Brian Kelleher went from 'just another fighter' to UFC main card after come-to-Jesus moment

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

In his own words, Brian Kelleher was “just another pro fighter.” He’d won more than he lost, but there was little that differentiated him from the millions of others who had the dream of reaching the top of the world’s biggest stage.

Kelleher’s record was 10-7 after April 19, 2014, when he lost in less than 90 seconds to Andy Main. He’d lost four of his previous five and gave no hint that he was anything special as a fighter.

Four years after that loss, Kelleher is 9-1 in his last 10, including 3-1 in the UFC, and he faces the biggest match of his life on May 12 when he meets No. 6 John Lineker on the main card of UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro.

On his Twitter profile, Kelleher wrote:


Kelleher had been a good all-around athlete growing up in New York, but there was nothing to suggest he was going to amount to anything of note in mixed martial arts.

He’d grown up with the dream of reaching the UFC, but that seemed far-fetched after losses to Jimmie Rivera, Scott Heckman, Jeff Smith and Main sandwiched around a submission victory over Lester Caslow.

Brian Kelleher in action against Brian Vera during their mixed martial arts bout at UFC on Fox 25, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
Brian Kelleher in action against Brian Vera during their mixed martial arts bout at UFC on Fox 25, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

Kelleher was fast approaching his 28th birthday and knew he needed to do something quickly in order to fulfill his dream.

“It’s also about how old I was,” Kelleher said. ” … I was dating a girl who was a few years older than me and she wanted to settle down and have a family. And me, I wasn’t ready. I wanted to pursue my dream still. I never gave up. Like I said, at 10-7, you’ve got to start thinking, ‘Is this for me? Am I going to make it? I don’t know. Should I get a full-time job?’ So I was going through stages where I was second-guessing myself as far as the UFC goes and if I was going to become what I believed I could.”

It takes a wise person to do such soul-searching. For some, perhaps for many, the smart choice would have been to get that job, to build the family, and plan for a comfortable future.

For a much smaller percentage, the choice would be different: Stay the course, work on the little things, keep your eye on the prize and always believe.

Kelleher chose the latter track and now he’s about to hit it big.

“I just hit a switch and said, ‘I’m going to go full force from here on out,’ ” Kelleher said. “I’m going to fight the best guys I can, all the guys who are being talked about as the next big thing and see what I can do. If I could take those guys out and go on a streak, it was probably my only chance to get in.”

He reeled off six consecutive victories after he had the come-to-Jesus meeting with himself, including four by finish, and earned his job in the UFC as a late replacement. He was given a spot against Iuri Alcantara, meaning he’d have to fight a tough Brazilian on short notice in front of a notoriously hostile-to-foreigners crowd.

If it fazed him, it didn’t show. He finished Alcantara in 1:48 and immediately stamped himself a factor at bantamweight.

That experience in Brazil, he believes, will make a difference when he returns to Rio to fight Lineker.

“One-hundred percent, it definitely helps,” Kelleher said. “When I first went there, it was the unexpected. You don’t know what’s to come. You don’t know how crazy it really is going to be. I’d heard things about it, but until you live in that moment, you really don’t know what it’s like.

“For me, I look back and think it’s a beautiful experience to have had, especially now, going into it again on a bigger platform on pay-per-view. My last fight was on TV on Fox, so I got a little bit of the cameras in my face feel. That was all good experience leading up to this. I do really well under pressure and I thrive in enemy territory, as we’ve seen, so I think it’s a good thing for me [fighting in Brazil] in the end.”

If he gets past Lineker, whom he says is more one-dimensional than Barao, he’ll finally be ranked and in the mix for the fights he’s long sought.

If he gets to the top, it’s going to be one of the most unlikely championship runs in UFC history.

The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights open their home playoff games by saying to the crowd, “Welcome to Impossible,” given how many skeptics said it was impossible for an expansion team to be successful.

The same slogan might work for Kelleher. Having lost four of five at nearly 28, it might have seemed impossible at that stage that Kelleher would even make the UFC, let alone participate in meaningful bouts.

After going 3-1 and defeating Barao clearly, “Welcome to Impossible,” might be Kelleher’s mantra, too.

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