Paul Kelly may be the only fighter who has ever scheduled an interview for 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
When his voice comes through the other end of the line from Liverpool, he chirps merrily and quickly reveals the source of his mood.
“I’m just out on day release, just now mate,” he tells me, speaking on his girlfriend’s phone. “I’m just looking forward to getting some normal food and some coffees.”
Before “Tellys” was handed down a 13-year prison sentence for drug trafficking, he was famed for his unrelenting striking style — first on the UK MMA scene, and later on the international stage with the UFC.
When Donald Cerrone was signed by the promotion following Zuffa’s purchase of the WEC, it was Kelly that was asked to welcome him to the world’s premier MMA organization. Having cultivated a record of 5-3 in the Octagon, Dana White and Joe Silva were well aware of what the gritty Liverpudlian brought into a contest.
“My relationship with Dana and Joe was one that they knew I was always going to fight for the bonus. Sometimes my bonus would end up being 70 grand when my purse was only 14. I had to fight for the bonus,” Kelly remembers.
“The thing everybody that fought me knew was, I wasn’t going to change my style for anyone. I didn’t care if I was fighting the devil, I was going to march them down and try to put my hands on them.
“That was my attitude ahead of the Cerrone fight: ‘I’m going to come in and I’m going to hurt you.’”
As a perennial contender in the WEC ranks, lots of people thought that “Cowboy” would immediately impose himself on the UFC’s lightweight division. Despite the scalp that was on offer to Kelly, he made sure that his opponent knew what his motivation was going into UFC 126.
“I think most people know that I wasn’t a very friendly fighter,” Kelly explains.
“I don’t like to be friendly because the way I saw it, my opponents were trying to take my money. I know we’re all sportsmen and we’re meant to be respectable, but when I got into this game, it was always the Diaz style that I went for.
“With Cerrone, he bumped into me the day before the fight and I was having a bit of argument with the IRS at the time. I shook his hand and I said, ‘Tomorrow it’s all about the money, so let’s have a good fight.’”
Known for his charisma inside and outside the cage, Cerrone cut a subdued figure ahead of his UFC bow. As he later explained to Ariel Helwani, he had agreed to fight Kelly while he was visiting his grandfather in hospital. Worse still, 20 minutes before the fight got underway, his grandfather passed away.
Like the vast majority of those watching, Kelly was unaware of Cerrone’s loss. As he was announced in the Octagon, he snarled into the camera, beating his chest, and fixed his despondent counterpart with a steely stare.
If Cerrone thought the Scouser’s demeanor was a front, he quickly found out it wasn’t when Kelly refused to acknowledge his outstretched hand at the start of the fight, and marched in with a straight right instead.
Although Cerrone was infamous for his Muay Thai skillset, he quickly took the fight to the ground, but when Kelly got back up, he bit down on his gum shield and started throwing bombs.
“Donald seems to be having a hard time finding his rhythm here,” Joe Rogan observed from the commentary booth. “This is the most uncomfortable I’ve seen him in a fight.”
Eventually, Kelly would succumb to a rear-naked choke in the second round. For his efforts, he came away with the all-important ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus — something that the Brit reminded Cerrone of during the fight.
“I was talking to him throughout the fight,” Kelly remembers. “You can listen to it. I’m saying, ‘Come on, let’s make some f**kin’ money.’”
Years later, Kelly doesn’t begrudge Cerrone’s victory.
“I think a lot of people thought he was going to steamroll me. And, okay, he had a good game plan and I think that’s won him the fight,” he concedes.
In a cruel twist of fate, Cerrone’s debut with the UFC turned out to Kelly’s last outing for the promotion. Although he has put it behind him now, he was so furious at the time that he reached out to White and Silva to let them know how he felt about the situation.
“I was a little bit upset about being cut. I can remember I messaged them afterwards and said, ‘Are you being f**king serious?’” says Kelly.
“Only the UFC know this: They let me fight Troy Mandaloniz with 13 fucking stitches in my hand when I had broken it. I guess as fighters, we’re always injured to a certain extent, so I think I just wanted to crack on with it too.
“One thing jail has taught me is that things happen for a reason. Obviously, I would have chosen to stay in the UFC. If I had, I think I’d be living in America by now and I’d probably have a couple of million behind me from fighting.
“I’m not bitter about being gone from the UFC is the point I’m making. Did I deserve to be cut? Certainly not. I think I had a few years left fighting, and I never got to reach my full potential.
“I never picked a fight in my life, and I fought a high level of competition. It wasn’t just Cerrone, but even at that, I bet there are a lot of guys that wouldn’t take that fight.”
Darren Till hails from the same gym that Kelly once trained out of: Team Kaobon.
The team’s head coach, Colin Heron, is one of the most respected names in UK MMA, and the Muay Thai expert has guided many more talents like Terry Etim, Paul Sass and Paul Taylor, among others, to the world’s biggest mixed martial arts stage.
Kelly remembers the toughness that Heron demanded from his team. Following his win over Matt Veach, Kelly shared an intimate moment with the decorated coach that he still treasures to this day.
“I beat Matt Veach with a second-round submission, and I felt like I had been sent in there to lose. Veach was a tough lad. His only loss was to Frankie Edgar and he had punched the f**k out of him when they fought,” Kelly recalls.
“When I won, Colin rushed into the cage and picked me up. This is a guy that had never showed any emotion or weakness, no sense of fear — nothing.
“To be picked up by him was an amazing feeling. It was such a big thing for me, I can remember thinking about it while all this madness was going on. ‘What’s going on here? Colin’s just picked me up and he’s f**king hugging me!’
“You just never got that from him. In Kaobon, it’s a really tough environment. If you suffer, you suffer in silence. If your legs are hanging off, get into the corner and keep quiet. If you bitch and moan about it, Colin wants to snap your other leg.
“He breeds toughness. That’s what he’s all about.”
Till famously left Liverpool for Brazil after being stabbed, as recommended by Heron. Kelly knows the dangers of the city more than most, and is adamant that criminals are attracted to fighters, which can lead to troubles like both he and Till encountered.
“That city we live in, as much as we love it and we’re proud of being Scousers, our friends and the people around us are the people who get us into trouble,” says Kelly. “If it’s not your friends, it’s your family that will get you in trouble.
“You can’t get about and live a normal life without violence in some parts of this city. I think that’s a big issue for fighters — because we’re fighters, we seem to get sucked into it.
“That’s why Colin kept such a tight leash on Darren. He had that bit of trouble, and he advised him to get out of the country. He did the same thing with Terry Etim at one stage too.
“He’s harnessed the violent background and that don’t-give-a-f**k attitude. Because that’s the general consensus in the community: No one gives a f**k.
“It’s just that city, lad. Liverpool breeds violence and everything that comes along with it. If you can harness that and keep it under control, you can create something special. That’s what I think Colin is trying to do with Darren.”
While the city has its dangers, Heron’s ability to harness Liverpool’s energy has allowed him to create his own brand of fighter, according to Kelly.
“I genuinely think that’s what Colin is trying to do with Darren. He’s a nice guy, but he can also be one of the toughest and meanest kids you’ve ever met.”
Having watched Till in the gym in his younger years, Kelly expects the bilingual Brit to push further than any of the Team Kaobon proponents to date.
“I think Darren can go further than us all. There’s something about him, and he’s so young too,” Kelly says.
“His standup was outstanding ever since I started to see him in the gym, but since he’s been living in Brazil, he’s picked everything else up. I think he’s going to own Cerrone on the feet, to be honest.
“I think something nobody’s factoring in is Cerrone’s corner — he’s got Greg Jackson there and that team are just full of masterful game planners.
“When I fought Cerrone, I was having the better of it on the feet, but as soon as he got me down, I could hear his corner meticulously talking him through everything. They knew what I was going to do even before I did it.
“I’ve had plenty of black belts on my back from all over the world and they couldn’t submit me, but Cerrone did. He was choking me and it felt like a back crank too. They’re going to zero in on any weaknesses they find in Darren’s game, but genuinely — and I’m not saying this because we’re friends — I think Darren is going to do him.
“He’s just too strong and I really believe he has what it takes to become a UFC champion.”
Kelly expects to be out of prison at the beginning of 2018. Although he hasn’t made up his mind one way or the other about what he’ll do just yet, he does have some ideas based on the public perception of him following his conviction.
“I’ll come out in a balaclava — the criminal — because that’s what people think now. I stopped living that lifestyle back in 2008. I got stabbed and I nearly got my head cut clean off. That was when I stopped that lifestyle,” Kelly says.
“That was just before I fought Marcus Davis, so I had removed myself from that situation before I fought him.
“Everyone was very proud because I had managed to get out. I was earning a lot of money from that lifestyle, so it was very hard to turn away.”
The former UFC fighter still has some outstanding issues about his conviction.
“That’s what really pissed me off about this,” he says.
“I feel like this is the only country in the world where people conspire to put you away. Nobody knows this, but I was found not guilty on six charges and then it was a hung jury on one charge.
“I just got fucked over and made an example of. I had a million friends before I came to jail, but where were they when I was sitting in a little cell?”
It might sound like Kelly is bitter based on his assessment of his sentence, but he has grown from his experience in prison. Unable to read or write before he went away, he’s now studying a degree while he sees out his last few months.
One can’t help but think his aggressive style and no frills attitude would have made Kelly a hit with the European audience if he had been given the time, especially now that the continent has become more and more infatuated with MMA since the emergence of Conor McGregor.
“I always think that our personalities would have clashed. I think we would’ve ended up fighting, me and McGregor, and that would have been a lot of fun,” says Kelly, laughing.
“Some people like to play football, some people like to play tennis, I like to hit people in the face and I don’t mind getting punched in the face myself. As f**ked up as that sounds, I’ve done it since I was a kid and really, really, really f**kin’ enjoy it.
“Some people get nervous, but I get excited. I just can’t wait for the referee to move out of the way so I can get my hands on my opponent. I’m like an old staff (Staffordshire bull terrier).”
Kelly has kept in touch with his old teammates. He name-checked Terry Etim and his old Wolfslair training partner, UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, as two fighters in particular that he still speaks to.
He’s also kept in touch with his old agent and former Super Fight League CEO, Ken Pavia, who has said he will help him should he want to test himself in the cage when he gets out.
“I still talk to Ken Pavia, and he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in my life. I love the bones of him. I know some people slag him off but he does a great job for his clients,” Kelly says.
“Ken told me if I want to fight he would support me. He doesn’t even have clients anymore, but he said he would look after me if that were what I want to do. I’m a bit old in the tooth now. I’d only fight for the right money and against the right opponent.
“The thing is, even if I signed to fight someone, I wouldn’t know how I felt about fighting until I was back in the gym. Jail could have taken that part of me away. It’s only when you’re getting punched and kicked that you find out where your head is at.”
There’s only one man that Kelly would want to share a cage with if he did return.
“The only fight I’d come back for is Paul Daley. I just think that fight should have happened years and years ago,” Kelly says.
“You can print that, but make sure you explain that I’m saying this with the utmost respect to Paul. I like the guy, we’re friends, but the British fans always wanted to see that fight.
“I wouldn’t come back to fight some little shit that doesn’t deserve to be in there with me. I’d want someone who has paid their dues like I have.”