Here's a tip to all future opponents of UFC lightweight Paul Kelly – be nice. Compliment his grade-one haircut, the colour of his eyes or the unique twang of his Liverpool accent. Marvel at his ability to speak in jumbled morse code, yet still sound as passionate and direct as any competitor in mixed martial arts today. Tell him how strong his ground-and-pound is, how sharp his elbows are and how relentless his pace is. Whatever you do, don't question his punch power, and please don't wind him up.
“I do a lot of visualisation in my hotel room before my fights and I'm imagining evil and horrible things,” explains Kelly, 11-2 in his mixed martial arts career. “I need to be in a certain frame of mind to fight and, when my opponent has a 'go' during the build-up, that only makes things so much easier for me.
“I never have anything personal against my opponent, but I'm just a very emotional fighter that looks to inflict damage. I can't afford to go out there and outbox someone with beautiful counter-punching skills or submit someone with a flying arm-bar. I've got to go out there and elbow them into submission and cut them open so bad that the referee has no choice but to stop the fight. When you know that's what's ahead of you, it's important to put yourself in a wicked place to get there.”
This 'wicked place' Kelly speaks of is a cold, bleak and ominous room, familiar only to fighters and those forced to blur the lines between good and evil. It's a locked mystery to mere mortals like you and I. Kelly visits this place each and every time he fights. Sometimes he requires a push to get there, but the proud Liverpudlian always, without fail, ends up isolated in his favourite pre-fight haunt.
When pushed, the results can often be devastating. Set to face American lightweight Jacob Volkmann on August 1st in San Diego, Kelly's got that sinking feeling again. He's been riled by Volkmann's pre-fight comments, and now knows of only one way to react and one place to go.
“I'm an emotional fighter and I need to feel like this before a fight,” stresses Kelly. “Have a look at every picture ever taken of me and you'll see the same expression on my face. I love to fight, I love to be aggressive and I'm always emotional, before, during and after fights.
“I won't have to calm myself down before facing Volkmann. His words have got me in the perfect frame of mind for this fight and I can't wait to go out there and prove him wrong. I fight better and harder when somebody is in my face and I've got nothing but dislike for them. I usually have problems when I go into a fight too respectful of the other guy. That's when you don't see the real Paul Kelly.”
The real Paul Kelly has been awoken by comments made by Volkmann concerning his apparent lack of punch power. Originally set to face the American on July 3rd at UFC 116, Kelly ran into visa problems, Volkmann became frustrated and vocal, and the pair settled for a four-week delay. As a result, a simmering rivalry only intensified and now, with a little over a week to go, Kelly is fit to burst.
“His talking will be his downfall, as he's tried winding up the wrong guy,” states Kelly. “He's questioned my ability and my punching power, and now I'm determined to knock him spark out on August 1st. I want to make a point with my punches and see him stretched out on the floor. It's fine to talk about your own attributes and what you can and can't do, but don't go criticising someone else's like Volkmann has done. How does he know how hard I hit? Has he ever felt my power? All I'll say is on August 1st, Volkmann will know exactly how hard I bang.
“Volkmann's going to end up with egg on his face if he's lucky, and blood on his face if he's unlucky. Either way, he's getting knocked out. I'd love to put him to sleep in the first round and make him look silly.”
It doesn't take much to persuade Kelly to fire back and, when clearly stung by the comments of an opponent, the lively Liverpool lightweight isn't racking his brain for things to say. He's watched Volkmann day in, day out for the twelve weeks he's prepared to face the Minnesota native and, now armed with the ammunition to retaliate, Kelly won't hold back, verbally or later physically.
“He (Volkmann) kind of goes in there and tries to do just enough to win,” assesses Paul. “He only looks to grind matches out and steal a decision. I've watched his tapes every single day, on tape and on YouTube, and I know his style back-to-front now. I'm not underestimating what he can do, but I know what I have to do to win this fight.
“Volkmann is the sort of fighter that is content to scrape through and get the 'W'. He's not interested in putting on entertaining fights or taking a risk and finishing somebody. I'd sooner lose and be exciting than just grind a boring win out. Even when I have gone the distance and squeaked wins out, the fights have always been exciting wars and I haven't looked to lay-and-pray at any time. I refuse to lay-and-pray against any man. I just won't do it. I would quit the sport and find another job if the fans ever considered me a boring fighter. I'm always looking to entertain the fans, and that feeling of putting on a great slugfest is the reason I do this in the first place.”
With the potential for lay-and-pray off the agenda, at least from Kelly's point of view, fans can look forward to a fast-paced, varied and dramatic slugfest, packed full of bad blood and points to prove. Insisting he needs to be emotional in order to perform, Kelly won't be looking to calm down or settle from this point on. With the prospect of competing in America for the first time also on his mind, Kelly appears the type to thrive in foreign territory, with his back pinned to the wall, friends few and far between. He likes it this way.
“I seem to have a big following in the UK, so I hope a few American fans will take to my style, too,” says Kelly, a fan favourite in his homeland. “You can't beat fighting in front of your home fans in England, but I'm sure the experience in America will also be great.
“I'm interested to see how the American fans take to me, to be honest. I'm expecting to get booed at the weigh-in and maybe on fight night, simply because I'm fighting an American. I'd love it if that wasn't the case, and the fans showed some love towards me, but I'll accept anything that happens. I'll take it on the chin if they boo me, but I hope they don't.
“I look on the MMA forums from time to time and seem to find nothing but threads, usually four-pages long, hating on me like I've committed some crime against America. I can't work out why they'd hate me. Nationality aside, I'm just a fighter who goes in there and tries to do my job to the best of my ability. Maybe people see me at the weigh-ins acting a little angry and aggressive and that rubs them up the wrong way. If it does, I apologise and hope they understand the adrenaline that's running through your body at moments like those. I'm not going to change anytime soon.”
One gets the impression Kelly couldn't change even if he wanted to. Well-versed in the art of brawling, the aggressive Brit revealed surprising subtleties to his game last time out at UFC 112, as he outwrestled and eventually submitted former Division-1 standout Matt Veach in the second round.
“I'd drilled that submission hundreds of times in the gym leading up to the fight, so when it eventually happened in the fight, I was the least surprised person there,” recalls Kelly of that night in Abu Dhabi. “I knew it was going to happen like that. It made a nice change to not go home or to the hospital with a banging headache after the fight.
“The Veach fight proved a lot to myself and gave me the confidence to realise I'm better than this and I can really make something of myself here in the UFC. You always say stuff like that before fights, but it takes a win like that one over Veach to really start believing. It was a real awakening for me.”
Eyes open, and a career-best victory behind him, Kelly now approaches his August 1st bout with Volkmann as clear-headed and invigorated as he's been since joining the UFC in January 2008. Still only 25, Kelly has matured as a person and fighter and, in switching to Liverpool's Team Kaobon, seems to have moved his game on to a new level. With improvements aplenty, Kelly believes he'll be too much for Volkmann next week in California.
“I've got better stand-up than him and my wrestling can hang with his,” says Kelly. “I've yet to be outwrestled in a fight, and I've been in with some high-calibre collegiate wrestlers. I keep going up against guys that are supposed to outwrestle me, and yet I end up getting the better of them on the ground and end up on top. Just because I didn't wrestle at school or college, doesn't mean these wrestlers are going to run all over me. I'm a strong and fit dude, and this is mixed martial arts, not collegiate wrestling.
“Volkmann's going to try and rush me to the ground, pin me down and then just go hip-on-hip and attempt to hold me there for fifteen minutes. I know exactly what he's planning, as that's the kind of fighter he is. I only hope to God that the fight doesn't end up like that. I really don't want my first match in America to be a boring display of lay-and-pray.”
When heated verbal volleys are involved, and bad blood has been spilt, often the lure of victory isn't enough for proud and volatile warriors like Kelly. The win is merely just the beginning.
“I can see this fight ending with me knocking Volkmann clean out” warns Kelly. “I don't see a TKO or a stoppage win, I see a clean, one-punch, out-cold knockout victory.
“I want him to wake up the next morning, brush his teeth in the mirror, and ask himself, 'Why did I ever trash-talk Paul Kelly?'. I want to give him a constant reminder of our fight every time he looks in the mirror.”
So, as I said at the top, please don't make fun of Paul Kelly. He's always likely to have the last laugh.