MMA legend Eric Kelly continues fight outside cage

Nissi Icasiano
MMA legend Eric Kelly continues fight outside cage
Despite a string of losses that ended his tenure in ONE Championship, Eric Kelly does not want to throw in the towel just yet

MANILA, Philippines – Once treated as a mixed martial arts royalty in the country, Eric Kelly walked on red carpets in his heydays as a celebrated Filipino prizefighter.

During the formative years of the sport in the early 2000s, he was venerated by many fans due to his devil-may-care approach inside the cage, making him a must-see competitor on every fight card that he was scheduled to participate in.

Kelly was adulated for all of his scintillating victories, which is sadly in stark contrast to his present situation.

While his compatriots such as Eduard Folayang, Kevin Belingon, Geje Eustaquio, and Joshua Pacio are basking in the glory of their own achievements under the sport’s bright lights, Kelly seems to be far from his stature as one of the best athletes that the flourishing Philippine MMA scene has ever produced.

Destined path

Having an Americanized surname would make some think Kelly had a privileged childhood, but he is a humble Filipino raised by a vegetable farmer in the village of Santo Tomas Central, located within the populous Baguio City, Benguet.

Like many families in that small community, his parents made money out of planting crops on a daily basis. While they expected their children to follow the same career path, Kelly never envisioned himself engrossed in agriculture.

“I knew right off the bat that farming isn’t for me,” Kelly said with a good laugh. “I was searching for a field or profession where I could fit in because of my character and perspective in life.”

Although he originally chose to spend his teenage years on the town’s mean streets after graduating from high school in 1999, he recognized the dangers of his perilous lifestyle.

“I just had enough with it. I made a decision to have a peaceful life and I realized that I needed to look out for my future,” Kelly said.

Kelly wisely enrolled himself into a kickboxing gym to learn how to defend himself. Little did he know, his life would change forever.

His trainer George Lusadan saw potential in the young Kelly and urged him to take training seriously. This led him to join the Philippine wushu team in 2000, where he was coached by Chinese practitioner Yu Shi Bu.

Kelly had a promising run in wushu, but it was cut short by an injury. While training in China in 2004, he tore some ligaments in his groin during sparring.

The doctors at the Philippine Sports Commission told him that his only options were steroid injections, a risky surgery, and time off from training.

As all the choices meant he would not be able to represent the nation in future competitions, his team sent Kelly home and ceased his funding.

With his only source of livelihood gone, it was back to square one for Kelly.

“I went home with literally nothing, so I drove a taxi in order to support myself,” he quipped.

Despite his predicament, Kelly was determined to follow the doctors’ advice to rehabilitate his torn ligaments. He religiously rode his bicycle around the mountainous terrain of his hometown.

After a year of enduring the pain of being away from competition, he tried his luck in Metro Manila. He searched for a gym to train at and headed to the big city with nothing in his pockets and no network of people.

Fortunately, he found a home at the Yaw-Yan Ardigma gym bankrolled by Christopher Romaine, fondly called as Chef Ro.

“Chef Ro offered me shelter in the gym, and even provided me with food and allowances,” he recalled. “That is why, even to this day, I consider him as my second father.”

With a renewed chance to train, Kelly went on to incorporate different combat disciplines and eventually transitioned to the multi-faceted world of MMA.

Kelly made his professional MMA debut under Alvin Aguilar’s Universal Reality Combat Championship in 2009, won his first 5 bouts by way of submission, and displayed the innate ability that officially earned him the nickname of “The Natural.”

He eventually captured the featherweight championship in the organization.

Rise and fall

Kelly’s remarkable stint in the local MMA circuit caught the attention of then-startup ONE Championship, which gave him a spot at the promotion’s first live event in September 2011.

He was arguably the standout performer on that show, receiving a $5,000 bonus for rendering American prospect Mitch Chilson unconscious in the first round with a rear-naked choke.

After acing his maiden overseas test, Kelly racked up 3 more wins, including a second-round technical knockout win over former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver.

His winning streak led him to a chance to vie for ONE Championship’s inaugural featherweight title in February 2013, but he lost to Team Lakay’s Honorio Banario by way of fourth-round technical knockout.

The disappointing defeat in his first try to become a world champion did not put Kelly off the track as he redeemed himself by winning 3 bouts in a row.

With or without an intricately-crafted belt around his waist, he was one of the best and brightest featherweights in Asia at that time.

However, his billing slowly lost its luster due to a string of setbacks.

The last time that Kelly had his hand raised in triumph was in October 2015 when he defeated Japan’s Hiroshige Tanaka via unanimous decision. But after that fight, he fell into a dreadful nightmare.

Kelly suffered 7 straight losses, starting from a third-round submission defeat to Malaysian-Kiwi sensation Ev Ting in January 2016.

In the span of 4 years, his record has fallen from a very impressive 12-1 to a mediocre 12-8. Kelly has gone from being a top contender to becoming a featherweight journeyman, which forced ONE Championship to sever its ties with him in June 2019.

“Admittedly, I was so sad when I got that email. In some way, I deserve it because I failed to do my part as an athlete. I am accepting ONE Championship’s decision to let me go,” he explained.

Kelly bears no ill feeling towards ONE Championship as he understands the business nature of the sport.

“MMA is a sport, but it is also a business. I completely understand that side of the sport. I just have to accept it and move on,” he said. 

Breaking the habit

It may have appeared that Kelly was at the top of the food chain at one point in time, but behind the scenes, things were spiraling out of control.

Kelly admitted that his desire for the sport greatly diminished when he started to generate big money from his fights. To make it worse, he got hooked on gambling.

His gambling addiction stemmed from the US$50,000 bonus that he received for his come-from-behind victory over Australia’s Rob Lisita in July 2014.

“I got addicted to the wrong habit. It was overwhelming, in my case. I didn’t know how to handle or manage the money I was getting. It did make me bigheaded,” he bared.

Kelly then had a contract dispute with ONE Championship from 2014 to 2015, but he was left with no choice but to satisfy the conditions that he entered into with the Singapore-based MMA league.

As a result, even if he was injured, or if the bout was on short notice, Kelly accepted matches offered to him so he could play in the casino and pay off his debts.

“It was all about the money. At that time, all I cared about was how much I am getting. That’s it,” he bared.

The issues that Kelly ran into also affected his personal life.

“It was really difficult. There was a lot going on in my life, my personal life, which hindered me from focusing 100 percent on training. But I needed the money so bad. I had no other choice,” he said.

Upon realizing his situation that he was in and the accompanying problems that went with it, Kelly was compelled to work abroad as a trainer at Team Nogueira in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Breaking the addiction was no easy task for Kelly, but he mustered the determination to overcome it and rekindle his passion for MMA.

Although Kelly was able to set his priorities straight, it was too late for him. After losing 7 consecutive matches, it made him contemplate the idea of hanging up the gloves for good.

“I’ve thought of retiring even before I got my release papers from ONE Championship. Like they always say, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. My body already tells me to stop,” he asserted.

“It’s a fact of life that I have to accept. I love fighting, but there will be a time to retire. Nothing is permanent in this life. I made some mistakes in my career, but I absolutely have no regrets,” Kelly added.

Getting back on his feet

By the looks of it, it is the end of the road for Kelly. But before the curtains completely come down on his storied MMA career, he ardently seeks to wrap it up on a victorious note.

“I want to win again. That’s all I want. I can sign with any promotion to have a farewell fight. I can’t end my MMA stint with a series of losses. I can’t go out that way,” he stressed.

“I started my career with a win. I am going to end it with a win. Then it’s time to go.”

If ever he is granted his request to strap on the gloves for the very last time, Kelly wants his fans to remember him as a combat sports athlete who never buckled down from a challenge.

“I am a fighter who didn’t choose my opponents. I accepted all the challenges that they threw at me, whether I was in good condition or not. I am a warrior. That will be my legacy,” he declared.

While waiting for a call from a generous promoter to accept his plea for a swan song, Kelly is looking at another opportunity in ONE Championship. But this time around, he wants to be part of the company’s corporate roster.  

With the recent announcement of The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition, he has thrown his name in the mix for possible contestants vying for a shot at becoming the protégé of head honcho Chatri Sityodtong.

“I am matured enough now to face the next step of my life. If given the chance to become a contestant of ONE Apprentice, even if it might be impossible, I will do my very best,” he said. – 

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