A former UFC fighter who set the standard for the future generation of British fighters, Paul Kelly makes his cage return after eight years in prison.
The welterweight’s return is being held at the Liverpool Olympia on Saturday 7th March, a far cry from the venues he was competing in ten years ago.
The Liverpool fighter was once upon a time involved in Vegas super fights with Cowboy Cerrone and surrounding himself with greats like Michael Bisping and ‘Rampage’ Jackson.
Travelling the world as an elite level mixed martial artist and giving British fighters a chance to make a name for themselves in the world’s number one MMA organisation.
Kelly travelled out to America as a 7-0 prospect with the world at his feet; however, fast-forward five years and that world came crashing down.
After being released from his UFC contract, Kelly fought on three different independent shows before being found guilty of conspiracy to supply class A drugs. Despite no evidence to prove Kelly was involved with the CYG (Croxteth Young Guns), the judge used this to impose a harsher sentence and the Liverpudlian was sent down for 13 years.
Paul reflected on his time in prison.
He said: “Physically I’m sound and mentally I’m stronger than I’ve ever been because you have no place for weakness in jail. I was looked at as that guy in prison so if I was ever struggling, I’d struggle behind my door where no one could see.
“My pillow would be over my head and I would a word, but then you have to walk out and be real and aware that everyone is looking at you.”
Going from the life of an elite level fighter, to living life, as a prisoner is a harsh reality check for any person.
Kelly elaborated on how life in prison is live by saying: “You’re behind your door at 6 o’clock, sometimes you sit in your chair to keep your bed comfy and neat and you’ll watch TV and get into bed about 8 o’clock watching family guy then you go to bed and that was my life.”
“For 8 years I’ve been living as clean as you can live, I’ve ate clean and I’ve lived clean. No booze or drugs, not living the Liverpool lifestyle. I’ve trained every day because being a fighter; the gym is pretty much your job when you go to jail.”
Kelly spent the majority of his youth in and out of trouble (mainly for fighting) and left school with no education after being expelled.
“I’ve always been a fighter. In school, I was always involved in fights. It’s just who am I. if someone comes up to me in the street and offers it to me I’m not going to shy away. Im a bit more sensible now but I’m a scrapper; it’s the way I’m built.”
The scouse scrapper was able to swap West Derby for Las Vegas through martial arts. After making a name for himself on the independent scene, Kelly managed to fight his way up to the big leagues. “Tellys” had earnt himself a reputation with only three fighters out of the seven he’d previously fought making it past two minutes.
“I was the British Middleweight champion, a Mickey Mouse title but still a title back when MMA was still like wow these are cage fighters.
“We weren’t popular and the crowd were throwing things at me when I was walking to the cage. I went to Wales, fought a local lad, gave him 35 stitches, and was out of there in three and a half minutes.
“I won my first UFC fight at Welterweight, and decided to stay at the weight for my next opponent after that and got beat by Marcus Davis.
“Looking back I probably took the fight too soon. I was far too keen and obviously a little bit naïve but I’m a proud man and I’ve never said no.”
After dropping weight once again, “Tellys” mainly fought at lightweight during his time with the UFC. Unbeknown to the public this wasn’t a decision Kelly wanted or agreed to, however, his fighting nature and inability to say no meant he found himself competing in that division.
“After the fight with Marcus, I thought to myself I might back up to middleweight because everyone else is so much bigger and my coach told me not to. I ended up going on to fight Roland Delgado at lightweight and it was the worst thing I’ve ever felt. I felt weak, sluggish and like I had absolutely nothing going for me at that time.”
“I told the UFC I didn’t like it, that I felt horrible, but before I knew it I had another matchup at the weight. I got trapped there by just doing as I was told because I’m a fighter. Pre Conor McGregor you done what you were told and now everyone shouts their mouth off because you can be yourself now. I never said no to an opponent and that’s how I ended up fighting Donald Cerrone because nobody wanted to fight him.”
During his stint in prison, the UFC vet thought his fighting days were over and he never believed he would make a return to the octagon. His views on his own career soon changed after attending a number of domestic events.
“I was done with fighting, then I come out and me and my bird were going to all the domestic shows because I was getting invited down to go and have a look and yeah of course I was going and I was turning up and everyone was loving it and I was thinking I don’t see it.” Kelly told MerseySportLive.
“As a fighter with an ego, because I’ve got a massive ego, and I still think I’m that guy and that’s why me and Darren Till still bang heads now because I’m alpha. These thoughts meant I had to make my return.”
Whilst not wanting his views to be misinterpreted, Kelly believes what he has been told and has witnessed in front of his very own eyes are two different things.
“Don’t get me wrong there’s some serious talent out there, I just think there’s a lot of unjust praise and the game hasn’t changed how I expected. I’m being told there’s all these super kids but they existed back then. Who out of these so-called “Super kids” would of beat GSP? Who would of beat Bisping?”
“Tellys” was once regarded as one of the best European cage fighters on the planet but he wants to leave that reputation as a thing of the past he re build himself.
The Paul Kelly that walked to the cage at Mandalay Bay is different to the Paul Kelly who will walk to ring inside the Olympia.
“I’ve always been in that bracket of the top ranked European fighters but for me now I’m coming back to earn my stripes and prove to myself more so than anybody that I can still do it. To walk out in front of that environment and be in that euphoria is a different thing altogether and then to come out and compete at your level of expectation.”
Whilst the desire to return to the cage and in Kelly’s words “clean the division out, take some heads off and win a title”, Paul knows financially Probellum isn’t enough. After the money from his UFC fights began to run out and being able to live a lavish lifestyle wasn’t possible anymore, Kelly made the decisions that ultimately led to his imprisonment. The realisation of previous life choices dawned upon to former warrior and that has resulted in the creation of Paul’s business Healthybox starting up, which provides meal prep and is used notably by Team Kaobon fighters.
“There’s so many lessons you learn you know, it wasn’t an overnight stay. It was an expensive lesson that cost me eight years of my life but it’s also helped me for the better. I done my education and got a business degree and now I take a different look at my fighting career. Healthybox is up and running and I hope to turn it into a massive success by the time I’m 40.”
Incredibly, Paul has accepted the mistakes he has made in life as they have led him to the path he is currently on, and he is simply just happy that fans are still interested in him.
Kelly said, “Eight years in jail meant I got an education and I came out with a family. It’s strange but I just want to set myself and my family up now.”
He went on to finish saying “My tickets pretty much sold out straight away, which is good for me because I think after all these years who cares? But people clearly do.”
Healthybox can be found via Instagram: @healthy_box_liverpool
Paul has also stated female students of Liverpool John Moores University will be able to receive a 10% discount on any gym wear purchased.
Limited tickets remain available for Saturday’s event and can be purchased via the link below.
Photo credit- paulkellymma Instagram