Daniel Kelly finished out his UFC contract in May, losing a fight with Tom Breese some 10,000 miles away from his home in Melbourne, Australia. That trip to Liverpool was a tough one to swallow for the four-time Olympic judoka, whom so many have lovably bestowed the nickname of “Dad Bod.” He took a thumb into the eye socket in the first round, and said he felt as though “Tom’s whole finger went to the back of my eye.” And that was how his UFC run came to a close.
An injury that parlayed into a sequence of put-aways. It took two months for his eye fully heal.
That swan song fight came a year after Kelly had reached his high point in his UFC career. The previous May, just two months after beating Rashad Evans to run his improbable win streak to four, Kelly could have scrolled through the UFC’s middleweight rankings and found his name. Since then it’s been slippery slope. Three straight losses, including one — against Elias Theodorou — that he let slip through the cracks. A fulfilled contract. And of course a birthday that all athletes dread; Kelly turned 40 last Halloween.
Yet even with all that going on, Kelly wants to fight again. He wants one more fight in the UFC. It’s not to avenge a loss, or to end things on a higher note — though those things certainly have crossed his mind. He wants to walk out with his 12-year-old son, Erik Kelly. Erik is a fighter, too, only his battle is different. He suffers from a rare genetic disease called cystinosis, where amino acid crystals build up around all the organs in his body. At some point in the very near future, he will need a kidney transplant. As it stands right now he takes medicine 20 times a day, and injections six times a week, so that he can function as close to normal as possible. He has been courageous through it all, a proven fighter just like his old man.
“I just want one more fight, and for Erik to walk out with me,” Kelly told MMA Fighting. “I hadn’t asked for another contract, and I don’t want another one — I just want one more fight at home. I’m 41 in October, and it’s time to finish. But I want to finish on a good note in Australia. I’ve had some good wins down here, and the crowds get behind me as well.”
The UFC has a date circled on Dec. 2 in Adelaide, Australia, and another date midway through 2019. Kelly says he’d love to end up on either card, and has been in contact with the UFC to see if that’s a possibility. He is looking to add a punctuation mark on his career, and to possibly try for a storybook moment as well. It’s up to the UFC to make it happen.
If matchmaker Sean Shelby needs another reason to look past Kelly’s three-fight losing streak, it’s that he is a hit in Australia. He fought in Adelaide to a big reception against Sam Alvey back in 2015. He beat Steve Montgomery and Chris Camozzi in his hometown of Melbourne in front of a rabid fan set, and he blew up the Brisbane Entertainment Centre when he upset the heavily favored Antonio Carlos Junior. Australia loves Kelly.
And the country will love him even more in a set-up like he’s pitching.
“This sport isn’t full of fairy tale endings and that kind of thing,” he says. “But, the fact that my last fight was on the other side of the world, it would be good to finish at home. I mean, the roof nearly came off the building when I beat ‘Shoeface,’ and it was massive with Chris Camozzi as well, when I fought him in Australia. It would be good to have one more match like that.”
Asked who he’d like to face, Kelly says he doesn’t have anybody in particular in mind. Although, he kind of does. Not long ago Zak Cummings mentioned fighting Kelly, and that particular idea raised his eyebrow when he thought it over.
“That’s the kind of matchup that would be perfect,” he says. “The guy’s over 30, he’s got a wrestling base, and I’ve had great success against guys who are predominantly grapplers. In the UFC, that’s the kind of match that I would be happy with. I don’t need to fight a 25-year-old guy coming up who’s explosive with great striking. I want to fight a guy who is well established and has a grappling base, to be honest. When Zak called me out, I was like, that’s a matchup I’d like. That’s great.”
Not that Kelly is fixated on that fight. The main thing is to get a fight, to put a bow on a career that essentially began over 30 years ago. Kelly has been involved with judo since he was seven years old, and has competed at the highest levels since he was a teenager. He had his first professional MMA fight a dozen years ago, and has been in the UFC since debuting against Luke Zachrich in 2014.
Competing is all he has known. Yet as a longtime coach — and a father — he has a larger sense of scale. Now that Erik is of age, he wants the first pro fight he’s ever attended live to mean something. To see his father in the limelight, and to share in it. To add a little daylight to the rough patches that lie ahead.
“He’s 12 years old, and he’s started high school,” Kelly says. “But look, his kidney function is getting lower and lower. The transition into high school has been difficult, but he’s getting there. He’s a teenager, he turns 13 in November. He’s getting older and is much more aware of what’s going on, so it’s an interesting time.”
Kelly says that the idea is to hold off as long as possible for the kidney transplant, to get Erik as far through puberty as they can. He also knows that people with cystinosis usually get a transplant around Erik’s age, which means he and his wife Maria Pekli — a five-time judo Olympian herself — have been preparing for the eventuality.
It’s been on the back of Kelly’s mind throughout his whole UFC career.
“My wife, she works full time as well, she’s awesome,” Kelly says. “She picks up a lot of the slack. But you’re used to juggling. We’ve been doing this since he got diagnosed, which is 10 years. I’m up every night to give him medicine at 1 a.m., and we just carry on and get it done. I try not to sit down and think about it, you just slot it into your routine and you carry on. It’s heartbreaking and horrible, but there’s no point in sitting down and going, ‘Oh it’s hard, it’s hard on us.’ You just keep carrying on and try to have as normal a life as possible.”
Normal, except maybe for one glorious night that Kelly has been envisioning since his last fight in May. The night he’s hoping for, when the music kicks in and the curtain opens, and Erik’s eyes behold the scene unfolding in front of him as he and his dad begin that walk towards the octagon…
“I’ve played it over in my head a few times, because I’m an emotional guy as well,” Kelly says. “Obviously emotion has its place in the octagon, but at the same time it’s a very calculated and cerebral event. It’s a very high-stress environment, and it’ll be very, very special. It’s something not a lot of kids get to do, and I’ve seen Jake Matthews and his dad, and what they have, and Jimmy Crute and his dad on the Contender Series together, and Mark Hunt walking out with his son Noah…they are special moments.”
Kelly’s voice gets a little quiet as he pictures it.
“I want to have the opportunity to share that same thing with Erik,” he says. “He deserves that.”