Because Daniel Kelly has the look of a fellow who drives a Honda Odyssey to work everyday, his upset victory over Antonio Carlos Junior back in March stood out among the many held at UFC Fight Night 85 in Brisbane. As far as surface narratives go, why not? Here was a man who was 38 years old, scoring a technical knockout over a fighter a dozen years his junior, defying Vegas odds and Darwin’s theories alike, in his native country.
Not a bad night.
Yet what Kelly could have lived without was the nickname assigned to him by all the social media players that had tuned in that night…"Dad Bod." The four-time judo Olympian can’t help but recognize the backhandedness of such a distinction, even if it’s meant as a warm endearment.
"I heard it," Kelly told MMA Fighting from his home in Melbourne. "It was a lot of, ‘What’s this old guy doing? Antonio Carlos Junior’s a lot younger, he has better cardio and he’s looking better physically.’ Yeah, I heard all that, and I hear it every time, about how old I am and having a ‘dad bod’ and not having good conditioning. It’s all bullsh*t."
Kelly’s "dad bod" reference was peculiar, too, because he wasn’t even the oldest dad on the card. Mark Hunt, who scored a ridiculous walk-off knockout of Frank Mir in the main event, is three years older than Kelly. Yet it was Kelly, who fights as a middleweight, that got labeled a weekend warrior.
"I think a lot of times that people are just trying to differentiate between me and the other fighter," Kelly says. "They’ve gotten onto this train of saying I’m old and slow, I don’t know why. They’ll pipe down about it soon hopefully."
Kelly, who’s now 4-1 in the UFC and 11-1 overall, is indeed a father of two young children. He and his wife Maria Pekli — a decorated five-time judo Olympian herself — have a 6-year-old named Akos, and a 10-year-old named Erik. It’s Erik that furnishes Kelly with constant perspective. Kelly’s come from behind victory over Antonio Carlos Junior was backlit by Erik’s strength.
That’s because Kelly’s son is a fighter, too — yet his fight is a lot tougher than any particular opponent in the cage.
"Erik has a rare genetic disease called cystinosis, where amino acid crystals build up around all the organs in his body," Kelly says. "The first organ to go will be his kidneys. We medicate him about 20 times a day, and during the night. He’s one of those as well. He gets an injection daily. He’s at mainstream school, he had extra help there. He’s getting on okay, it’s just we work extra hard giving him the best care we can for the disease. It’s a degenerative thing, so it’s a lifelong battle."
Kelly doesn’t hear the ticking of the clock because he’s 38 years old so much as he embraces every tick of that clock. There are bigger fights ahead for his family.
"He’ll have a kidney transplant, a lot of other stuff, like muscle wastage, his puberty’s delayed," Kelly says of Erik. "It’s a lot of other things. Because previously, the oldest [person] to exist with cystinosis was about 55 years old, a lot of people pass away earlier. But it’s getting better, and they’re lasting longer. It’s a little bit of new frontier stuff. There’s a lot of work being done at the Cystinosis Research Foundation to find a cure, but it’s really hard because it’s genetic. A lot of work is being done, but there’s still a lot of work to be done."
Fresh off his victory, Kelly is taking a small break from fighting to act as the Olympics coach for the Australian judo team, and he’ll be in Rio de Janeiro this summer for the Games. When that’s done, he’s hoping to fight one more time before the year lets out. His original goal coming into the UFC was to fight at least 10 times for the promotion, and he’s halfway there. By winning 80 percent of his fights thus far, it’s possible that farfetched number was actually conservative.
Kelly says that everything he accomplishes is, at very least, a reflection of his son.
"What I do is easy compared to the battles that he deals in," he says. "He feels nauseous and sick almost day. The medicine we give him makes him sick. He vomits a lot less than he did, but he vomits four or five times a week, just from feeling ill from the disease.
"What I do is easy. It would be bad, me representing him and my family if I didn’t go in and fight similarly, how I did in Brisbane and knock [Junior] out. Because he doesn’t give up. He always has a positive outlook on life, he takes all the medicine that he’s made to, all the injections. We deal with it day to day, and when you sit down and think about it, he takes it in stride really well."
The Kelly’s are fighters. It’s in the blood.
And even at 38, with an appearance that brings to mind ol’ dad — a distinction that is at once deceiving and truer than anyone knows — Daniel Kelly is a reflection of all the underdogs that only ask for the chance to shine.
"I wanted to have a little bit more success striking with Antonio Carlos Junior," he says. "I didn’t get to show all the work I’ve done on my striking with him. I couldn’t find my range, and it wasn’t in the plans getting taken down on the first round and get my back taken. But I’m working on not being a slow starter as well. That wasn’t ideal at all.
"I wasn’t sure how it would go. It was a hard fight. And nobody gave me the chance to win, to be honest."
Yet he did. Because he had to. And he took it in stride.
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