UFC 277: Kai Kara-France 1-on-1 with Kevin Iole

Kai Kara-France gets his first shot at a title belt Saturday at UFC 277 when he faces former champion Brandon Moreno for the interim flyweight title. The City Kickboxing product tells Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole he's not looking past Moreno, but that he envisions unifying the titles against champion Deiveson Figueiredo in New Zealand.

Video transcript

[CROWD CHEERING]

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, everybody. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to "Yahoo Sports." UFC 277 is on Saturday in Dallas, Texas. And in the co-main event, you're going to see this young man, Kai Kara-France. He is going to challenge Brandon Moreno for the interim flyweight championship. Kai, welcome. Thank you for being with me.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Thank you for having me.

KEVIN IOLE: What is going on in New Zealand at City Kickboxing. If I'm not mistaken-- I'm not really good at math-- but there's eight weight classes. And two of them already are championed by City Kickboxing. And you win this, and we're going to have 37 and 1/2% of all UFC titles owned by New Zealand fighters. What is going on down there?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Yeah, man. There's something special that's happening in those four walls at City. So the kickboxing led by Eugene. And yeah, we're just riding this wave. But this has been happening for years now. It's not just in the UFC. We've been making these moves a long time ago.

It's just now that it's brought to everyone's attention, and brought into more fame, more lights, more world titles. But the hard work is being put into New Zealand combat sports for years now. And--

KEVIN IOLE: Sure.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: --I guess being at the front of it, it's awesome. And we're definitely paving the way for the next generation. What we're trying to do is let everyone know when we first started, we had to travel overseas to obtain all this knowledge. And full circle, we could come back to New Zealand and start training under City Kickboxing and bring all that knowledge back to the gym and create the system that everyone's just thriving in.

And you're seeing that now. And with the success of the boys. Yeah, it's not slowing down anytime soon. So I'm privileged to be a part of that movement and to be a part of that wave. And I've been saying that for years. It's a takeover. And City Kickboxing is at the front right now.

KEVIN IOLE: Israel Adesanya, the middleweight champ and Alex Volkanovski, the featherweight champ are two of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world, no matter who you talk to, I think. And there's an attitude that Eugene has really built on there. How has that helped you being around two guys that have championships?

I know you're around a lot of good fighters in that camp, but specifically those two guys who have a lot of title defenses. They've held the belts for a while. They've beaten a lot of really good opponents. When you see that and you see the way they carry themselves, does it have a positive impact on you?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Oh, definitely. Just about the standards you hold on yourself, and keeping them high, and what you're doing every day, those small ones eventually turn into big ones. 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.

So 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.

KEVIN IOLE: I talked to--

KAI KARA-FRANCE: We don't trai--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

KAI KARA-FRANCE: We don't take days off. We train seven days a week for 10 weeks out of the camp. So when it comes to Fight Week, this is luxury because usually we're grinding right now. Usually we're deep into rounds or doing some sort of conditioning. So Fight Week, you get to pull back a little bit and let your body recover from such a hard camp.

And then, that's where the confidence comes from, knowing that you've done everything possible, there's no stone you haven't unturned, and just ready to go in there and bring another world title back to the gym.

KEVIN IOLE: I had a chance, I was going to say, to speak to Brandon earlier. And he mentioned two things about-- Obviously, this is a rematch of a fight you guys fought at UFC 245. That was a really special fight, I mean. That was a fun fight. He won that by a decision but right off the get-go, you two started going.

And he said that he thinks the difference-- and you compare to then and now-- is really confidence. And he said I can look at technique or whatever, he said. But he's a more confident fighter, and that's translating into the cage. Would you agree with that? And if so, where did that boost of confidence come from?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Yeah, definitely, I would agree with that. It's confidence and momentum right now. Look, where I'm at. And look, what we've been able to do in the last two years. The last two years, people don't really realize this, but it's been tough for New Zealand and Australian athletes, having to quarantine every time we leave the country, so that's two weeks at a time, sacrificing family time.

Our gym was shut for about four months, so I couldn't even train with my teammates. I couldn't even see them really. We were so restricted back home in New Zealand. And it just made me really grateful, and not taking anything for granted, and also not making any excuses.

When everything's taken away like that, you just have to focus on what you can control. And what you can control is how you talk to yourself. And that means, what are you saying to yourself? Are you saying, come on? Don't be lazy. Don't be-- don't be a wimp. Just get up. Or are you saying, let's go champ, beat yourself up? We've got to work harder to win.

I know you're the best in the world. Let's go out there and show them. That's the difference. And like I said before, look, what we've done in the last two years, not being an even playing field, having to travel every time we fight, having to travel for five weeks at a time, sacrificing family time, home time, and then still beating world champions, still beating guys that never lost before.

My coach had to leave the day I got into Vegas when I fought Cody Garbrandt because he couldn't get back into New Zealand if he stayed and cornered me. So he wasn't there when he cornered me. I had my nutritionist. I had my wrestling coach, Fred Kirkman, and I had my teammate, Dan Hooker. They were the three that were cornering me. So my biggest fight of my career, I didn't have my head coach, didn't have my gym pretty much, was shut for--

KEVIN IOLE: Amazing.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: --four months and can still go out there and take them out in the first round. So gave me a lot of confidence. And now that everything is back to normal, we're just ready to go. Like I said, I haven't taken any shortcuts this camp. I'm ready to go five rounds or one round. Wherever Brandon wants to go, we'll have an answer. So I welcome it.

And I'm a completely different fighter since that first fight three years ago. It's not the same. I'm a father now. I'm a husband, more responsibilities. But I step up into that role. And I just welcome it. I'm not shying away from it. And that's what-- I mean, when I-- you see the confidence. I'm not fighting it anymore-- what was to come.

I knew what was expected. I knew where I had to be. And I've just done everything I can. So now it's Fight Week, I'm not dwelling on anything. And I've done everything possible. And let's just go out there and have fun. Do what we do best. And that's win world titles and just back myself.

KEVIN IOLE: I want to ask you, your fight with Cody Garbrandt was an interesting one because, you know, here's Cody, a former world champion-- and he had been on hard times and struggled a little bit, moved on. And I think a lot of people thought, OK, this former world champion moving down in wage, he's going to fight a smaller guy. He's going to impose his will. And Kai's going to be in trouble. And we'll see the return of Cody Garbrandt, right?

I think there was a school of thought that way. How much-- you talk about your confidence going up. How much of it was because all of those factors that were against you when you fought Cody-- and I mean, my Lord, did you really handle him in that fight? Maybe your most impressive fight. How much do you think that helped you in terms of making you believe fully 100% in what you can do?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: That fight just went exactly to a T how we thought it would. We'd find the churn early would have them hurt and they would do what he does and that's swing and let's be aggressive. And I guess overcompensate where we countered that with stillness, with calmness, composure. And then that's when we found our targets.

So I was a bit disrespected by people's reactions, not giving me credit where credit was due. And that's because I made it look easy. People were saying, Cody's washed up. Cody's not the fighter he used to be. He needs to retire. But it's because I made it look that easy. If you see the shots I was landing, they were fast. They were sharp. And they were on targets. And I didn't miss a shot that whole night.

And that's what I want to do for this Brandon fight. I want to showcase that I'm on another level. 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--

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: --how he looks like a champion already, 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.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, better than two to one, right?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Yeah, 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 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.

I don't shy away from playing that role in the fight. And when I win, it's just satisfying knowing that I just went out there and shut all these doubters up and made everyone take notice. And it's just championship mindset where you'd never count yourself out. Even though you're in the fight, you're in a bad position, or whatever's happening, you'll find a way.

And they can put anyone in front of me, Figueiredo, Henry Cejudo, anyone, and I'll find a way. That's just where I'm at in my career. And it doesn't mean that I'm not taking Brandon serious. It's not about that. It's a battle about yourself and how far you're willing to take it. And he wants everything that I want. And that's to be a world champion.

So nothing personal. I like Brandon. We're friends from Ultimate Fighter. But I got to respect my dreams. And this has always been a bucket list of mine to be a world champion. And it's right there.

KEVIN IOLE: It's interesting when you say you shocked everybody, is like I think-- you made me think of Muhammad Ali like when he was screaming, "I shook up the world. I shook up the world," when he beat Sonny Liston after that fight. And so you may do that. And I guess what I'm getting at with that is, it's going to be a tough fight because they saw you fight one time before.

But now, both of you are different fighters. He's been a world champion since then. You've had these big wins. And you know that he has evolved in terms of-- he has-- I don't say now he has, but his ground game is really something. He submitted Figueiredo. So he has more than just stand up. Obviously, this would be a big win for you if you beat him. This is one of the best pound-for-pound guys in the world as well.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Yeah, exactly. Big test, big ask. My last fight was counted out against a guy that's never lost, the guy that's one of the best wrestlers in our division. And I stuffed. He only got two out of those 14 takedowns, so I stuffed majority of those takedowns and changed that fight around. It was all mental. And like I said, I never counted myself out.

So it was a momentum shift and that second round where he couldn't get me down and he was getting frustrated. And I just stayed in the space. And that's just where experience takes over. I've been in these big fights before where I'm not overwhelmed with whatever's going on. And I just feed off it.

I feed off my opponent's getting tired. I feed off the energy of the crowd. I feed off my preparation. I trained with world champions day in and day out. So I know what it takes. I know what they're doing. And I know what we're doing at City Kickboxing. And it's on another level. These guys can prepare however they want, bring in new guys, bring in different coaches, different looks, but we've stayed the same.

I haven't changed my camps my whole UFC career. And I've just stayed on track and kept turning up. And yeah, if you're comparing us from the first fight back in 2019, probably the worst thing you can do because I'm not the same fighter. I'm not the same Kai. I'm in a different headspace, having more purpose in my life, fighting for my family, my son, my wife, obviously the gym that I come from.

And it's just so much more on the line. So when I look at it that way, I put so much more into this, 24 hours in the day, and just maximizing every second of it. And if it's not helping me at home life being a better father and a better husband or helping me in the gym, being a better fighter, that's where all my energy. And that's where my priorities are at the moment.

So I've been believing I'm the best in the world for the last few years, and look, what you're seeing in the ring. So when I go out there on Saturday, I'm going to be in hostile territory. I know everyone's going to be going for Brandon, especially being so close to Mexico and Texas. But I welcome it. I feed off it. I love those moments where everyone's against you, all this pressure. But I'll go out there, and I'll find a way.

KEVIN IOLE: Let's wrap with this. And I appreciate your time so much. With what you guys are doing, how has the sport evolved in New Zealand? I mean, is, like, Saturday night a big deal in New Zealand now given Alex just came off that incredible win? Israel had the fight with Cannonier that he won. I mean, now, what is it like down there? Is there MMA mania because of you guys?

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Definitely. What we're doing right now is like a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon being from New Zealand and doing what we're doing. We punch well above our weight. And people wouldn't really know where New Zealand is or what we do unless they were watching the UFC and been like, oh, those guys are from New Zealand. I know him because of that.

And our national team's the All Blacks, which is rugby team. They haven't been doing so well. They've been losing. And this is, like, perfect timing, perfect timing for me to go out there and represent my country and, I guess, pick everyone back up, and make us realize we have another world champion we can be proud of, and paving the way for that next generation where we're showing it can be done if you just back yourself believe yourself and just keep turning up. You could also be a world champion.

So that's what we do at our gym. And it's a massive wave right now the New Zealand and Australia mixed martial arts in the UFC everyone is doing so well not just at our gym with Izzy and Alex, and the rest of the boys. But in Australia, you [INAUDIBLE] about to headline a card on a massive run. You've got Jake Matthews on a big win streak twice, and Tyson--

KEVIN IOLE: Big win last time for him. Yeah.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Yeah, exactly. So there's a massive wave happening. And we can't wait for an event to happen down those ways in the future. I know we've missed it. And everyone else says, and look what everyone's been doing outside of our country. And we want to put our show on for our friends and family.

So that's what I plan on doing. This is me predicting the future. I'm going to go out there, make a statement against Brandon Morena, and then I'm going to defend it against Figuiredo, unify against Figuiredo, hopefully my hometown Australia and New Zealand, and put on a show for them. So one fight at a time. I'm not looking past Brandon at all. That's how I see things happening.

And then imagine me, Izzy, and Alex headlining a card in our hometown. It all can happen. So just have to manifest it and do my job on Saturday night. And it all can happen.

KEVIN IOLE: Well, patience is key. But we will get a chance to see that down the road. Right now patience until Saturday night for UFC 277. Going to be a great card, Kai Kara-France. Appreciate you joining me. Best of luck on Saturday. And see you soon.

KAI KARA-FRANCE: Appreciate your time. Thank you.

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