It’s rare that Danielle Kelly isn’t asked about a potential move into MMA, as if it’s an eventuality for all high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners.
To be fair, that always seemed like the natural progression for grapplers, because despite the prestige that came along with winning a major jiu-jitsu tournament, the financial reward was usually minimal. The landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, however, with promotions like ONE Championship putting grappling matches alongside MMA fights on major cards.
To add to that, Gordon Ryan just recently inked a 7-figure deal to compete only in grappling after he previously stated that he wanted to continue building Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a major combat sport, rather than just moving to MMA because that was the only way he could eventually make any real money.
“I actually agree with what Gordon says,” Kelly told MMA Fighting ahead of her next match at ONE Fight Night 7 on Friday. “I love what he’s trying to do for the sport. I know he just signed something that guaranteed him like $3 million. That’s something that’s never been known for a jiu-jitsu person.
“When I started in 2006, jiu-jitsu tournaments didn’t even have a $100 prize or anything. So it’s pretty cool that spot I’m in. We can actually make a living off it. Times are changing. I think in the next two to five years coming up, I think jiu-jitsu will be the same level as MMA.”
In her own career, Kelly said she didn’t necessarily feel pressured to eventually make the move to MMA, although that option was definitely brought up to her often.
These days, Kelly is happy that promotions like ONE Championship are willing to invest in grapplers to the point where she doesn’t have to do anything else but focus on Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“I know for a while I wanted to try MMA, but then I got these matches offered to me,” Kelly said. “Over time, I started doing pretty well [financially] and the thought of MMA kept getting pushed back because I would just focus on jiu-jitsu because I would get offered these big matches.”
During her grappling career, Kelly has already enjoyed numerous high-profile matches with many coming against notable names from MMA. She’s earned wins over Carla Esparza, Roxanne Modafferi, and Cynthia Calvillo in grappling matches, and Kelly is always ready to add more big names to her résumé.
“I’ve been very open about going against big names like Angela Lee,” Kelly said. “I know another jiu-jitsu girl was signed. I actually asked for Jessa [Khan], she’s more accomplished than me. That would be cool. If I am on the U.S. card, I asked to have her as my jiu-jitsu match just to prove I can submit jiu-jitsu people, too.
“Whoever they give me, I think everyone likes exciting matches and I think I’m one of the most exciting jiu-jitsu people in my division. I think it just matters who brings the eyes in.”
Kelly loves the idea of eventually facing someone like Lee, who is the reigning ONE atomweight champion, but that’s not a match she’s calling for currently due to the family tragedy Lee suffered with the loss of her sister, Victoria Lee.
In the future, Kelly welcomes that opportunity or any other that will put the spotlight on grappling and the platform that ONE Championship is giving her.
“I’m pretty open to it,” Kelly said. “I know she cuts to 115. Obviously, I’m not asking for it now just because of what’s going on outside in her life, but just competing-wise, I think it would be pretty good.
“She’s a big name, I’m a big name. I think having a match together would bring a lot of eyes in for women’s grappling in general, especially on a stage like ONE Championship.”