Eric Kelly knows better than most how thin the margins between success and failure are in MMA.
He went from one of the most exciting prospects in Asia to forgotten man in the space of just under four rounds in his featherweight title fight against Honorio Banario at ONE FC: "Return of Warriors" back in February.
Going into that bout in Kuala Lumpur, everyone was talking about Kelly but after he was stopped by Banario the conversation ceased abruptly, despite that fact that his 9-1 record was among the very best on the ONE FC roster and that he had beaten Mitch Chilson, Bae Young Kwon and Jens Pulver.
He was a frustrated spectator as Banario failed to defend the belt at ONE FC: "Rise to Power" in Manila last month, as all five Filipino fighters on the card lost and the belt which for so long had seemed like it would inevitably end up in the hands of Kelly now belongs to Koji Oishi.
The 31 year old has not fought since February but after biding his time, is now ready to get back into the cage and wants to make a statement by taking out the most recognizable mixed martial artist in Asia.
"I want to fight Shinya Aoki. He says he wants to move down to featherweight and this is my division and I think he would be a good challenge for me. I want to fight the best and he is the best in Asia so I hope ONE FC will let me fight him."
Kelly has spent his entire career competing at 145 pounds, becoming the URCC champion and winning nine fights out of nine to secure a ONE FC title shot. He knows that he does not have the same sort of stellar resume as Aoki, but wants to test the Japanese veteran's featherweight credentials.
"Moving down in weight is not easy, even if he can make weight maybe he will have some problems in the fight because of cutting a lot of weight and will not be as strong. Now many people are saying that Filipino fighters are bad because of some losses, so I want to beat Aoki to prove that we are the best and bring glory back to my Pinoy people."
The loss to Banario concluded a frenetic period for Kelly, who fought four times in eight months. It was an intense schedule which ultimately took its toll on the Baguio-born fighter. He fought for the ONE FC belt with a serious leg injury sustained in the win over Pulver and was still recovering from the grotesque damage which Brad Terrey inflicted on his eye at URCC 22.
Both would play a factor in Kelly suffering the first ever loss of his career as he carried these injuries into the cage at Stadium Putra in Kuala Lumpur.
"I hurt my shin in my fight with Jens Pulver and then I hurt it again a few days before I fought Honorio and in the first round I think I kicked his elbow and after that it hurt a lot. I also had a big problem with my eye and I thought it would be okay, but after he punched me I could not see out of it anymore and I could not carry on to fight."
Despite the mitigating factors in that defeat, Kelly has no desire to rematch Banario and instead now has his eye on new challenges.
"Honorio was the better fighter when we fought and he deserved his win and also he is my friend and my fellow Filipino so I do not want to fight him again. I want to fight Aoki because if I beat him everyone will know that 'The Natural' is back."
Kelly has not given up hope of getting on ONE FC's next card which is set for Jakarta on September 13, but with shows reportedly booked for Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong before the end of the year, he should be back in action before too long.
He says he is ready to fight whoever matchmaker Matt Hume asks him to, but after spending almost six months on the sidelines, Kelly has his eyes firmly set on the biggest fish in the ONE FC featherweight pond.
"Now some people have forgotten me because I lost one fight but if I win with Aoki then everyone will know my name. I will fight any fighter the ONE FC wants me to but I hope they will let me test my skills against Aoki because to defeat a legend like that would be my dream."
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