Brian Kelleher can’t help it. He’s an entertaining fighter, and his record of 18 finishes backs that up in spades.
“It’s just who I am,” Kelleher told UFC.com. “It’s what I’m trying to do in there, and I figure it’s kill or be killed. It’s either me or him, so the faster I can get in and out of there and not take damage is the best bet, and just my style, my will to want to go forward and land hard shots, or if I take you down, try to look for chokes and submissions, that’s the way you get bonuses in this sport, so I’m always looking for that.”
Kelleher is also always looking for a chance to throw his name in the hat when a short-notice opportunity presents itself. In 2020, he especially made some headway, fighting four times, including thrice in the span of four months. Due to the last-minute nature of many of those matchups, Kelleher fought all of those bouts at featherweight, although each of the fights came against natural bantamweights.
As he approaches his second fight of 2021 (following a decision loss to Ricky Simon at UFC 258), Kelleher makes his return to 135 pounds at UFC Fight Night: Cannonier vs Gastelum. Even though weight cuts are never a fighter’s favorite part of the job, Kelleher does acknowledge some benefits to that whole process.
“There is something about the weight cut and just that grind and that sacrifice that I think psychologically makes you a little bit hungrier sometimes to get in there and make somebody pay for it,” he said.
The man in those hungry crosshairs is Domingo Pilarte, whom Kelleher was booked against in 2018 before the bout was scrapped.
Pilarte earned his contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018 and holds a win on the regional scene over rising bantamweight star Adrian Yanez, but in two UFC bouts, he is winless. With that in mind, Kelleher knows that back-against-the-wall reality can pull a lot of different things out of a fighter.
“That can cause a lot of pressure and make you fold, or that can cause a lot of hunger and make you perform to the best of your ability,” Kelleher said. “For me, the smartest thing would be to expect the best Domingo Pilarte, someone who wants to bounce back, get a win and keep his job with the UFC.”
Granted, Kelleher is more concerned with getting himself back in the win column. Although he went 2-2 in his four featherweight bouts over the last 15 months, he was successful in his last bantamweight outing – a first-round submission win over Ode’ Osbourne at UFC 246.
His 135-pound journey starts again on August 21, but don’t be surprised if Kelleher pops up again quicker than you’d anticipate if the chance presents itself. He said he likes to maintain consistency when it comes to training and managing his weight, saying he doesn’t want to regret a missed opportunity just because he wasn’t physically ready to take the fight.
All that is left for after the fight, though. On fight night, Kelleher isn’t worried about any of that. He’s just focused on doing what he always does – find his zone, put on an entertaining fight, actively seek a finish and, ideally, set himself up for a bigger test sooner rather than later.
“I think the worst thing is when you leave a fight and you realize, ‘There’s so much more to me. I sold myself short. I didn’t leave it all out there, and I didn’t really get to do everything I know I can,’” Kelleher said. “For me, that’s the most important thing. Just stay calm, stay confident and perform.”