Whenever Eric Kelly’s name was mentioned during the early years of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the Philippines, it was always uttered in high esteem. The man from the mean streets of Baguio was adored by many due to his all-out, fan-friendly fighting style. It made him a feature attraction at every event that he competed in.
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Sadly, this is in stark contrast to his present situation. Kelly, today, is far from his status as one of the best athletes that the flourishing Philippine MMA has ever produced. While compatriots like Eduard Folayang and Kevin Belingon are now enjoying success on the sport’s international stage, Kelly seems to be a mere shadow of his old self these days.
Searching for his calling
Kelly was raised by a chayote farmer in the town of Santo Tomas Central in Baguio. Like many families in that small community, his parents made a simple living planting crops, and their children were expected to follow the same path. But Kelly searched for something else.
After graduating from high school in 1999, he chose to live a life on the streets. But he soon recognized the dangers of such a lifestyle and wisely enrolled in a kickboxing gym to learn how to defend himself. Little did he know, a passion for martial arts would be ignited the day he first walked into the gym. His life changed forever.
Universal Gym’s George Lusadan saw potential in the young Kelly and urged him to take training seriously. This led him to join the Philippine National Wushu Team (which incuded Folayang) in 2000. He had a promising career in the sport, but it was cut short by an injury. While training in China in 2004, Kelly tore ligaments in his groin in 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 compete, 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 nothing,” he says. “So I drove a taxi in order to support myself.”
Despite his predicament, Kelly was determined to come back. In order to rehabilitate his torn ligaments, he followed his doctor’s orders and religiously rode his bicycle around the steep slopes 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 went to the big city with nothing in his pockets and no network to speak of.
Fortunately, he found a home at the Yaw-Yan Ardigma gym run by Chef Christopher Romaine, better known as Chef Ro. “He offered me shelter in the gym, and even provided me with food and allowances,” Kelly says. “That is why I consider him as my second father even to this day.”
With a renewed chance to train, Kelly went on to incorporate different combat disciplines and eventually transitioned to the multi-faceted field of MMA. Kelly made his professional MMA debut under Alvin Aguilar’s Universal Reality Combat Championship in 2009, won his first five bouts via submission, and displayed the innate ability that earned him the nickname of “The Natural.”
His remarkable run 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 Mitch Chilson unconscious in the first round with a rear-naked choke. After acing his maiden overseas test, Kelly racked up three more victories, including a second-round technical knockout over former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver. His winning streak led him to a shot at 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 three bouts in a row. With or without a belt around his waist, he was one of the best and brightest featherweights in the region at that time.
However, his billing and potential as the next Filipino world champion in MMA 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, a nightmarish streak started.
Kelly endured seven-straight horrific losses, starting from a third-round submission to Malaysian-Kiwi sensation Ev Ting in January 2016. He tried to bounce back by battling former featherweight kingpin Narantungalag Jadambaa seven months later, but he yielded to the Mongolian hard-hitter by way of knockout in 44 seconds.
He then lost in a third-round stoppage to ex-ONE lightweight titleholder Kotetsu Boku of Japan in a featherweight matchup in August 2017. His losing spell carried over to 2018, bowing down to Brazil’s Rafael Nunes by submission before suffering the same fate at the hands of Japanese stalwart Tetsuya Yamada.
Kelly sought to turn things around in 2019, but he failed to do so by adding two more setbacks to his losing skid. It only took 19 seconds for South Korea’s Kwon Won Il to knock Kelly's lights out when they faced each other last April. Just last month, Kelly fell short against Chinese prospect Niu Kang Kang by way of unanimous decision.
In the span of four years, his professional record has fallen from a remarkable 12-1 to a mediocre 12-8. Kelly has gone from being a top contender to becoming a featherweight journeyman, which led to ONE Championship severing its ties with him.
“I received my notice of release on June 19. I was so sad when I got that email,” he admits. “In some way, I deserve it because I failed to do my part as an athlete.”
Kelly says he has accepted ONE’s decision. “MMA is a sport, but it is also a business. I completely understand that side,” he says. “I just have to accept it and move on.”
Fighting his demons
At one point in time, Kelly was at the top of the MMA world—at least from the perspective of the audience. But behind the scnes, things were spiraling out of control.
Kelly admitted that his desire for the sport greatly diminished when he started getting a lot of money from his fights. This got him hooked on gambling. His addiction stemmed from the $50,000 bonus 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,” the 37-year-old discloses. “I didn’t know how to handle or manage the money I was getting. It made me bigheaded.”
Kelly then had a highly-publicized contract dispute with ONE Championship that lasted from 2014 to 2015. He was left with no choice, but to satisfy the conditions that he entered into with the company. As a result, even if he was injured, or if the bout was on short notice, he accepted fights 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 bares. “It was really difficult. There was a lot going on in my personal life, which hindered me from focusing 100 percent on training. But I needed the money so bad. I had no other choice.”
After reassessing his financial situation, Kelly was compelled to work abroad as a trainer for Team Nogueira in Dubai. Breaking his gambling 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 seven consecutive matches, he contemplated about the idea of hanging up the gloves for good. “I’m not going to lie. 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 was already telling me to stop.”
Kelly adds that it’s a fact of life that he has 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.”
One last win
Before the curtains completely come down on his storied MMA career, Kelly is ardently seeking to conclude 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 with a series of losses. I can’t go that way,” he pleads. “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 four-ounce gloves for the last time, Kelly wants his fans to remember him as a combat sports athlete who never buckled from any 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,” he says. “I am a warrior. That will be my legacy.”