Moville's Darragh Kelly makes his pro debut on Friday night.
Sometime shortly after 6pm on Friday, the lights will dim and the 3Arena will hum a familiar rallying call.
“Óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
óró, sé do bheatha bhaile
anois ar theacht an tsamhraidh”
Darragh Kelly will take a deep breath and go under the spotlight. The 23-year-old from Moville makes his professional mixed martial arts debut as part of the Bellator 270 card in Dublin. Kelly, who was 9-0 as an amateur, goes up against Junior Morgan (3-0).
“I’m confident that I can break whoever is in against me,” Kelly tells DonegalLive.“Everyone has their breaking point. You can break anyone. The way I look at it is: I’ll make him quit before I do. It’s brilliant to get to have my debut in Dublin. It’s a massive card and a huge stage for me.”
In June, Kelly won the Clan Wars lightweight title, overcoming Solomon Simon at Clan Wars 39 via a second round submission. That added to the February 2020 stoppage of Carl Gallagher that earned him the Clan Wars featherweight crown.
Until the win over Gallagher, Kelly was based in Letterkenny, working under the tutelage of Brian Coyle at the Rilion Gracie club.
“Brian told me that if I wanted to take myself to the next level that I’d have to go and train under John Kavanagh,” he says.
Kelly has been working with Kavanagh at the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin since March 2020.
“He’s very technical,” Kelly says of the 44-year-old Dubliner. “Everything is down to a fine detail. He’s the sort of man you feel like you want to impress him all the time. Everyone in the room feels the same about him.
“He’s very calm and very precise with everything he does. He has a calming influence. This will be my first time having John in the corner and that will give me confidence. John has a calming presence and has a great ability to break a fight down, step by step. I love him as a coach.”
Kavanagh is coach to some of the world’s leading mixed martial artists. Conor McGregor rose to his UFC stardom with Kavanagh in his corner.
This week, Kavanagh will work Kelly’s corner alongside David Roach, who has cornered the Inishowen man for his last two fights.
“I’m improving so quickly down here,” Kelly says. “Every few months, I’m on a different level. We do 5x5s every single day and I try to get a couple of fight simulations in every week.
“The training partners I have, the levels are through the roof so you’re forced to climb to that level. I trust everything that John says. He won’t steer you wrong. It’s more so his actions, his body language.
“I thought I was training hard before I came here. It’s a different level. What he expects is what it takes to get to the top.”
It wasn’t always so for Kelly.
In his final year at Moville Community College, he was unsure as to his future direction.
“I was dossing about really,” as he puts it. He ‘always loved fighting’, but there was a thin line. He felt at times as if he was walking a tightrope.
“I was fighting constantly, be it nights out or in football,” he says. “I was always getting into trouble.”
The lightbulb moment he calls ‘the mad notion’ came when a couple of his friends were moving to Letterkenny to start life at Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
Kelly headed, too, but with a different plan. The lure of mixed martial arts was there and he contacted Coyle.
“I just decided that I was going to train full-time and I went for it. I didn’t have a notion what I was doing.”
At Chaos Fighting Championships 17, held at the Long Tower Community Centre in Derry, Kelly stopped Ruairi Kennedy with a Guillotine Choke in the first round.
A busy 2018 saw five wins from five fights - all inside the distance - and he was on the march.
“I’m heavily wrestling and jiu jitsu based,” he says. “My whole game is based around getting my opponent affected and taking him down. Basically, I work on forcing them into quitting at a high pace. It’s the same game plan every time.
“Since I came to SBG, we focus so much on cage work. That’s my favourite part of the game now. It suits my style so well. I base my whole game around it”
Last September, Kelly defeated Tajik Abdullghahar in Duisburg, Germany after just two minutes and 31 seconds.
It was his first win out of the SBG stable and the summertime triumph over Simon wasn’t intended to be his last act as an amateur.
He was to represent Ireland at the IMMAF World Championships in Prague in early September.
By then, though, the professional wheels were in motion. Bellator were back in Dublin and Kavanagh learned of an opening for his man, who faces Morgan, who hasn’t fought since a September 2019 win over Fabrice Yagoue Siakeu in Spain.
“The plan was not to rush too much and go pro maybe early next year,” Kelly says. “We were going to weigh up our options, speak to some management companies and get a plan in place.
“When Ballator was announced for Dublin, I was down training and John asked me to come into the office after training for a chat. He offered me the fight and I took it right away. It came as a big shock. John basically said it was too good of an opportunity with Bellator coming back - and he was right. We fast forwarded the plan by a few months. It’s exciting times for me.”
Kelly fights Morgan - ‘tall, rangy and more of a striker’, he says - in a lightweight bout on Friday’s card, headlined by the lightweight world championship fight between Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire and Peter Queally.
A bantamweight bout between Strabane’s James Gallagher and ‘Patchy’ Mix serves as the co-headliner - and Kelly hopes that some of the sizeable ’Strabanimal’ supporters will be in early to roar him on.
Over 300 of his own fans have snapped up tickets and there’ll be a raucous atmosphere on Dublin’s North Wall Quay when he makes his walk.
Bellator have cut a lot of the European prospects from their books lately. Their signing of Kelly is a serious endorsement of his talents. He’s the number 1 ranked featherweight and lightweight in Ireland and the UK.
In his young teenage years, Kelly played soccer and was on Derry City’s books until under-16 level. Between the ages of 16 and 18, he stopped sport completely.
It was only when he linked up with Coyle in Letterkenny that he picked up the pieces again.
Now, he has a firm aim of where he’s going.
“Getting to the UFC is the plan,” he says. “That’s the big aim in terms of where I want to go. I don’t think I achieved all that much. 9-0 is a good record, but I’m only getting started.”
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