Kang banking on fresh start with UFC

Denis Kang's first fight was a bare-knuckle affair in a warehouse in suburban Vancouver. He'll never forget it.

The location was secret. The 500 spectators didn't know where to go until the day of the event in the summer of 1998. The dressing room was the size of a small kitchen, so cramped that only one fighter could warm up at a time.

"There was one bathroom for the spectators and the fighters and it was always being used so I couldn't even do my pre-fight business there, because my stomach was churning," Kang told ESPN.com.

The police knew something was up; they just weren't sure what.

"The promoter kept saying that we were filming a movie, that it was a grappling event, all this stuff," Kang said. "I kept thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, I hope they arrest everybody and I don't have to fight. I'm so nervous'. I was really, really scared. I couldn't believe I was actually going through with it. I remember seeing one guy who was fighting a few fights before me and he had lost pretty bad. He was in the corner puking in a bucket and I saw myself in him. I was like, 'I hope it doesn't happen to me.'

Fortunately for Kang, that wasn't him.

"But you know what, everything went fine," Kang said. "I won in 15 seconds. I overcame my fear."

More than a decade later, Kang is a fighter to be feared. A veteran of Pride, Pancrase, K-1 Hero's and Dream, the 31-year-old is finally able to showcase his skills in the UFC, beginning Saturday in Dublin against Alan Belcher at UFC 93.

Highly regarded trainer Greg Jackson, for one, believes fans will like what they see.

"I think they're going to be blown away by him," said Jackson, citing Kang's well-rounded game and mental toughness. "I think that he's going to make a real impression in this fight."

Kang trains with Georges St. Pierre, so he's no stranger to the Jackson camp. Although he does not work under Jackson, he shares a trainer and conditioning coach with GSP in Montreal's Firas Zahabi and Jon Chaimberg, respectively.

Belcher, 24, is already impressed by Kang.

"I mean he was really good before I could spell MMA basically," Belcher said. "He was one of the guys I looked up to. I even kind of patterned the shorts that I wear after the boxing shorts that he started wearing in Pride. I've always looked up to him."

"That's a nice compliment, man," Kang said by way of response. "He seems like a really aggressive standup fighter. I like that, I think it's going to make a good fight for the both of us."

Despite his youth, Belcher (12-4) is about to enter the Octagon for the eighth time and brings a solid brand of Muay Thai with him. A purple belt in jiu-jitsu, he likes to stay on his feet and use his intelligent stand-up skills.

Kang (31-10-1 with two no contests) is a jiu-jitsu black belt with solid striking who wastes little time in the ring or cage -- 33 of his fights ended in the first round. He has 15 submission victories and 12 TKOs, and has won by decision just four times.

Kang comes into the Belcher bout in top shape. It's his third fight in a little over three months -- he stopped Marvin Eastman in 48 seconds on Oct. 25 and knocked out Jae Young Kim in 91 seconds on Aug. 31 -- and he has been training throughout that period.

Kang's career, like his life, has spanned the globe.
Kang was born in St. Pierre-Miquelon, a set of French islands off the coast of Canada's Newfoundland, to a Korean father and French mother. His father worked on fishing vessels around the world before settling there and meeting Kang's mother, who had been born there.

Kang lived there until he was 9, when the family left for the Canary Islands, a series of Spanish-controlled islands off the northwest coast of Africa. The family moved to Vancouver when he was 11.

Today, he holds French and Canadian citizenship but also considers himself Korean.

"I've been influenced by all three cultures and I'm proud of having them as part of my life," Kang said. "All three of them have made me who I am today."

Kang was in the mix for Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter" but passed on the opportunity because the reality TV show would have precluded him from continuing to fight in South Korea. He had started fighting there in 2004 in the Spirit Martial Challenge series and become popular among Korean fans.

"Korea literally changed my life around," Kang said. "I had good success in the ring as well in Korea and that, I think, is one of the things that got me into Pride."

Kang's early career was undistinguished. After winning his first three fights, he then lost seven of his next 12. Barely making a living as a bouncer, living in a dump and watching his friends advancing, he wondered what he was doing with his life.

But jiu-jitsu coach Marcus Soares -- who will be in his corner Saturday -- convinced him to keep going. Realizing how much he loved training and fighting, Kang found his focus -- and his career took off.

Kang ran up a 23-fight unbeaten streak from April 2003 to November 2006, recording 21 wins, one draw and one no-contest. He disposed of Murilo Rua in 15 seconds by KO at Pride's Bushido 11 and followed that up by stopping Albert Basconcelles in 12 seconds at Spirit MC 8.

But then things became more complicated.

While training for Bushido 13 in November 2006, his fiancée, Shelby Walker, died suddenly.

"My whole life was completely turned upside down," Kang said at the time. "It's the hardest thing I've gone through, I can honestly tell you that."

Kang beat Akihiro Gono in the semifinals but tore his right bicep in the process and lost to Kazuo Mizaki later that night in the final. The unbeaten streak was over.

He lost two of his next three fights, suffering a rare knockout at the hands of Yoshihiro Akiyama in K-1 Hero's in October 2007 and a submission loss to Gegard Mousasi in Dream in April 2008.

With two quick wins under his belt since then and some top-level training with GSP, Kang feels back on top of his game. Moving to the UFC has also helped freshen him up.

"I think there was maybe a little bit of personal stress in my life," he said. "I think I was just a little burned out, a little stale, so I needed to find, I guess, some new fire to refocus my career.

"It's like when you're in university or you're in school and you kind of start plateauing and then all of a sudden you change school and you're all excited. It's the same thing. I'm the new kid at school," Kang said with a laugh.

Just don't expect Belcher to befriend the new kid. Despite his admiration for Kang, Belcher was quick to ask to fight him.

"I heard that he was coming to the UFC and I had [trainer Duke Roufus] call the matchmaker and see if I could get a hold of him first before he got settled in," Belcher said. "I think that's a good time to fight some of the guys, their first time in the UFC."

Neil Davidson is general sports editor of The Canadian Press.