The UFC’s middleweight division is an ageing one, with most of the top ranked competitors in their 30s. Youth has the advantages of fearlessness and virility but with age comes experience, composure and wisdom. This adage has often been used to describe Australia’s Daniel Kelly. After almost 40 years on this planet, Kelly’s martial arts prowess is well documented; representing Australia multiple times in the Olympics and fighting on the biggest stage in Mixed Martial Arts: the UFC.

Kelly’s most recent fight was contested in March against a veteran known by all MMA fans; former UFC light heavyweight champion, Rashad Evans. In the lead up to UFC 209, this fight was poised as a gimmie for Evans, almost as though the story arc had been written well in advance. However, as with all great tales, this one included a twist; one that would make M Night Shyamalan proud.

Kelly went to Vegas and took Evans to the judges scorecards, putting on a dominant performance over 15-minutes. He utilised great footwork and distance management while possessing an almost endless gas tank. Using his Judo pedigree, Kelly disrupted Rashad’s rhythm with crafty foot sweeps and trips, stopping his opponent from mounting any threatening offence.

This ‘upset’ win for Kelly also took the American fans by surprise, generating a plethora of Tweets supporting Kelly, his ‘dad bod’*, and the Dad’s Army. We caught up with Kelly post-UFC 209 to talk about the fight. Having started his professional MMA career back in 2006, we also got Kelly’s perspective on the state of MMA in general and in Australia, and found out about some promising prospects from the Australian MMA scene.

The Neversphere: In your fight against Rashad Evans, you silenced the critics who gave you no chance. Why do you think it is that so many doubted you, despite your 12-1 (now 13-1) record and looking great in your last outings?
Dan: I mean, I had a bad loss against Sam Alvey, I looked slow, I’m older; I haven’t got the most chiselled physique. It looked like an easy fight, that’s why.
The Neversphere: There are a lot of older guys doing very well in the UFC at the moment, so I’m not sure if age is a good enough reason…
Dan: Yeah exactly, especially in the middleweight division. A lot of the guys who are doing well are a little bit older, the only one who’s under 30 at the moment who’s ranked, or close to ranked is Rob [Whittaker]…it’s an old man’s division.

Kelvin Gastellum, he’s another young one as well. I think they’re the only two.

Daniel Kelly MMA

Image: Facebook

The Neversphere: What do you think of this recent trend of star power based match making we’re seeing, the most recent example being GSP going up against Bisping for the title after a three year layoff. Shouldn’t merit count as well?
Dan: Yeah, maybe…I’m a massive fan. I’m excited to see Bisping fight GSP, that’s an exciting matchup. They’re giving the fans what they want. It’s not just straight sport, it’s a business as well.
The Neversphere: Some guys are quite frustrated at it. Recently, Jacare said he’s going to retire if he doesn’t get his title shot.
Dan: Well, he’s gotta beat Whittaker first [laughs].
The Neversphere: In a recent podcast I heard you say you want to fight three times in 2017, and against ranked opponents. Looking at the top 10, top 15 in the middleweight division, it’s a dangerous looking list. Who do you think you match up with best in that top 10, top 15?
Dan: That’s a big question. I think with Whittaker up there, in contention for a title…I think anyone down from that…Seven, eight, nine, ten I think’s ok. That’s uh, gee…That’s Anderson Silva, Kelvin Gastellum, Derek Brunson and Vitor Belfort, any of those guys I think I match up well with.

I know that sounds kind of weird now but I think I match up well with any of them. Anyone from 10 to 15 as well.

Daniel Kelly UFC

Image: Facebook

The Neversphere: You’ve been involved in MMA for a long time, and martial arts even longer. What changes have you seen from the Australian public from when you were getting involved in MMA to today?
Dan: I’ve seen better education. It is a hard sport but it’s very, very well policed. Because of the good rule set they have now, it seems to be a lot safer than it was. I think it’s just people are becoming more educated with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and things like that, so they have much more appreciation for what goes into it.

It is a hard sport, so we’ll always have people complaining about it, but I think it’s getting better and better. I think seeing and getting to know some of the higher level athletes helps, and seeing that they’re not meatheads, they’re just providing for their families. They’re high-level athletes. That has helped a lot.
The Neversphere: The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were updated at the start of 2017, what do you make of those rule changes?
Dan: I like the new rules, they actually don’t come in effect in Las Vegas until July 1, so I still fought under the old rules when I fought Rashad. I like them, there’s less game playing and more opportunities in those clinch exchanges.
The Neversphere: Coinciding with those rule changes were updates to the weight cutting procedures. We’re still seeing a lot of people miss weight, the rawest memory being Ferguson vs Nurmagomedov…and the alleged tiramisu incident. Do you think these new procedures are helping or making the sport more dangerous?
Dan: I’m not sure. I mean, you see people getting smarter about it but you have to be professional the whole time – about making weight. Khabib’s made weight a whole heap of times before and then he can’t make it. If he’s missed weight, then it’s his fault.

I think there’s always going to be those issues in weight class based sports, but I think it’s fine. I mean, I had heaps of recovery for Vegas, 36 hours or something; it was great.

Duke Didier Ahead of Brace 49

Image: Facebook

The Neversphere: Over the past few years, we’ve been seeing more Aussie’s doing well in MMA domestically, internationally and in the UFC. Robert Whittaker is obviously doing extremely well for himself in your division, other names like Jake Mathews, Bec Rawlings, Richard Walsh also come to mind. As someone embedded deep within Australian MMA, are there any up and coming prospects that your excited to see step onto the international stage?
Dan: Oh, absolutely, especially down here in Melbourne. There’s my BJJ coach Gustavo Falciroli, Callan Potter, Jimmy Crute…and then there’s a heap of others as well. There’s a Judo friend of mine, Duke Didier, who’s fighting for the Brace title at Brace 49.
There’s heaps and heaps of high level guys and the level keeps getting better and better. So it’s an exciting time to be in MMA in Australia and particularly Melbourne.
The Neversphere: Last question for you Dan, I’ve seen that your gym is hosting a BJJ event, what’s going on there?
Dan: Yeah, Hybrid Grappling, which is probably the closest thing you’ll get to MMA without striking in Australia. It’s the third competition we’re going to run. If you jump on the Hybrid Grappling Facebook page you can see the rules. It’s a little bit different from BJJ, it’s as close to MMA without striking in my and Gustavo’s opinion.
*We hope to look half as good as Daniel at age 39, hell even at 29.