‘It’s going to happen’: King in the Ring champion Navajo Stirling’s ambition to become a UFC star

Two-time King in the Ring champion Navajo Stirling believes that capturing a world kickboxing title in Auckland on Friday night can set him on the path to UFC superstardom.

The 24-year-old takes on Australia’s Jessie Astill in the co-main event of a trans-Tasman edition of the popular kickboxing series at Eventfinda Stadium, with the WKBF heavyweight crown up for grabs.

And Stirling is determined to steal the limelight from the eight-man super heavyweight elimination tournament, two weeks out from his MMA debut at the same venue.

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“It would definitely be the pinnacle of my career,” Stirling, who has won the King in the Ring heavyweight (100kg) and cruiserweight (92kg) titles, said of the prospect of becoming a world champion.

“When you start coming up in the MMA rankings they’ll [fans] be like, ‘this guy was a kickboxing world champion’. I have always believed myself to be a world-class fighter. I’ve carried myself like a professional since I was 19.

“To finally be there, to show everyone on live television, is a big thing for me and my family.”

King in the Ring has a well-earned reputation as a launching pad for future Kiwi UFC stars, with middleweight king Israel Adesanya, lightweight contender Dan Hooker and light heavyweight Carlos Ulberg all cutting their teeth in the competition.

Stirling is now a team-mate of that trio at Auckland’s famed City Kickboxing gym after moving up from Wellington last March and has no doubts he’ll follow them into the sport’s biggest promotion – even though he’s in no rush to get there.

“It’s almost inevitable at this point,” Stirling said of entering the UFC ranks in the next few years. “You look at me, you look at the way I fight, my physique, everything.

“And the crazy thing is I’m nowhere near my potential. My body is maturing… I’m still in my young years. By the time I’m at my prime I’m going to be rolling people.

“When I look at the guys in the [UFC’s] light heavyweight division, it’s in need of someone like me. They’ve got a lot of old veterans in there, so when they get the young superstar come through it will be a breath of fresh air. “

Stirling’s striking self-confidence comes from holding his own against Adesanya (“we spar a lot”) and Ulberg in the gym and working with the best MMA coaches in the country.

Regularly putting his skills to the test against the best made him realize that “I’m high level too”.

But while making a name for himself in the UFC octagon remains the holy grail, Stirling insisted he was fully focused on ending his kickboxing career with a bang against Astill.

The young Australian has compiled a similar record to Stirling and won multiple titles across the ditch. He is not someone who can be overlooked.

“I would say it’s a 50-50 [fight]. Maybe I’d be the favorite because I’m in my home country, on a promotion that I’m very familiar with, “Stirling said.

“I guess there is always the pressure of being the favorite but when you want to be a superstar and you want to go far in this sport, you’ve got to have pressure.

Navajo Stirling poses with the winner's check after capturing the King in the Ring 92kg title in 2020.

Calden Jamieson Photography

Navajo Stirling poses with the winner’s check after capturing the King in the Ring 92kg title in 2020.

“Put pressure on me man, I’ve got the weight of the nation on me. It’s all good. I’m ready for it.”

Stirling has watched some footage of Astill (“he’s got a lot of knockout power”) and is excited to test his skills against an international opponent after clearing out the domestic scene.

He said facing a fellow prospect (Astill is 22) “with the same young fire” would be a welcome change from the veterans who seemed happy to pass the torch.

“It’s been a while since I’ve fought another prospect coming up in the fighting scene. It’s just different. The mindsets are a little bit different when you are fighting the young guys.

“I know this guy will come in hot ready to knock me out and whatnot, and that’s just the game we play.

“You’ve kind of just got to live in the chaos.”

Should he come through unscathed, Stirling will switch his focus to the cage, headlining a Shuriken Fight Series card against rival James Craughwell, whom he beat via decision to win last year’s King in the Ring heavyweight titleon September 23.

“People are like, ‘wow, you’re taking a fight on two weeks notice straight after, can you really do it?’ and I’m like, man, I smashed three people in one night before and still come out alright! ” he joked.

“Going in one fight and then having another after a nice big two weeks rest is nothing. Not a lot of people can do it, but when you fight like me, you can do it. I’m ready.”

As well as the super heavyweight tournament featuring reigning champion Dave ‘Titan’ Tuitupou, Friday’s fight card also features a boxing match between Auckland’s Michelle Preston (10-8, 2 KOs) and Thailand’s Phanaluk Kongsong (9-9-1, 6 KOs) for the vacant WBA international super flyweight title.

Preston – a two-time kickboxing world champion – is a 43-year-old mother and business owner returning to the ring after a four-year hiatus.


What: King in the Ring – the Super Heavyweights

Where: Eventfinda Stadium, Auckland

When: Friday, September 9 from 7.30pm (live on TVNZ Duke)