New Zealand knockout artist, Kai Kara-France, and rising contender, Amir Albazi, will throw down this Saturday (June 3, 2023) at UFC Vegas 74 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Kara-France enters his first main event following an interim title loss to Brandon Moreno via liver shot (watch highlights). The Kiwi gave a good account of himself in that scrap and remains inside the Top 5 at 125 pounds, but it’s going to be difficult to score a trilogy match against “Assassin Baby” with a pair of previous defeats on his record. Albazi, conversely, is undefeated (4-0) in his young UFC career. He’s showed a well-rounded skill set and great physical tools, but he has yet to face anyone particularly established at Flyweight.
Let’s take a closer look at the skills of each athlete:
A long-time member of the City Kickboxing team, Kara-France’s distance management and movement focused kickboxing style is very much representative of that excellent crew. However, Kara-France separates himself from the pack with a nasty overhand, which carries unusual stopping power for 125-pounds.
Kara-France likes to fight with an extra step of distance between himself and his opponent, meaning that if both men stood in place, their jabs would not reach the other. To maintain this distance, Kara-France stays light on his feet and circles, switching direction occasionally to stay off the cage.
At this range, a few factors are important. Namely, quickness is important, as is the ability to feint effectively. Kara-France is indeed a fast striker, and he boosts this gift by dulling his foe’s senses with constant feints.
Between his feints and movement, Kara-France is often able to find low calf kicks. He doesn’t usually rely on punches to set up his inside and outside low kick, but they’re still fairly safe shots. Kara-France won’t dig at the calf until he gains a small angle or convinces his opponent to bite on a feint, two setups which require little energy and allow Kara-France to lead the dance. If Kara-France’s opponent tries to kick back without setup, he’s going to counter with a big right hand in response — that’s how he first hurt Cody Garbrandt prior to the end sequence (GIF).
Really, Kara-France excels at closing the extra bit of distance with his hands. Again, quickness helps, but there’s strategy in his punch selection as well. Often, Kara-France closes some of that distance with a deep jab or double jab forward, then fires his right.
When Kara-France fires the overhand, he definitely steps hard into the shot, and that often brings his head forward as well. It’s a risk, but it allows Kara-France to throw heavy and close an extra bit of distance. Additionally, Kara-France follows it up well. He’ll use that right leg step through to weave into a left hook fairly often. Sometimes, he’ll step fully into Southpaw and follow up with a right handed jab.
Unlike many fighters who rely on stepping through to throw their right, Kara-France can remain in his original stance and build combinations as well. He quite likes to follow the right with a power jab, continually moving forward and allowing him to fire another right hand if the distance is there.
Lastly, Kara-France has some tricky setups to close distance. He likes the Superman punch, which he’ll usually follow with that weaving left hook. He’s also throw a switch right hook rather than overhand, meaning he simultaneously goes Southpaw as he throws, rather than falling into the other stance. This is a nice setup for the left hand or left kick, as it usually gains an outside angle rather than closing into the pocket.
Amir Albazi has a handful of knockout wins on his record as well. His striking game is that of an educated boxer with a few smart kicks added in, and thus far, it’s served him quite well in the Octagon.
The first thing that stands out about Albazi’s kickboxing is his educated lead hand. A big key to jabbing successfully is variety, something Albazi understands well. He can throw his jab hard or just touch. He’ll feint, jab twice, then feint and jab the body. He’ll slap the guard with a soft hook then stick a jab through the middle.
Albazi’s jab can certainly snap his opponent’s head back, but it really serves as a set up. If he can draw a reaction from his opponent with a light jab, he’ll often look for the check hook in response. If their guard is tight, Albazi does well following the jab with a right calf kick or right leg snap to the belly — a smart tactic to score easy and painful connections.
Really, Albazi is looking to line up his right hand, which is definitely a heavy shot. In this regard, he does well in varying the angle. He dropped Alessandro Costa with a stiff 2-1 in the second round of their fight, then in the third surprised him by throwing the right as a step-in uppercut instead (GIF). He landed the same shot against Malcolm Gordon, first showing him the overhand to raise the guard.
Though he hasn’t scored a huge amount of takedowns yet in his UFC career, Albazi is very clearly a physically gifted wrestler with good technique.
The value of strength in wrestling exchanges cannot be overstated. When Albazi and his opponents wrap up in the clinch, it’s clear he usually has the advantage. He plays the inside/outside knee battle well, threatening trips until able to gain an angle, at which point he can crank down on the waist and force his opponent to the floor. Albazi has a nice double leg shot as well. He’ll use it offensively to jam his foe into the fence, which can result in a classic finish or the upper body clinch that he utilizes so well. In addition, he’s timed a couple reactive shots, ducking under a punch for the easy finish.
Kara-France occasionally will shoot for the running double leg, but he’s best known for his takedown defense. He’s successfully defended 87% of the takedowns that have come his way, but his standout performance in this regard came against Askar Askarov.
In that bout, Kara-France was forced to show off his defense from every possible position. Askarov found his best success with the single leg in the open, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Whenever he picked up Kara-France’s lead leg, the Kiwi did well to simultaneously fight hands — which prevented Askarov from doubling off — and put pressure on the head to break posture.
Often, Kara-France utilized the knee shield, putting his foot on the outside of Askarov’s hip and pushing the Dagestani wrestler off him with his knee. This is a really strong position, and it’s hard to finish the shot through the knee shield. When Askarov tried to counter by lifting Kara-France into the air, Kara-France would jump up, forcing Askarov to hold all his weight while still maintaining his balance.
Kara-France’s problems arose when he tried to limp leg to safety too early. It’s a good technique, but Askarov is a great wrestler, and on a couple occasions, he was able to hang onto the limp leg despite the sweat and lack of shoes involved. Then, he could attack the back or look to hike up the leg and trip Kara-France.
Any time Kara-France could get his back to the fence, he defended well. Once more, he would control a hand to prevent Askarov from switching to the double. Meanwhile, he’d use the overhook to pull Askarov off his legs, at which point he’d start digging underhooks and look to escape. In addition, Kara-France timed a few nasty elbows to the side of the head, which work wonders in convincing an opponent to stop their takedown attempts.
With nine submissions on his record, Albazi has shown some slick top control in his short UFC career.
When on top, Albazi tends to operate in one of two positions. If within the full guard, he’ll stand over his opponent, stack the hips, and drop punches. Once able to advance to half guard, he maintains excellent should pressure, driving into his opponent with all his weight. Both positions are exhausting, and getting smashed by punches or shoulder pressure tends to loosen the guard considerably.
In his two UFC submission wins, Albazi showed off some crafty technique. In his debut against Gordon, he worked his way to mount. Gordon managed to reverse position with a stiff arm and explosion, but Albazi smartly countered by wrapping up a triangle in the process, isolating that extended arm and Gordon’s head. From his back, Albazi tightened the lock a bit then cranked down on the head.
The finish itself wasn’t perfect form — the angle wasn’t great, nor was his shin fully locked in place — but it forced the tap.
Against Francisco Figueiredo, Albazi scored a rear naked choke. The submission itself was typical, but his back take immediately prior was lovely. From turtle, Albazi inserted his near side knee into Figueiredo’s hip pocket, creating space. Then, his outside leg hooked Figueiredo’s ankle. That pressure on Figueiredo’s knee created the opening for his first hook, which Albazi converted into the deep hook necessary for a back triangle as he also attacked the neck.
As for Kara-France, he’s not a prolific submission grappler. He did, however, showcase some excellent back defense against Askarov, so let’s review that momentarily.
In the first, Askarov took his foe down and locked in the body triangle — his best position. Kara-France did well to stand without exposing his neck, which isn’t always easy. Once standing, Kara-France couldn’t free himself, but he managed to fight hands while forcing Askarov to hold himself up with the strength of his legs. That’s a fatiguing position for the back taker, and if you don’t believe me, go find a heavy bag or small tree and try to cling to it for a minute with your legs.
In the second and third, Kara-France never allowed it get that far. At one point, Askarov nearly took his back, but the Kiwi did well to glue his elbow to his hip and prevent the second hook. Later in the fight, Askarov tried to rush jumping the back standing. This time, Kara-France was able to use the hula hoop defense. Rather than try to actively spin into Askarov’s guard, the hula hoop defense essentially allowed Kara-France to pull Askarov around his KKF’s own body into guard, and a bit of hip movement — that’s the hula hoop part — often serves as the last step in detaching the back taking foe.
It was a great reversal that allowed Kara-France to escape back to his feet and win the pivotal third round.
A rare main event highlight for the Flyweight serves up an interesting style clash. Albazi is a generalist who can win fights from anywhere, but he prefers to work from top position. Kara-France, meanwhile, is the perhaps the division’s best sprawl-and-brawl fighter, which seems to line up for a fun kickboxing battle.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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