Appearances can be deceiving. For ONE Championship featherweight competitor Eric “The Natural” Kelly, the misplaced perceptions begin before the Filipino ever has a chance to say “hello.”
By taking a quick glance at Kelly’s Western name, it is easy to believe he comes from a place of privilege. But there were no silver spoons in his household growing up. Kelly comes from humble beginnings, raised by a chayote farmer in San Tomas Central, which is nestled in the heart of Baguio City.
“My father’s real surname is ‘Kille,’ but since he was offered to change it to a more American-friendly spelling, he took the chance,” the 35-year-old explains.
Before Kelly found mixed martial arts, he was headed for a life on the fields. Like many children born to farming families, the Kelly patriarch encouraged his seven kids – including younger brother and fellow mixed martial artist Edward “The Ferocious” Kelly – to earn their keep by planting crops.
“The Natural,” however, did not want to participate the family business. He was not keen on the idea of being a farmer, or even being a role model to his siblings. Following his high school graduation in 1999, he opted for life on the streets.
“I became a tambay,” he says, which is a Filipino term for slacker. “I was drinking and hanging out in bars.”
Those bad choices paved the way for the life-changing decision that changed Kelly’s life. He recognised early on that this life was fraught with danger. To learn how to protect himself, he joined a local kickboxing gym.
What began as a means of self-defense quickly became a passion.
One of Kelly’s trainers at Universal Gym, George Lusadan, saw a bright future for the young hopeful, and encouraged him to put some effort into training. That effort required a total lifestyle change for the man who had been used to drinking and wasting his time. Still, he wisely accepted the challenge.
“Lusadan was my trainer when I fought in small bouts, and he later assisted me in trying out for the Philippine National Wushu Team,” he says. His trainer’s faith was not misplaced, as Kelly made it onto the roster, and became a national athlete.
However, the stint on the national team came with significant sacrifices, as Kelly was forced to make many difficult decisions, including parting ways with Lusadan.
“When you enter the wushu team, they have a culture where when you are with them, you cannot be anywhere else,” he explains. “So during my time with them, there were trainings and scholarships that were offered to me that I had to turn down, because they would not allow it.”
Eventually, the team parted with him as well. In 2004, Kelly tore ligaments in his groin while training in China. When he was unable to compete, the wushu team dropped him, as well as their financial support.
“I went home with literally nothing, so I drove a taxi in order to support myself,” he remembers.
Following doctor’s orders, Kelly rehabilitated his injury by bike-riding through the same streets he ran as a teenager. It took some time, but the Filipino athlete was putting a plan together — a plan that would permit him to continue quenching his thirst for competition.
With his injuries fully healed, “The Natural” decided to take his chances in Manila, and found his next training home with Chef Christopher Romaine’s Yaw-Yan Ardigma Gym. It was the second chance he needed after the devastating setback with the national team.
“Chef offered me shelter in the gym, and even provided me with food and allowances,” he admits. “That is why, even to this day, I consider him as my second father.”
With Romaine’s support, Kelly made his professional mixed martial arts debut in 2009. He racked up five victories on the Filipino regional scene before ONE came calling. Once on the global stage, he continued his string of success until losing to Honorio Banario for the inaugural ONE Featherweight World Championship in February 2013.
Ever since then, he has experienced mixed results, and now “The Natural” is overcoming another bout with adversity. While his record stands at an impressive 12-3, he is on a two-fight skid, which has effectively taken him out of title contention.
At ONE: KINGS AND CONQUERORS, on 5 August in Macao, he hopes to get back in the win column when he faces Kotetsu “No Face” Boku.
Staring at a potential three-fight skid is a daunting task. But for a man who grew up bouncing back, the fight will be as natural as Kelly’s fight moniker.