Daniel Kelly, a former The Ultimate Fighter: Nations participant, is the owner of a 6-2 record inside the Octagon. He has won four of his last five fights in increasingly impressive fashion. In a notoriously thin division, any series of wins can launch a fighter into the contender discussion, and a name fight can cement their status as a possible title challenger.
Today, we discuss the surprising turn in Kelly’s career. The Aussie has gone from TUF also-ran to legitimate middleweight competitor. We’ll also examine what Saturday night means to his career moving forward.
Unlike the majority of the top middleweights, Kelly is not a top-end athlete. Multiple injuries, years of competition, and age have robbed the former Olympian judoka of the majority of the explosiveness, quickness and movement one would expect of one of a world-class athlete. He’s not like Karo Parisyan and former bantamweight queen Ronda Rousey, the other two noted judo practitioners who graced the Octagon and showcased their judo in a dynamic fashion that was bolstered by their superior athleticism. They also maintained a certain amount of success on the feet, as they were able to move and strike in a manner that made up for their lack of craft and experience in striking. Kelly, on the other hand, has used his judo skills in a much less obvious manner, relying on his timing, balance, fluid hips, physicality and grittiness borne of hundreds, if not thousands, of judo matches. He uses these attributes alongside his physical strength to control his opponents and the pace of the fight. He’ll slowly drain foes of their energy and explosiveness, before breaking them under a steady torrent of pressure and strikes.
The confounding thing about Kelly is, his wins don’t line up to his biggest and most dominant skill set. Unlike the aforementioned Rousey and Parisyan, Kelly’s fight footage in the UFC isn’t littered with examples of high-level athleticism, various high-amplitude throws, or lightning-quick submission finishes. Kelly hasn’t been nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the two other most accomplished judoka in the UFC.
Instead, we have seen a fighter who has won fights through a combination of many factors: durability, deliberate pressure, veteran savvy, physicality and aggressive counter punching on the feet; a punishing clinch game mixed with various trips and throws; and an exhaustingly suffocating top game. The effectiveness of Kelly’s game isn’t in the myriad of techniques, high-level concepts or athleticism. Its effectiveness is found in the simplicity and directness of his fight style.
Kelly applies a steady pressure that puts his opponents under duress, forcing them to move more than normally, which limits their ability to get off offensively and cuts into their energy reserves. This pressure also makes his opponent more likely to throw high-volume, high-power strikes to dissuade Kelly from pressing them. This is what creates the opportunity for Kelly to establish his counterstriking-oriented game. Favoring his right hook and straight left, the southpaw pushes his opponents backwards and forces them into clinches where he goes to work alternating between attacking with short strikes to the head and body and mixing in takedown attempts.
The takedown attempts serve a dual purpose. One, it extends the grappling exchange, forcing opponents to burn energy defending the takedown while limiting their ability to counter with their own offense. Also, the takedown attempts actually get Kelly to the position where the large majority of his fights take place. As a result of his ability to score takedowns, as well as defend and counter them via his hips, balance and timing, he is able to control or beat up opponents. This approach has been the route to victory in his early wins against Steve Montgomery and Patrick Walsh, as well as in his two most impressive and recent wins against Antonio Carlos Junior and Chris Camozzi.
Kelly’s problems are a familiar story. The Aussie has an extensive background in a particular combat sport. As a result, he is fairly underdeveloped in other realms of mixed martial arts. This is partly due to the very limited amount of fights he has had (8), as well as to his advanced age and late start into MMA.
As you age, your ability to recover lessens. Drilling and sparring have to be managed in a way that it doesn’t have to be when the athlete is younger. This can hinder the ability to execute and slow the development of all-round skills in key areas. These things can be managed versus a certain caliber of opponent, but continued success guarantees the opponents Kelly faces will be increasingly dominant in both areas. Then, the limitations that get managed. Otherwise, schemes get exposed because a fighter’s attributes aren’t good enough to mask technical deficiencies and their technical skills aren’t good enough to navigate when athletic ability isn’t the determining factor in their favor.
Need proof? Look at what happened when Rousey fought comparable athletes with more defined skills in Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm. On the opposite end, look at Bethe Correia’s results when faced with fighters who had superior levels of athleticism, such as Holm, Rousey and Marion Reneau. Even if they weren’t truly better all-round fighters, all it took was one mistake and fights that would have been competitive against a lower-tier athlete turned into decisive victories. Or, in the case of Reneau, a draw was salvaged after Correia was essentially outworked, outclassed and outsmarted for the better part of two rounds.
The second issue for Kelly is his history with injuries. They have hindered his ability to truly learn and enact the finer points of the game, such as defense and defensive footwork. To some degree, it has forced him into the style he uses now. He lacks the mobility and flexibility to effectively develop solid defensive footwork, positioning or kick defense. It has also hindered his ability to initiate or maintain consistent and defensively responsible offense. Essentially, his extended time in judo, his age and the associated wear and tear have forced him to develop a particular style that is much more opportunistic than offensive. It’s also tricky defensively, more so than it is technical.
Both of these things have been highlighted in fights against aggressive, if somewhat limited, offensive fighters in both wins and losses. Kelly was quickly dismissed by Sam Alvey, a power-puncher who’s largely a one-note fighter and an inactive striker. In a contest against Derek Brunson, Kelly was similarly devastated. The powerful and aggressive, yet notoriously hittable, Brunson stopped the Aussie without really taking any sort of punishment. Even in a fight with faded former UFC light heavyweight champion “Suga” Rashad Evans, which stands as Kelly’s biggest and best win, Kelly was unable to generate anything close to dominant offense or defense. Instead, he gave as good as he got in a tight fight that might have been a whole lot easier had he had a more defined and deeper box of tools.
As impressive and unlikely as Kelly’s streak has been, there is a dark lining to go with this silver cloud. Kelly hasn’t crushed anyone he has faced. He has beaten them, come back on them, and physically dominated them, but he hasn’t walked through anyone. The guys he has faced are third- or fourth-tier fighters, at best, and yet he has struggled with each and every one of them. This is why he has a 5-1 record and isn’t mentioned as a potential contender. The guys he has beaten haven’t done anything noteworthy (at least recently) in the Octagon in regards to quality of fighters beaten or quantity of fights won.
As many positives as Kelly has shown, he has revealed just as many negatives, including suspect cardio, a lack of defensive responsibility, an inability to consistently initiate offense, and inconsistent athleticism. All of these things can and will be tested repeatedly as he moves forward into the meatier part of the middleweight division. Even guys who aren’t truly elite have the physical and technical skills to take advantage of each and every one of Kelly’s limitations.
Unlike the majority of his opponents so far, these guys won’t just put him in bad spots, either. They will finish him when they do. This isn’t hard to believe, because of the two blemishes on Kelly’s otherwise stellar record in the Octagon. The first time Kelly faced a guy who was beyond that third- or fourth-tier of opposition, he was beaten decisively by the aforementioned Alvey and Brunson. Both opponents ended Kelly’s night via first-round knockout, which drives home the point even more.
Simply put, the list of opponents Kelly has beaten — Luke Zachrich, Walsh, Montgomery, Carlos Junior and Camozzi — aren’t highly ranked middleweights. The only win with real value came against Evans, who was in the midst of a two-fight skid. Evans hasn’t won since, either, which takes away any idea that the former champ is on his game athletically or technically. When the bar has risen, Kelly has lost decisively.
Kelly has a chance, once again, to change the narrative of his career and prove that he can beat a fighter on the upswing. Elias Theodorou, whom Kelly meets in his native Australia at UFC Fight Night 121 on Nov. 18, represents the best-case scenario for Kelly.
Theodorou is a guy who is limited at best as a striker. He will most likely engage Kelly in his area of expertise, which is grappling. It’s now or never for Kelly. If he gets stopped dynamically again or, worse yet, is outgrappled and finished, then the writing will is clearly on the wall and one of the most unlikely, but overall successful underdog stories in the UFC will come to an end.