Eric Kelly - definition of a warrior

FOX Sports looks at Eric Kelly - a man born to fight and, after this weekend, possibly the first featherweight champion at One FC.

Eric Kelly
Marcus Chhan

By Marcus Chhan

If you look up the word ‘fighter' in the dictionary, the name Eric Kelly won't get a mention - but it should.

The 30-year-old Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) professional has been battling his whole life. Born into a family of farmers in the Green Valley area in Baguio, he is the eldest of seven children. His dad frequently used violence as a way to instill discipline.

"My father was a farmer so I have experienced - and I can handle - the hardness of life," Kelly told FOX Sports.

"We are OK now. I am not angry with him now. I love him. I feel thankful he trained me to be tough. Before [when I was younger] I was angry with him because he punished me but I remember how he helped me to become a real fighter.

"He punished me and made my body strong so now I am not angry at him."

It was the Filipino's father who played a big part in convincing Kelly to change his surname from Kili to the current Anglicised version in the hope it would make him more attractive to fight promoters.

Kelly is, at present, on the books of Muayfit in Kuala Lumpur and is one of the rising stars in the mushrooming Asian MMA circuit - but this has nothing to do with having an English surname.

He earned his reputation by winning the featherweight title at the Universal Reality Combat Championships (URCC) in the Philippines. He earned his reputation with notable victories over Mitch ‘The Dragon' Chilson and Jens ‘Lil Evil' Pulver.

In his last fight against Australian Brad Terry, Kelly scored a submission victory in the last round of URCC 22 Dekada - with one eye swollen shut after round one.

On February 2nd, he will put his perfect record of 9-0 on the line at One FC's Return of Warriors in Kuala Lumpur. It will be the main event on a glitzy night for the One FC as they look to crown their first Featherweight champion - a far cry for Kelly from those hard and long nights spent sleeping on a bench at Rizal Park.

Kelly started out as a boxer at the age of 19 after graduating high school. Feeling let down - and reportedly also lighter in the pocket - by his manager, he drifted towards martial arts. Kelly became a student of Yaw-Yan (Filipino kickboxing), Pencak Silat (Indonesian martial arts) and Wushu (a full-contact sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts).

It was in Wushu where Kelly enjoyed some success as he won a gold medal at the South East Asian (SEA) Games with the Philippines national team (2000-2004).

However, to walk the line of a pro-fighter is to experience hardship - a nasty groin injury with the national team in China forced him to return home to Baguio. He would not fight for a whole year and decided to leave Wuhsu after what he perceived as a lack of support from the powers that run the sport in his country.

With barely any money to support himself and his new family, Kelly took to odd-jobs including driving a taxi as well as being a bodyguard.

"I experienced a lot being a bodyguard, but I just wanted to earn [money] to send to my family," Kelly said.

The Philippines has one of the highest murder rates in the region, and many of those killings are gun-related. In fact, there's a huge public debate underway in the country at the moment over gun control, after a mass shooting by a drug-crazed politician.

The world's crime figures are collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and it said recently that almost 50% of all homicides in the country were gun-related.

Not exactly the easiest place in the world to start and survive a career as a bodyguard.

"It was the birthday of my first son so I went home. My boss gave me a little money and I went home. Then [later] I was told he was killed," Kelly said.

"He was ambushed."

The man who picked up Kelly's shift, Benhur Bernados was also gunned down.

Worse was to follow.

Kelly's boss was Pablo Glean, chief security officer to the then mayor of Makati City Jejomar Binay. By all accounts, it was a politically driven murder and Kelly's lucky escape had not gone unnoticed. An investigation was launched - but no evidence linking Kelly to the assassination plot were found.

"When my boss died, I found another job," Kelly said.

He added: "I felt threatened... maybe people thought I had something to do with [the assassination] it.

"To work as a bodyguard you have to be always humble. I learned a lot of things there but I like fighting because being a bodyguard is too dangerous."

"If a bullet hits you... you are finished and you will not wake up but if in MMA someone punches you and you get knocked out you will wake up after an hour."

Kelly is addicted to fighting - and nothing else. It's one of the reasons why he coined the nickname ‘The Natural' for himself.

The meaning of the word resonates with him.

"I am not taking any drugs. I am just taking natural supplements like vitamins and fruits. I think I am born as a natural fighter. Many people use it but I like the word," he said.

Kelly will fight fellow Baguio native Honorio Banario this weekend for the One FC featherweight title at Return of Warriors in Malaysia. For a 30-year-old fighter whose career path has been littered with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, Saturday's main event is a potential life changer for Kelly.

"It will be a big help to my career," he said.

"If I can get the belt I will have a good life with my family. I need to fight - and to win."

If not?

"I don't know."

A pause before adding: "I will just keep on going."

"I'll keep on fighting."

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