On the chest of Brian Kelleher, lies a tattoo of the crucifixion. It is a symbol representing sacrifice, and a reminder to the world of his strong Christian faith. Down his leg, is a border of artistically designed snakes, with the head of an elephant in the center. Perhaps it is a calling to the culture of southeast Asia, a reference to training done in Thailand.
Then, on his left shoulder, is a bearded skull wearing headphones.
This is Fighter of Interest, where underrated fighters from an upcoming event are brought to light.
UFC on Fox 28
Fighter of Interest: Brian Kelleher
It’s often a worthwhile exercise to conceptualize the character of a fighter by their chosen aesthetic. There is much to learn from the art they display on their body and bear to the world in the cage.
His chest piece appears to be the oldest, it’s the part of him that embodies the American fighting tradition. At first glance, Kelleher may seem to represent the prototypical “wrestle-boxer”, another generic bald fighter with a beard and tattoos.
The piece on his leg reveals a greater depth of skill, Kelleher is a skilled practitioner in muay thai, he delivers and deals with kicks with a proficiency gained by thousands of repetitions.
At his core, however, Kelleher is the bearded skull with headphones. He fights with his life on the line, and he’s in there to have fun. That’s “Boom”, the guy who wants to be “the next Donald Cerrone.”
Check out Kelleher’s UFC career highlights thus far, plus his appearance on Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight:
Upset in Enemy Territory
There is a lot of weight that comes with a UFC career kick-started by a massive, short-notice upset. When Brian Kelleher (18-8 MMA, 2-1 UFC) filled in to face elite bantamweight Iuri Alcantara (36-9 MMA, 10-6 UFC) in Brazil, it was clear he was being fed to the wolves to give the hometown crowd something to cheer for.
At first Alcantara seemed to be bullying the debutant, slamming hard kicks and throwing heaters, an intimidating tactic. About a minute or two into the bout, Kelleher got his groove. “Boom” moved forward with confident pressure, using feints to draw reactive kicks from Alcantara. Kelleher showed his advanced technique by parrying the kicks and returning with hard, distance covering hooks.
The fight ended dramatically with a guillotine applied hastily in a scramble from Kelleher. Many wrote off the win, saying Alcantara simply “got caught.” Alcantara did get caught, by a punch. He was rocked, shot while out of position and left his neck out, and Kelleher used his favorite submission.
LAST FIGHT: Def. Damian Stasiak via TKO (Punches) at 3:39 of Round 3 (Fight of the Night)
Since then, Kelleher has been taught a lesson in patience by Marlon “Chito” Vera (10-5 MMA, 4-4 UFC). Vera used a kimura grip to counter a Kelleher takedown, resulting in a lengthy stalemate against the cage. Eventually Kelleher tried to force his way out of the position, using an inside trip to end up in top position. But Vera never let go of the grip, and was able to swing his hips around for the armbar.
He rebounded with a “Fight of the Night” performance in Poland against Polish staple Damian “Webster” Stasiak (10-5 MMA, 2-3 UFC). The bout’s excitement was due to its early back and forth nature, Stasiak having a lot of success with his signature turning side kick to the body.
Ultimately, Kelleher broke Stasiak with his pace, laced him up with heavy boxing combinations, and put him away in the third round.
NEXT FIGHT: vs. Renan Barao at UFC on Fox 28
On Saturday, Brian Kelleher will face Renan Barao (34-5 MMA, 9-4 UFC), the former champion returning to bantamweight to take back his crown. Barao was once regarded in mythical terms, a “monster” on a 32 fight win streak, possibly the best in the world pound for pound.
Once again, Kelleher will play the underdog. The parallels to his UFC debut upset over Iuri Alcantara are striking. Another lengthy Brazilian, one who is equally dangerous on the feet as they are on the mat. A veteran with double the experience of Kelleher, against stronger competition. The most important similarity, however, is that while Barao and Alcantara are fearsome, both have very exploitable flaws that have been their undoing.
Keys to Victory
Renan Barao does not handle pressure well. We’ve seen this most notably twice against the champion TJ Dillashaw, in a victory over Mitch Gagnon, and in defeat to Jeremy Stephens. Competent strikers who get in his face and cannot be scared off by a few hard strikes are his biggest weakness. Not only is this exactly who Brian Kelleher is, he brings even more to the table.
If Barao does throw a hard kick under pressure, Kelleher is excellent at catching or parrying kicks, opening up hard counter hooks, to the body especially. This body work is going to pay off quickly, as Barao once again dares to make the horrendous weight cut to 135 pounds.
When you look closely, this matchup has the distinct stench of an upset. War Kelleher.
You can watch Brian Kelleher vs. Renan Barao at UFC on Fox 28 on Saturday, February 24th, headlining the Fox prelims. If you like infighting, guillotines, and big upsets, tune in around 9:30 PM EST.