Dan Kelly: The Swan Song That Wasn't

By: Jacob Debets
Feb 1, 2019

Dan Kelly has fought his last fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The man affectionately dubbed “Dad,” “Dad Bod Catterall” and -- most inventively -- as the “highly decorated general of Dad’s Army,” claims that after lobbying diligently to book a retirement fight at UFC 234, the promotion made it clear it wasn’t interested in what it was selling. He will hang up the gloves with an impressive 10 fights under the UFC banner and winning record of 6-4 (13-4 total), with notable victories over former 205-pound champion Rashad Evans and long-time middleweight contender Chris Camozzi.

Speaking to Sherdog.com, Kelly weighed in on the UFC’s decision to deny him his swan song and reflected on his career with the promotion since graduating from “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2014. “Dad” expressed disappointment that the organization wasn’t interested in his idea to walk out to the Octagon one last time with his son Eric, who suffers from cystinosis and will likely undergo a kidney transplant in the near future.

“My manager spoke to [the UFC], and matchmaker Sean [Shelby] said that his portion of the card was full and that I won’t be on the card” Kelly said. “That happened just before Christmas…. The door’s closed with the UFC. If they’re not going to put me on in Melbourne, when I’ve had some really big performances down here, it ain’t gonna happen. It is what it is, I’m 41 years-old and I don’t see myself making another run. I think that’s it.”

“I’ve got no idea [why they didn’t put me on the card]” he elaborated when asked whether he was given a reason for the snub. “There’s speculation that after they announced the main and co-main event, they sold the show out really quickly. And then after that, they didn’t put any real marquee match ups on the card. I’m not necessarily a marquee guy, but I’m a little bit further along contract and pay wise than the guys just starting up. I don’t know, I thought it would have been good [to have me on the card] anyway.”

Kelly’s last fight will go down in the record books as a first round TKO loss to Tom Breese back in May 2018 -- a difficult pill for the 41-year-old to swallow given the stoppage originated with an eye injury from a legal punch. Since then he’s been keeping busy running his gym, the Resilience Training Centre, coaching Australia’s National Judo team, appearing on BetEasy’s “MMA Takedown” program as an analyst, and helping fellow Melbournians Jimmy Crute and Callan Potter prepare for UFC 234.

Crute, who made his promotional debut in December at UFC Fight Night 142 with a third round submission victory over Paul Craig, will face off against an old foe of Kelly’s in Sam Alvey on short notice, and the former Olympic judoka has relished the opportunity to impart his wisdom on his 22-year old teammates. “Sam hasn’t changed much at all in the way he fights,” Kelly said of Alvey. “[Jimmy and I] have spoken about it. Jimmy has much better stand up than I do. He has a very good coaching staff, and they know exactly what to do… He’s locked, cocked and ready to rock. Jimmy’s good to go.”

Asked to put his 17-fight MMA career into words -- this following a career in judo where Kelly represented Australia in the Olympics four times -- Kelly said he’s content with everything that he achieved in the sport, even if he didn’t get the storybook ending he had hoped for.

“It’s been massive,” he said. “When I actually got in the UFC, my aim was to have 10 fights for the promotion. I got there, just. It was a good career, after my other sporting career [in judo]. Financially it’s been good for us, and in terms of promoting our gym. I got some good wins along the way. I walk out of there with a winning record of six wins, four losses. It’s not a bad record. It’s been really good, I got to fight all over the world, I got to fight some really big names. I’ve been lucky in that regard.”

In terms of high points, Kelly has plenty to choose from -- having frequently marched into battle as an underdog only to defy the odds makers. “Rashad at UFC 209 was a highlight,” he said of the last win he earned under the UFC banner. “When I beat Antonio Carlos Junior [at UFC Fight Night 85], that was also a big one. My debut [against Luke Zachrich] was great. And my win [against Chris Camozzi] in Melbourne,that was a really big one too. Those are probably the standouts.”

As Kelly transitions to the next stage of his career, he took some time to reflect on how far Australasian MMA has come in the last few years. With a growing cadre of top names in the UFC hailing from Australia and New Zealand -- Robert Whittaker, Israel Adesanya, Alexander Volkanovski, Tai Tuivasa, Dan Hooker and Jake Matthews among them -- Kelly has some pretty good insight into why the region is coming into its own.

“Aussies and kiwis like to have a scrap,” Kelly laughed. “We’ve got such a strong history of martial arts in this country, with boxing and kickboxing, and BJJ as well. It’s all come along at the same time. The exposure -- having the UFC down here twice a year -- has just pushed it along. It’s a great time for Australian MMA.

“We’re never going to be NCAA wrestlers” he continued. “But this is MMA. They don’t just have to take you down, they need to keep you down. Alex Volkanovski and Rob [Whittaker] are perfect examples. They just keep getting up. Jimmy [Crute] got taken down in his last fight but he’s got such good jiu-jitsu he can sweep, scramble, get up. Their whole games are evolving to nullify the wrestling.”

As the game evolves “Down Under,” Kelly is proud to report that the days of oceanic fighters having to jet set to the United States as a necessity are over, and with a healthy regional scene, young fighters have ample opportunity to put themselves on the radar of major shows.

“You can go and do odds and ends overseas” he said. “There’s a great facility in Thailand, Tiger [Muay Thai]. But we’ve got everything we need here. In Melbourne, we’ve got guys from seven or eight different gyms coming together a few times a week to train different formats -- submission wrestling, MMA, stand-up sparring -- and that’s how we get better and move forward.

“In Melbourne we’ve got it really good [in terms of local shows]” he continued. “HEX [Fight Series] is a fantastic promotion. They really look after everyone. The amateur scene is becoming bigger and bigger which will help give people pathways for athletes to move into a professional career. Diamond Back in South Australia is an awesome promotion as well. It’s healthy. Whenever these guys get signed [to a major promotion], there’s always guys coming up behind them. On the regional scene, these events always sell out because people want to see their mates fight, and [from that] new stars just pop up all the time.”

One area where Kelly would like to see more progress is how the media covers MMA in Australia, with the father of two agreeing that there’s an educational barrier that must be overcome for the sport to get its fair due culturally. A particularly eyebrow-raising illustration of this was on display when Dana White appeared on Channel 10’s “The Project” late last year, with the video package that preceded the interview reproducing decades-old criticisms of the sport for its “confronting brutality”. The hosts of the program, in particular Waleed Aly, also demonstrated a frustrating lack of awareness about how the sport was regulated, and were perceived by many to be openly courting controversy.

“The Project wanted to set that up to be controversial” Kelly said of the incident. “They could have decided to pitch that however they wanted to. I’ve been on [Melbourne radio station] 3AW and been ambushed before. It’s just going to take time. Because it’s a combat sport, there are always going to be negative connotations. For example, I got asked to comment on fights that broke out in Pubs after the Conor-Khabib fight, and I said, ‘Hang on a second, there were people fighting after the Richmond-Collingwood [Australian Football League] preliminary final.’”

“In all sports, there is going to be violence when there’s alcohol involved” Kelly continued. “It’s not just linked to mixed martial arts. Until the media stops trying to look for negative stories -- which they always will -- it’s just an educational process. It’s just going to take time.”

Before Kelly goes, there’s one last question: who he’s picking to get up in the main and co-main event at UFC 234, both of which will take place at his old haunt, the 185-pound weight class. Kelly answers quickly, predicting the ANZACs -- Whittaker and Adesanya -- will bring home victories. If the two men meet later down the track, he’s picking Whittaker to retain his title.

“I think Rob would take it. Rob’s incredible, he’s next level. In terms of striking, it would be even. Rob’s got deceptively good wrestling, and his angles and movement are just not normal. Israel’s awesome with his striking, but I think Rob is just that little bit more unorthodox, and I think that would get him over the line.”

Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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