing every day, those small ones eventually turn into big ones,” Kara-France said of what he learned from the champions in his gym. “And that's when you start to really see the success, when you're just turning up every day. And that doesn't mean getting into gym wars and putting your body on the line.
“It means how you talk to yourself and what you're doing every day to better yourself. That means in home life, as well, being the best husband and the best father and the gym, being the best athlete and the best UFC fighter. It’s just that mentality of pursuit of being the best and just asking more of yourself. You have 24 hours in the day. What are you doing to maximize that and what are you doing to separate yourself from the rest? And that's what I've done this camp. I've just ticked all the boxes, made no excuses, and just done everything I can.”
He’s a big underdog to Moreno, who is a -200 favorite at BetMGM. Kara-France is +165. He isn’t bothered by the odds, though he doesn’t understand them.
And they’ve left him with a little something to prove. He was annoyed that he didn’t get the credit he felt he deserved for defeating Garbrandt. Most said Garbrandt’s best days were done. Now, being an underdog again just stirs the competitive juices in him that much more.
“What I want to do for this Brandon fight is I want to showcase that I'm on another level,” he said. “And when I make it look easy, people are not going to be saying, ‘Oh, man. Brandon’s washed up. He should retire. ‘They're going to be saying how good Kai looked, how he looks like a champion already, that he’s where he's supposed to be. And that's what I plan on doing. And I welcome being the underdog. I probably am the underdog if I'm not mistaken.
“I've been an underdog my whole career. That's just how it's always been. And I've always been the smallest fighter. But it adds a fuel to me, adds a fuel to the fire. And it just makes me go out there and pretty much shock everyone and show everyone what I'm made of, who I am, what I representing. And I welcome it.”