The momentum behind New Zealand combat sports is set to continue with the latest edition of the premier fighting event hosted on Kiwi soil.
Fresh off Israel Adesanya’s UFC world title defence in Abu Dhabi last weekend, the King in the Ring returns with an eight-man lightweight division tournament in Auckland on Friday night.
The event, running since 2011, has helped put past winners on the international stage.
It has also been a pre-cursor to stardom for a couple of notable ex-champions, with both Adesanya and fellow City Kickboxing UFC star Dan Hooker having a King in the Ring title on their resume.
The thriving Auckland gym will again be represented at the knockout tournament, with David “Sanchai” Aung stepping up for a second crack in the event.
The Malaysia-born fighter, who moved to New Zealand a decade ago, said training alongside City Kickboxing’s six UFC fighters, and many other rising talents, was extremely motivating.
“You’re training with the best fighters in the world and you’re like ‘woah, I can keep up with them’.
“Plus, the way they put in work, their work ethic, you want to be on the same level.
“We’re always trying to be better than each other, and that’s how we get better [individually].”
Training alongside the best in the world, though, didn’t mean dealing with big egos.
City Kickboxing had become renowned for its team-first focus, and Adesanya, Brad Riddell, Kai Kara-France and Shane Young are all set to tune in to watch their team-mate from managed isolation in Auckland, having returned this week from Abu Dhabi.
Aung said, despite their success, the gym’s UFC contingent were very much just part of the wider CKB family.
“We’re all close friends. I can always rely on all those boys, and no matter how famous they are, they’re still getting crap.
“No matter how famous they are, that stays outside and everyone’s equal inside the gym.”
Aung knows well that ability of martial arts as a leveler.
Nine months after arriving in New Zealand, the then wayward teenager walked into CKB to learn how to kickbox so he could bully people at school.
He quickly found out things weren’t going to be that way, and looking back acknowledges the gym has turned his life around.
“[It has] basically taught me to be a better fighter but also a better human, a better version of myself.
“You’re always developing and always getting better. There’s downhills and uphills, it’s a bumpy ride and I’m still learning [but] I’m definitely in a better place than I was 10 years ago.”
A place he hopes might lead to success on Friday night, although he knows he will have to be at his best.
Not only was reigning champion Nikora Lee-Kingi back to defend the title he won in 2018, fellow South Islander and 2018 runner-up Dominic Reed was also involved again, as well as several other talented contenders.
Having not fought since March, Aung was taking a carefree but confident approach to his second attempt to be crowned the King of the Ring.
“I’m very excited to showcase to my skills.
“I finally get to do it after a long wait, and I’ve just been upskilling the whole time, I didn’t stop.
“My only expectation is to showcase those skills and have fun. That’s enough to win the whole tournament.”