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Manel Kape targeting ‘big dog’ for UFC debut: ‘I feel like I’m a champion’

Manel Kape ended 2019 on the highest of highs and he’s looking to ascend even further as a member of the UFC roster.

The 26-year-old Portuguese native capped off a two-year run with Japan’s RIZIN Fighting Federation by taking out Kai Asakura at the promotion’s New Year’s Eve show and capturing a vacant bantamweight title. The victory came by way of knockout in the second round, the third straight fight that Kape (15-4) ended in that manner.

In March, Kape announced that he was leaving RIZIN to sign with the UFC, capitalizing on the most successful stretch of his pro career. He publicly called for a fight with former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, though his plan is to drop down to 125 pounds, a move that Garbrandt has mentioned as a possibility for himself in the future.

Whoever Kape gets first, he’s looking to start right near the top of the ladder.

“Realistically, I feel like I’m a champion,” Kape said on the What the Heck show. “I’m a world champion from RIZIN. I fight many guys from UFC, like Ian McCall, I win. I fight with Kyoji [Horiguchi], I fight with Ulka [Sasaki]. I fight with Takeya Mizugaki, I win. Takeya Mizugaki fight with Cody Garbrandt. I’m a champion, so what makes sense? Fight with champion in the UFC.

“I don’t want to wait [too long]. I know that they won’t give me the champion of the UFC, but they will give some guy ranked No. 5 or No. 3, this is what I want. I want to fight with a big dog, I want to handle these guys, I want to show my skills that I can kill all of my division. Now I feel like I’m unstoppable, so this is what I want.”

Though he considers himself a flyweight, Kape competed at 135 pounds in RIZIN because that is one of the promotion’s most star-laden divisions. Sure enough, marquee fights weren’t hard to find, but the immediate attention may have gone to Kape’s head.

Kape was mired in a 1-3 stretch at one point, losing fights to Horiguchi, Asakaura, and Sasaki. His loss to Sasaki took place at RIZIN 14 and he distinctly recalls that event being one of the peak times where he was caught up in the glitz and glamor of a show that was headlined by boxing legend Floyd Mayweather.

“I think I lose myself a little bit with too much shine,” Kape said. “I feel that I’m very famous in Japan and I feel a little bit lost. I let this life control myself and I have no part in training, it’s not me. I like training, I like to stay focused, but [before the Sasaki fight] I lose my goal in this sport. I feel like, ‘Okay, I’m good. I don’t want to do more,’ and I lose this fight. I lose the fight that I can win. My opponent, it’s easy for me, but I lose this fight.

“I think that life showed me something [so] I learn. I looked in the mirror and I talked to myself many times. I want to have the same goal when I [first came] to RIZIN so I need to stay more focused and forget everything, forget the parties, forget the life that is not good for me. So I focus on myself and talk with myself every time.”

What Kape spoke to himself about was very specific: No more losing. And no letting any of his opponents make it past the second round.

“I put in my head, my last three fights I said for myself, ‘I don’t want to lose more. I will finish all fights in second round,’” Kape said. “My last three fights, I finished all three fights in second round by KO. When you stay focused and you believe in yourself, these things can happen. It’s not magic, it’s just you have the power in your mind and things happen.”

That warrior mentality was instilled in Kape at a young age by his father, a boxer, and he shares it with his brothers, all athletes who are involved in combat sports. Kape began his martial arts training at age four, added kickboxing and jiu-jitsu at 10, and then MMA at 11. He recalls being 15 years old when he took his first amateur fight against a much older opponent, which he remembers winning by knockout.

A strong sense of family and loyalty almost led him to stay in RIZIN, but after consulting with his inner circle, he realized his next milestone was to win UFC gold.

“At first, I think think that I need to stay in Japan,” Kape said. “I need to stay in Japan because Japan is my home. I feel like a son and I want to defend my belt, but I talk with my coach, talk with my brothers, they say this is the good moment. It’s not about just the opportunity, but good moment.

“You come with three victories, you come like a champion like you say before that you want to be, so this is opportunity for you to come to UFC, show your skills and be a champ in UFC. So I can realize my goal, it’s like my dream when I come to this sport. So I think for myself, I’m already champion in RIZIN, so why not come to UFC and be a champion too?”