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Recent UFC winner Kai Kamaka might want to start playing the lottery because his last gamble paid off huge.
After amassing a 6-2 record and a four-fight win streak that including victories in Bellator MMA, Kamaka was still waiting for an opportunity to ink a long term contract with a major promotion. His manager eventually landed him a fight in LFA — a regional promotion that has fed a ton of talent into the UFC over the years — but that opportunity also came along with one small caveat.
Rather than just fly home from South Dakota where the LFA event was happening, Kamaka took a short trip to Las Vegas instead.
“I had him out there for all of August and the first part of September was the plan,” Kamaka’s manager Brian Butler from Suckerpunch Ent. Told MMA Fighting. “He could have just gone out there and stayed out there and not gotten anything. That was the risk he was taking.”
The idea was Kamaka was going to stay in Las Vegas with hopes that the UFC might need a late replacement to fill a fight on one of their upcoming cards. To add to the pressure, Kamaka’s wife was pregnant and expecting in the fall but she was fully behind the plan to send him to the mainland for this opportunity.
“She’s telling me to stay as long as I can,” Kamaka revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I didn’t want to come home without a job.”
Since the UFC returned to action back in May following several events being postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the promotion has seen numerous changes made to events due to travel issues as well as positive tests for COVID-19 by athletes or their coaches and teammates.
Kamaka was banking on a last-minute change that might offer him an opportunity but when he got the next call from his manager, it wasn’t exactly what he expected.
“I go to South Dakota with one corner, my cousin Ray, I beat this guy,” Kamaka explained. “I go right to Vegas and I don’t even know if anything is certain.
“But then [my manager] calls me ‘can you corner Joaquin Buckley?’ and I’m like sure, why not. I thought it was going to be my call but it wasn’t my call yet.”
Joaquin Buckley had accepted a short-notice fight with Kevin Holland just days after he fought on the same LFA card as Kamaka. Unfortunately, his coach tested positive for COVID-19, which meant he wouldn’t be allowed to work the event and that left Buckley without a corner man.
Kamaka didn’t know Buckley outside of their interaction at the LFA card but he wanted to help out a fellow fighter so he stepped into fill the role left by his coach. To gain clearance to corner Buckley that weekend, Kamaka had to go into quarantine and undergo the same testing procedure as all of the other people involved with the event, which gave him an idea of what to expect during a typical fight week.
Kamaka cornered Buckley that Saturday night and then kept his fingers crossed that the call would come to offer him his own UFC fight. A few days later, his wish was granted.
“Literally, the Monday or Tuesday after those fights, I was just going through my phone and Sean [Shelby’s] number came up and I thought I’ll just call him,” Butler explained.
“I randomly called him to press him about Contender Series options and other stuff and right at the end of my conversation I said ‘don’t forget Kai’s there in Vegas, he’s got medicals done, he’s not injured from his fight and he just got tested for COVID because he was cornering Joaquin’ and Sean was like ‘can he fight Saturday?’.”
Butler then made the call to Kamaka to tell him he was joining the UFC roster.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Kamaka said. “I wasn’t star struck but I was relieved that it finally happened.”
There was no time to really prepare for his fight against Tony Kelley other than the preparation he had already done for his previous matchup in LFA. Kamaka just wanted to show up to prove the UFC’s faith in signing him and it all paid off.
“I just wanted to push the pace,” Kamaka said. “I heard bits and pieces [about him] and I just took what I wanted to hear and I went into the fight. I just came off a fight two weeks ago so I wasn’t too worried about my cardio.
“I just wanted to make it a fight and if we make it a fight, it would be in my favor.”
Following a three-round battle, Kamaka won a unanimous decision in his UFC debut as the opening fight on the card. A few hours later as the main event was coming to a close, Kamaka wondered if there was a chance that he could be in contention for a Fight of the Night bonus.
“I was in and out of watching TV and I was asking ‘is that fight good? Was that fight good?’ and then my manager texted me like one minute before Dana White said on the press conference that we got it,” Kamaka said.
Every fighter hopes for a bonus but no one fully expects it.
With a baby on the way, Kamaka taking home the $50,000 bonus was like a blessing on top of an already unbelievable few days that led him to the UFC. His wife was equally as excited.
“She was just more relieved and happy for me,” Kamaka said. “Just relieved that it all paid off. I could actually come home now with a job.”
As wild as the past few weeks have been for Kamaka, he promises that the moment has only added to the desire to build on his debut win in the UFC. It’s unlikely anything will ever match the insanity surrounding his first appearance in the octagon but he’s definitely looking forward to making a lot more memories.
“It’s been crazy,” Kamaka said. “It’s been motivating to just stay the course because you never know what’s going to happen. Right now with the pandemic, you’ve got to go out and get it. Always be ready.
“That’s how I look at the last three weeks and I would do it all over again.”