While fans in Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena will likely have plenty of boos for those fighters facing their Brazilian favorites on Saturday night’s UFC 224 card, it’s a safe bet to assume that the chants of “uh vai morrer” might be a little louder for New York’s Brian Kelleher.
Well he has scored two of his three UFC victories over Brazilians heading into his bout against bantamweight contender John Lineker, who just happens to be Brazilian.
“I guess I gotta stick to the theme,” laughs Kelleher, who has already been on the wrong side of the boos in Brazil, having submitted Iuri Alcantara there in his UFC debut last June.
“I think it was good that I went there for my debut, so I kinda know what to expect already, which is nice,” he said. “But I thrive in that kind of territory. I know the fans have a lot of passion, so I like that energy. Even if it’s against me, it’s still fun for me.”
And as Kelleher points out, it’s nothing personal, just business. So if he does make it three for three against fighters from the South American MMA hotbed, he’s hoping to walk away not just with a win, but some fans.
“I think they respect a fighter’s fighter, so I’m gonna go in and put on a performance and hopefully I can win the Brazilian crowd on my side for once.”
“Then maybe I’ll take some Americans out,” he laughs. “You never know.”
Then it’s off to hassle some other country’s 135-pounders?
"Then maybe I'll take some Americans out, he laughs. "You never know."
All jokes aside, Kelleher is in a pivotal spot in his career at the moment. With a 3-1 record in the UFC, he’s gotten off to a rousing start, but with a win over the No. 6-ranked Lineker, he will crash the top 15 and put himself in position for an even bigger fight. It’s why he took a position many won’t after his February win against former champ Renan Barao, as he called out “Hands of Stone.” Again, strictly business.
“For me, it was just about fighting somebody that’s in the top ten, that puts me in title contention, that was open for a fight,” Kelleher said of asking for Lineker. “I know he was supposed to fight Jimmie Rivera and he pulled out of that fight, and they booked Rivera against Marlon Moraes, so I thought what a perfect time to call someone like him out. I knew he was probably looking for a fight now, and he was the only guy that was really open that made sense for me. I beat two Brazilians so far, so I figured the UFC would probably like to stick to the theme. I would have liked to have it on American soil, but it’s all good.”
And all according to plan. Kelleher even says he’s not surprised that the UFC granted his wish so quickly.
“I think with how I performed against Barao, I put on a really fun performance, I fought really well, and I think the UFC saw that and really liked that, so they gave me the opportunity against Lineker,” he said. “You have to make a statement and ask for what you want, and that’s what I did and that’s what I got and I’m happy about it.”
Kelleher’s success is one of the feel-good stories of the last year. A staple on the east coast fight scene ever since his pro debut in 2011, Kelleher had obvious talent, but he lacked consistency and seemed to fall short just when he appeared to be on the verge of a UFC shot.
But beginning with a 2014 win over Mark Cherico, he started to put everything together, running off six straight victories that led to his short notice call to face Alcantara in Rio last June.
“I found myself as a fighter later on in my career, and it takes time,” said the 31-year-old. “There’s a physical side to it, I’m an athletic guy, and I put a lot of hard work in, but there’s also the mental side, and that took a lot of time for me to mature in the sport and to really, truly believe that I’m the best. You have to believe that before you go in and fight these guys. And that was a key thing for me. Now I’m ready to take on whoever whenever. I’m staying ready all year round, so I stay by the phone because if they call me on short notice, I’m definitely a guy who’s willing to step in.”
He’s not kidding, either. This is his fifth fight in less than a year, and while it looks like he’s fighting like he’s double parked, he says it’s just a matter of striking while the iron’s hot.
“I’m 31 years old, I’m in my prime, I’m ready to fight the best guys right now, and if I’m healthy, why not keep it moving. I don’t want to take time off. I’m really big into momentum, so if I’m winning fights and staying active, that’s when I do my best. I don’t lose any momentum from it, so I just like to keep things going, and that’s a good thing for me.”
If he sounds like a guy who isn’t the slightest bit intimidated by fighting a Brazilian in Brazil again, that’s accurate. And the reason why is simple: He’s waited a long time for moments like these, and he’ll take all of them he can get his hands on.
“I knew my time was gonna come,” Kelleher said. “You can go through ups and downs and you don’t have to be undefeated your whole career to become the best or be great at this. You just have to find yourself as a fighter, be persistent and believe in yourself, and that’s what I did and that’s why I got to where I am now. I truly believe I’m gonna be the world champ. It’s just a matter of time.”