Brian Kelleher’s career may not be over just yet.
Kelleher was scheduled to face Journey Newson this past week at UFC Vegas 72, but just a few days prior to his fight, the UFC pulled the plug, removing “Boom” from the card for undisclosed injury concerns.
Kelleher himself did not make matters any more clear, lamenting the circumstances in several social media posts and even hinting at possible retirement. Now, we know exactly what happened.
“I was in Vegas when this happened,” Kelleher told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. “I had already gotten there and I was dialed in, eating my meals, ready to cut weight, and my phone rang, it was my manager, and he told me he had some bad news. He was on three-way line with Hunter Campbell, so I knew something was up, because that’s never happened before. I was just kind of nervous like, ‘What’s going on?’ because I really didn’t have an idea what was going on. That’s when they broke the news to me.
“I’ve been having neck issues for quite some time. It would come and go, and I just chalked it up to, that’s the fight game. I would get stingers here and there in training, and it wasn’t until three weeks before my fight, I had a really stiff neck, and I decided to get an MRI. I wanted to get the best doctors to look at my neck so I reached out to my manger, the UFC, they set me up with Hospital for Special Surgery, we looked over my images and everything, and they saw some things going on in my neck. I thought, ‘I have to fight,’ for money reasons and because this is the last fight on my, so I thought there’s no way I’m pulling out of this fight.
“So I left it be, kept training, worked around the injury, and I felt good coming into fight week. My neck wasn’t hurting or anything like that, it was just that I knew there were some things going on that needed to be addressed after the fight. So I don’t know why it took this long, but I got to Vegas and they called me, Hunter Campbell was on the phone... and essentially they just expressed concern for my neck and were like, ‘We can’t let you go in there with what we see.’ I was in shock. I was like, what can I really say? They’re telling me, ‘Your fight’s off. We can’t let you go in there. It’s too risky. You have to address this and we’ll deal with it after.’”
As far as the actual injury, Kelleher revealed there are multiple issues that need to be addressed with his neck before the UFC will allow him to fight again.
“There’s multiple things going on,” Kelleher said. “There’s some disc herniations and some nerve compression, stuff like that. I’ve had issues, I just never thought it was something serious. Essentially I’ve got to get a procedure done in order to move forward if I want to continue fighting. It’s one of those things that’s heartbreaking, because I don’t feel in pain or anything like that. I do have slight symptoms here or there, I’ll get tingling in the hands and whatnot, but only if I really irritate it or whiplash my neck... Otherwise, like right now, I feel 100 percent, and I did fight week, ready to go in there.”
Fortunately for Kelleher, the fix is not that bad. Speaking with other fighters who have had something similar done, and with his physicians, Kelleher believes that if he does opt for surgery, he could still fight again before the end of the year, which is why he says he will likely opt to do it.
“I don’t think the procedure itself is that risky,” Kelleher said. “I’ve actually spoken to a couple of UFC fighters that have had this procedure done and got back in there and were successful, winning fights and performing, doing well. The surgeon that I saw is the best in the country, at the Hospital for Special Surgery, and he expressed a lot of confidence in doing this procedure and getting me back in there. He told me it would take about three months to be back training full time, three to four months, and then of course it would take some time to prepare for another fight.”
“If I want to continue fighting in MMA, with the wrestling involved and all that stuff, I probably should get the procedure done. As far as symptoms and how I feel currently, I wouldn’t really want to do surgery. It’s not something I’m really in favor of, but if I have to to continue fighting, I probably will, because to me, I know I’m 36 and that’s old in the fighting game essentially, but I feel really good. I feel young, I haven’t had a lot of injuries in this sport, so I feel I have at least three, four years left in me, which is what makes it even more heartbreaking.”
And as for his messages saying he planned to put his career on pause and seemingly bidding farewell to the UFC? Well, “Boom” says that may have been premature.
“At that moment, I was a little bit emotional.” Kelleher said. “I feel like I had to figure out what decision I want to make, because it is one of those things where either I do the procedure and I continue fighting, or don’t do it and it’s looking like it’s unlikely that I can keep fighting, with what’s going on. Especially as far as the UFC goes. The UFC is my home and where I want to be, where I want to end my career, and I wanted to do it on my terms. So I’m trying to be optimistic, the surgeon is very optimistic, and I think if I get the procedure done, at least I’m hoping they give me a farewell fight. At least I can go out on my own terms and get that last fight in, but we’ll have to see in the future.”
A UFC veteran since 2017, Kelleher has fought 15 times for the promotion, amassing a record of 8-7, a majority of those in the bantamweight division. He last competed at UFC Vegas 57, losing by submission to Mario Bautista in the first round.