I wasn’t given a contract in the end, which was a massive surprise because I had the only win by knockout that season and I did it right in front of Dana White.
But not getting the call-up was actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to mature a little more outside the UFC.
I returned to Auckland at the start of 2017 and went in to see Eugene Bareman at City Kickboxing. I asked him if he could get me to the UFC.
“Just turn up to training and the rest will take care of itself”, he said.
I was back in my own backyard, around family and friends, training with the best coach in the business. Guys like Dan and Israel Adesanya were pushing me to my limit each and every day. Being in that environment made me a different kind of fighter.
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Winner by Decision! ???? Thanks to my cornermen @stylebender and my coach Eugene for all the help and the boys down at CKB! Thanks to my friends and family for all the love and support! @danawhite @ufc you got my number! ? #teamdontblink #dontblink4ufc #ufcauckland #flyweightmarkhunt #china #engagefightwear #tigermuaythai #mma #ufc #nz??
But still the call-up wasn’t coming, even after I went on a five-fight win streak against high-level guys in heavier weight classes.
Then one day I got a text message from Israel, backstage after his win over Derek Brunson in New York. He sent me a photo of himself with Dana White, and the caption just said, ‘you’re in’.
I thought it was a joke.
But when Israel returned home, Eugene sat us all down on the mats in the gym to watch a video. I thought it was going to be a thank-you from Israel to the team for helping with his fight camp.
Then Dana popped up on the screen. He said, ‘Kai, you’re in the UFC’.
It didn’t really hit home until I hugged Eugene and he congratulated me. That’s when the waterworks started. It was the moment I knew that all the sacrifices had been worth it.
I had to endure a lot of hard times, but they are what made me realise this is what I want to do with my life. I proved to myself that I can cope with the fighter’s lifestyle, that I can pick myself up when I’m down and get back in the gym when my body and mind are screaming at me to stop.
I took the long road to the UFC, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Why the ‘king of cringe’ needs to stop
I’ve been training with Alex Volkanovski, ahead of our fights at UFC 245 in Las Vegas. He’s in a title fight against Max Holloway, while I’m up against Brandon Moreno. It will be another big night for City Kickboxing.
I’m undefeated after three fights in the UFC and I’m now being recognised as a contender for Henry Cejudo’s flyweight title.
I actually saw Dana backstage after my last win, against Mark De La Rosa in China. He came over to say I’d impressed him and then he gave me his number. It’s pretty crazy having that in my phone now.
The best part was that he recognised me, not just as Israel and Dan’s teammate, but as my own man and fighter.
I think that’s an example of how it’s an exciting time for the flyweight division right now. Not so long ago there was talk our weight class might be cut. That’s in the past now, us flyweights are here to stay.
I want our division to grow stronger than ever before and I want to be face of it. I want it to be taken seriously.
That’s the only thing I’ll criticise Henry Cejudo for. He’s playing a character, the ‘king of cringe’, but I don’t want our division to be known for his crazy antics.
All this stuff about him wanting to fight Valentina Shevchenko and the other female champs, to become the ‘intergender’ champ, it’s too much.
I know the real Henry, and that’s not him. He was my coach on The Ultimate Fighter and we’re still very good friends to this day. He has been a mentor and someone that I’ve looked up to.
He needs to defend his belt against Joseph Benavidez, and if he wins that then I might get my opportunity against him.
We’ve had some chats at UFC events lately, and he’s said to me that he’ll fight me any time. That’s the kind of relationship we have; a friendly competition. But I see a lot of holes in his game, and with the team I have behind me I think we can exploit those weaknesses and take the belt off him.
I can picture it already; me fighting Henry at the Spark Arena in Auckland, doing it for my home town and City Kickboxing.
On the same card we could have Israel defending his title, Dan fighting for the lightweight belt and Alex Volkanovski defending the featherweight belt, after he takes it off Max at 245.
It’s crazy to think we could soon have four UFC title holders in the gym. That’s all because of Eugene, with the environment he’s created here. It breeds successful fighters.
City Kickboxing isn’t for everyone. You can’t just walk into this gym and think you’ll win a fight after one camp. Eugene is in this sport for the long game and he takes the time to do things properly. He wants to develop fighters into contenders, not one-hit wonders who grab a couple of wins and then disappear when the going gets tough.
In other gyms a guy will win, and he’ll be straight on a plane for a holiday, taking a few months off. With us, you get straight back in there and help your teammates. That’s what sets us apart from all the rest.