LAS VEGAS — Brian Kelleher’s career has been marked by streaks: He’d win a few, then lose a few and then come back to win a couple of more.
All the while, he knew he had the talent to be one of the best in the world — or the best in the world — in his weight class. He believes that now, as he heads into a bout on Saturday against Cody Stamann at UFC Apex during UFC 250, and he believed it nearly a decade ago when he opened his professional career with a defeat.
When he’s been good, he’s been very good. He’s finished 17 of his 21 professional victories and won a post-fight bonus in four of his eight UFC appearances. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to maintain that success for a long time.
But after back-to-back bonus-winning efforts, Kelleher feels it’s finally turned in the right direction once and for all.
It was a loss to John Lineker at UFC 224 on May 12, 2018, that he believes was the key to his turnaround.
“My belief was at such a high that you almost feel untouchable,” Kelleher said of his mentality heading into the Lineker fight. “You feel like it’s just going to be this straight incline to the top and that’s how your story is going to be. But I eventually learned that it doesn’t work that way and this sport comes with highs and lows. What I learned is that you have to learn how to deal with that, and that you have to be persistent and learn and constantly evaluate what you’re doing.
“That loss broke my heart. It was crushing to me. I was right there and I was so sure I was going to win. I felt like if I won that fight, they’d start talking about me fighting for the title. It was a terrible disappointment, but I learned from it and I feel like I’ve been different ever since.”
Saturday’s bout will be his second consecutive at featherweight, though it’s not indicative of a move. He fought Hunter Azure on May 13 at 145 because he’d had difficulties training during the pandemic. He won that fight by explosive second-round knockout.
He came out unmarked, and the UFC asked if he wanted to make the quick turnaround and fight Stamann, who is the 12th-ranked bantamweight, he jumped at the chance.
It will be his third fight this year. He fought on the undercard of Conor McGregor’s sensational KO of Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 on Jan. 18, submitting Ode Osbourne with a guillotine in the first round. For that, he earned a Performance of the Night bonus.
He came back last month and won Fight of the Night for his win over Azure, leading him into an important bout with Stamann.
It puts him in position to fight five times this year, and potentially six. He’s always looked up to the way Cerrone handled his career, fighting as often as possible, and he’s put himself into position to do that.
“Earlier in my career, I made a statement that I wanted to be in the ‘Cowboy Division,’ and what I meant by that was staying extremely active and not having these long layoffs,” Kelleher said. “When you say something like that, you have to be willing to back it up when the opportunities come.
“This fight popped up and I felt like it made a lot of sense. If I beat Cody, he’s ranked 12th so now I go in there and I’m 12th and that puts me that much closer to where I want to be. At that point, I’m going to be a guy who is on a roll with half the year left and I think you’ll see a lot of great opportunities come my way.”
Don’t get the idea that Kelleher is in any way looking past Stamann, though. He never again wants to feel the sting that he felt after letting a fight get against against Lineker.
He’s gotten dogged a bit by both Stamann and Sean O’Malley, who fights Eddie Wineland on the main card opener, but he just shrugged.
“I could get all pissed off about it and whatever, but what good does that do me?” he said. “I’m a little surprised after how long I’ve been around and the number of fights I’ve won, but nobody pays attention to you like you do. So I don’t think they see the potential that I see. It’s not important they see it. It’s important that I see it and I know it and I believe it. They’ll find out about it soon enough.”
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