Leading up to last year’s showdown between Brian “Boom” Kelleher and Julio Arce at Ring of Combat 52 in September of 2015, the odds seemed heavily in favor of the defending bantamweight champion Arce. Running high on an undefeated professional career and sporting a gaudy amateur record of 10-0, as well as numerous boxing, kickboxing, and amateur grappling titles, Arce was being hailed as the next big bantamweight prospect destined for the UFC. With a pro record of 13-7 at the time (15-7 today) and little fanfare, everyone had Kelleher pegged as the underdog. Everyone except Kelleher and his team, that is.
“I just knew going into this fight I was going to be a little underestimated based on record only,” said Kelleher. “I have 7 losses so I know they see that and think the guy is very beatable, but I realistically hit a switch in my career in my head, and since then I’ve been having fun in the cage and just being myself and letting all my potential go.” He talks about hitting this “mental switch” one fight prior to the Arce bout. “My mindset actually changed. I’m on a 5 fight win streak right now, and my mindset changed right before [the Arce fight]. And I was kind of trying to figure out the mental state of fighting still. It’s such an up and down journey and everything, and you’re just kind of trying to find yourself as a fighter as you go. And I think I finally found myself, and my confidence, and just knowing my potential and truly believing in it is what got me these wins.”
Kelleher made it a fight from the opening bell, and when the dust had settled after three competitive rounds, Kelleher emerged with a majority decision and left the cage with the championship belt that belonged to Arce just fifteen minutes earlier. Some observers disagreed with the judges’ decision, but Kelleher and his coaches at Team Maxum in Selden, NY felt he deserved the victory. “I just feel that it was a close fight the first time, very competitive, we’re both scrappy guys, we’re not willing to budge, we’re not willing to give up.”
Brian Kelleher agreed to a rematch with Arce almost immediately after the fight. “What happened was, after the fight, I mean I was hoping that after the next fight I would have the potential to be in the UFC. But after the fight with Julio, I said ‘I respect you, we’ll do it again if it comes down to it.’ I think what happened is [ROC promoter Lou Neglia], being that Julio is a loyal fighter to Ring of Combat, he’s been their champion for quite a while, I just feel like Lou out of respect wanted to make sure to give him that opportunity to rematch me. Being that it was an upset, it was a close fight.” Early reports had the rematch planned for ROC‘s November 11th card, when UFC President Dana White would be in attendance to scout talent for his “Lookin For A Fight” web series. However, the fight did not come to fruition on that date and Kelleher instead faced Ohio native Josh Robinson.
With Mr. White in attendance, Kelleher would not disappoint. “I knew he was there,” said Kelleher. “I knew he was watching, I felt his presence, and I just was like, wow, this is my opportunity to shine right here.”
Kelleher, now a defending champ, claimed the first two rounds with sound striking and wrestling. “I remember going through the fight and it just was like I wasn’t doing enough in the fight to look great. I was just winning the fight, and I felt like I was just kinda having fun, and I felt like Robinson wasn’t really on my level in there, and I recognized that. I was just trying to get the ‘W’ and make sure that I stayed on my win streak. But then in the third round when I came out I thought ‘You know what, I can’t let this slip away right now, this opportunity’s too big. I’m just gonna let my s— go right now and throw caution to the wind and see what happens.‘”
Early in the third round, Kelleher let loose with a spinning back-fist for the ages, knocking his opponent out cold and bringing the audience to its feet. He leapt over the cage wall and ran over to Dana White‘s ringside seat, shouting “I WANT MY CHANCE!” at the UFC boss. “I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to get in his head like, I’m your guy, let’s do this.” Footage of the knockout continues to be used as part of the opening montage for Lookin For A Fight. “I just threw something that I work on in training and it landed perfect. I set him up for it. I was just like, I have to make the most of this, you know, I have to let Dana know how passionate I am about getting my chance in the UFC and I couldn’t have done anything better than knock this guy out in spectacular fashion in front of Dana White. It puts me on a 5 fight win streak.”
Despite scoring an instant classic knockout in front of Dana White, despite the fact that Mr. White was looking for undiscovered talent, despite being the reigning champ and having defeated Julio Arce in his previous fight, Kelleher was not offered a spot in the UFC following his victory over Robinson. “My main disappointment right now is that Dana White didn’t grab me at that moment and take me into the UFC, because I just really feel like being on his reality show and highlighting that spectacular knockout, putting me in the UFC at that moment was the perfect time.” Kelleher suspects the reason for this may be that both the ROC and UFC want to see who emerges victorious from a rematch between himself and Arce, given the contentions nature of the first fight. “I know I belong in the UFC, and I believe I’ve proven that already but I guess I have to prove it one more time, you know?”
Kelleher and Arce will rematch this Friday, March 4, 2016, in Atlantic City, in a fight that will surely decide who is bound for the UFC, and who will be relegated to the regional circuit. Both fighters are at a crossroads in their young careers. Kelleher, for his part, does not seem fazed. “I just pretty much focus on myself,” he says. “I wouldn’t say more confident, I would say I feel the same. At this point in my career when I go into any fight I don’t think about who I’m fighting. I just think about, you know what, I can beat anyone in front of me. And if I believe I belong in the UFC then I should be able to beat anyone who is in front of me at this moment.”
This will be the first rematch of Kelleher’s career, and although he tested Arce both standing and on the ground, he claims not to have altered his training for this fight. “As far as this fight being different, I don’t know,” he explained. “I switch things up in my training camp based on my preference, but never based on my opponent. I mean my brother is a taller southpaw and I’ve trained with him my whole life, so I’ve kind of had a good look at a southpaw, and my brother has good hands, good standup, and I think Julio’s biggest strength is his boxing. So I’ve had a good look at a southpaw and that’s pretty much how my preparation is.” Still, he seems to have learned a few lessons from the first fight. “I see some things, some openings this time around that I can take advantage of. I know he said he felt a little flat-footed in the first fight. I think that was a testament to my movement and me surprising him in there, being better than he might have expected, I think, and making him miss a lot of shots. Yeah, I plan to do something similar in there, I think I need to make a statement and finish this fight. I don’t need any more doubts or questions.”
Undoubtedly, Julio Arce understands what is at stake in this fight just as well as Kelleher. His rise hit a speed bump and he must avenge his only loss to regain the luster that his name once carried. Will he bounce back from a setback stronger than ever? “I’ve felt him in there,” says Kelleher. “He’s a tough guy, he’s a challenging fight, but I just think I want it more, you know, I think it’s my time right now. I think he’s still young in the game. I’m his first loss so I know he’s hungry, but I want this more.”
Interview/Article: Kyle AntonelliTags: Brian Kelleher, MMA, Ring of Combat, UFC