On Sept. 29, live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium, ONE Championship will crown its inaugural Atomweight Submission Grappling World Champion at ONE Fight Night 14, when Danielle Kelly takes on Jessa Khan during an all-female card set to be broadcast live on Prime Video.
Here, in an exclusive interview with M&F, Kelly opens up about her challenging start in grappling, the intense training that she undergoes, and a “weird” meditation technique that relaxes her at the end of each demanding day.
Now 27 years of age, Danielle Kelly’s journey to grappling greatness serves as inspiration for any fledgling athlete. While she is known today as an elite competitor that has defeated the likes of the former UFC Women’s Strawweight champ; Carla Esparza and is revered for her vast arsenal of submissions, clinical takedowns, and superior conditioning, the road to the top has been a bumpy one to say the least. Bullied when moving to a new school at the age of 10, Kelly vowed to take control of her own destiny.
While she already had some karate experience, moving homes had meant she needed to look for a new coach. “I didn’t know what jiu-jitsu was, back then, it was around 2006, so jiujitsu wasn’t really as popular as MMA,” explains Kelly, who at that time weighed around 60 pounds and was perhaps an all too easy target. “Luckily, where I was living at, two blocks up was a (jiu-jitsu) gym … Dad found it online but then my mom took me there … I originally wanted to learn striking because I went from karate to jiu-jitsu, but at the time I didn’t know what jiu-jitsu or anything like that was, so I was like; ‘yeah, I wanna lean how to fight, because I’m being bullied a lot.”
Danielle Kelly Learned That Grappling Is Perfect for Taking Down Larger Opponents
Grappling with jiujitsu, Kelly soon realized that there was more to defeating an opponent than strikes, earning the understanding that jiujitsu prepares you for bigger opponents, and ways of protecting yourself should a fight go to ground. “My first ever class, actually, was in a sparring class going against boys and I took them down,” beams Kelly. “I learned my first rear naked choke, which I really love, and do in my matches still, and yeah, the rest is history.”
Just four months into her jiu-jitsu training, Kelly entered her first tournament, and a passion for competing was seriously ignited. In eighth grade, Kelly was shoved in the hallway. Her instincts kicked in and she decked the bully with a double leg takedown. “I did feel bad, because this person didn’t know how to defend herself,” reflects the student grappler on her newfound powers. She was suspended for two days as a result of that brawl, but not everyone was disappointed in her. “My dad took me to Dunkin’ Donuts … we had Pumpkin Munchkins, good times, and I didn’t get in trouble [at home]…” Tragically, Kelly lost both of her parents to illness as a young adult, but says that she is forever motivated by what they did for her both physically and mentally, and feels like each fight is about making them proud of their daughter.
To build her experience while still in school, Kelly had also joined the school wrestling team. “No girl had ever joined the wrestling team,” she says of being the only female in a male dominated world, and recalls that she often felt unwanted as a teammate. At high school, in her sophomore year, Kelly recalls a particularly upsetting incident when the wrestling team had a group picture, and she was the only person not given an official sweatshirt to wear. Instead, she had to wear the long-sleeve shirt that was worn by the female managers. Then there was the high school wrestling coach that never travelled to any of her wrestling meets. Understandably, she felt completely unsupported. “I had to see a lot of mean things as a kid,” she shares.
In searching for the positives in her journey so far, Kelly now understands that being forced to grapple with boys and later men was a sure-fire way of building strength and improving her jiujitsu technique. Kelly’s dad had introduced her to the benefits of weights and cardio from a young age, and so she also feels that her early start in building conditioning provided a great advantage to her career. These days, there are many more women in full-contact sports, and it is thanks to brave trailblazers like Danielle Kelly that the next generation can see themselves represented and feel like they can get involved too.
Danielle Kelly Is Training to Use All Her Tools Ahead of ONE Atomweight Championship Clash
Kelly eventually settled at the Silver Fox BJJ dojo under the legendary coach, Karel Pravec, and earned a black belt by the time she was 24. In February, 2022, Kelly signed with ONE Championship and in her debut there, she drew with the Japanese veteran, Mei Yamaguchi but earned the “Performance of the Night” gong for her efforts. Kelly won her second match, and another performance of the night award when she defeated the Sambo World Champion, Mariia Molchanova with her beloved rear naked chokehold. Then Kelly battled to a unanimous decision over Ayaka Miura, and is now heading into her all-important championship clash with Jessa Khan, to be contested inside the cage, with great momentum.
“With the cage being added, it’s a tool to be used in strategy,” says Kelly who understands that the walls of the cage can be used to help gain control of a fight, but this added dimension can also test the conditioning of all who enter into it. “My focus for the last few weeks has been drilling. I wake up, I train every morning,” By 9 a.m., Kelly is sweating it out in the dojo for three hours. In the afternoons, she goes for a run or lifts weights to build muscle endurance. From 5pm to 6.30 p.m. Kelly teaches jiujitsu and then she continues her own training until 10pm or sometimes midnight depending on travel.
Danielle Kelly Uses a ‘Weird’ Meditation Technique to Unwind After Intense Training
“So, I feel like jiu-jitsu, even just working out in general has given me a lot of confidence and helped my self-esteem,” says Kelly. But when it’s time to stop and unwind, she has her own way of switching off and this includes her deaf, 5 year old dog Griffith and some quality screen time. “When I like to come home from a long training session, he’s there, he’s my buddy, like, he helps me relax, we watch jiu-jitsu matches together (laughs). I get made fun of people think it’s weird, but it’s just how I meditate. But, the week of my match, I’ll either watch a lot of anime, like Avatar, or something like exciting anime shows or horror movies where someone, it’s like gore and bloody … I’m kinda crazy so that’s what keeps me content.”
Right before a match, Kelly meditates again by relaxing her mind, so that she is not too rigid before it begins. “Pretend like it’s just another day at work and just go with the flow,” she explains. With just days to go before the biggest night of her life, Kelly is grateful to those that have supported her. “It’s really cool to be part of this experience, and I just wanna prove what I can do, and to showcase my jiu-jitsu.” For more info on ONE Fight Night 14 on Prime Video visit onefc.com.