At the center of the cage, surrounded by an audience of empty chairs, Brian “Boom” Kelleher’s opponent, Hunter Azure, was sprawled on the mat.
The sound of silence broken only by the yell of the commentators and cheers of his corner, Kelleher climbed atop the cage and shouted toward one of the few occupied seats in the arena. Sitting in it — at a safe social distance — was UFC president, Dana White.
“Roll up Sugar Sean in a joint,” Kelleher yelled, “I’m gonna smoke his ass!”
It wasn’t the first time Kelleher called out “Sugar” Sean O’Malley, a bantamweight star and marijuana connoisseur. But it was his first time doing so after delivering a vicious left hook for his first UFC knockout. Not to mention the fact that Kelleher did all of this in front of a focused White, an empty arena, and millions of sports fans around the world looking for something to cheer about during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It was like acing a test while the teacher and entire class watched your every move.
“I knew that so many new eyes were on the sport, people who watch other sports that are looking for some form of entertainment,” Kelleher said. “To have a really exciting knockout like that with the sports world watching, it was huge for my career.”
While driving to the airport ahead of his fight at UFC Jacksonville earlier this month, the nerves began to sink in for the 33-year-old Kelleher. It’s a common side effect when preparing to board a flight during a global pandemic to go enter a cage and fight another human being. Yet it wasn’t the thought of catching the virus or a strike to the face that made Kelleher nervous.
It was the nose swab. The elongated Q-Tip-like apparatus that soon would be shoved up Kelleher’s nasal cavity to conduct a test for COVID-19.
“I was so scared for that,” Kelleher said with a laugh. “I’m willing to fight someone in a cage but I’m scared of just about everything else in life.”
His parents, Matt and Jen, drove Kelleher and his younger brother and cornerman, Mak, to JFK Airport in New York the Sunday before the fight. The usually bustling terminal at one of the world’s busiest airports was…empty.
“It was a ghost town,” Jen said. “Really, really spooky. Being a parent, I was more worried about the trip than the fight itself. With everything going on, I just wanted to make sure they were safe. It was very difficult. In a way, it almost felt like I was sending them off to war.”
Matt, a retired New York firefighter, had previously been in attendance for all of Kelleher’s professional fights. Normally in the stands, or on occasion in his son’s corner, Matt would watch this fight on television 1,200 miles away to avoid traveling with the threat of coronavirus.
“It was very emotional, you just want them to be safe,” Matt said of the airport send-off. “I was not happy about not being able to go. I kind of broke the social distancing rules and gave them a hug before they left.”
Inside the airport was a scene out of an apocalyptic movie, with non-existent security lines, empty shops and unoccupied sitting areas.
“You’d think the airport wouldn’t feel like the safest place to be during a time like this,” Mak said, “but it did because there was nobody there.”
The plane itself was not quite as empty, surprising Kelleher as to how many people were traveling on a mid-week flight to Jacksonville during a national health crisis. Every other row was occupied and an empty seat was left between each passenger, all of whom were wearing face masks.
Upon arrival in Jacksonville, a UFC-arranged shuttle drove the Kellehers to the hotel. With Ronaldo Souza having tested positive before his fight just days prior — news that initially made Kelleher wonder if his own fight would be canceled – strict precautionary measures were in place. Before entering the hotel, the Kellehers had their temperatures taken and, once cleared, they were given color-coded wristbands signifying they had been granted access to what became something of a UFC isolation bubble: the Hyatt Regency Riverfront.
They were quickly ushered up to a blocked-off floor dedicated entirely to COVID-19 testing, where they underwent a finger prick for an antibody test and that dreaded nose swab.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Kelleher said. “Just a little tickle.”
While awaiting the results from the swab, Kelleher was told to isolate in his room as much as possible and, if he were to step out, to wear a mask at all times. Each fighter was also provided an individual work out room, which included a portable sauna.
To that point, with gyms closed over the previous two months due to the pandemic, most of Kelleher’s workouts had been done at his house.
“I’m living with my parents so I’m trying to stay away from people and trying to take precautions but also stay in the best shape possible,” he said.
To balance precaution and preparation, Kelleher bought home gym equipment for his basement and got creative with circuit training. He did shadow boxing on his front lawn and ran around the neighborhood. He hung a punching bag from a tree in his backyard.
“I was doing two hard workouts a day, but it’s just not the same as having partners to train with, sparring sessions, jiu-jitsu, wrestling. It’s a lot more intense to train properly for a fight.” Kelleher said. “My body was adapting and my weight was going up. I couldn’t make bantamweight weight class (126-135 pounds) but I wanted to fight and I wanted to go to work and make a paycheck.”
He was willing to fight another bantamweight at 145 pounds in a featherweight bout. The unbeaten Azure accepted, giving Kelleher two weeks to prepare before UFC Jacksonville.
“As soon as I got the fight, I had to start taking a few more risks,” Kelleher said. “So, I started grabbing a couple of partners, guys I could work with that I trusted.”
Kelleher began doing some private jiu-jitsu sessions. He did pad work with his striking coach. He had two sparring sessions, after which he said he felt gassed.
“Fight shape is different from being in shape,” he said. “I was a little nervous going into the fight about getting tired and not being able to defend myself and perform to the best of my ability. But I tuned that out and stayed focused.”
In the days leading up to the fight, Kelleher spent a majority of the time in his hotel room, occasionally visiting the rooftop pool, going for walks in the near-empty city, and training or hanging out with his brother and cornermen, Brian Michelino and Steve Kasten.
When his alarm went off on fight day, he awoke with anxiety.
“You feel this wave of nerves, thinking today is the day I go and fight somebody in a cage,” he said. “What am I doing?! You try to find a relaxation and calm and peace about it all.”
To do so, Kelleher meditates. By working on his breathing and reminding himself of what’s important to him and why he does what he does, he feels centered.
“I tell myself to enjoy this process because you are doing what you love and doing what you’re good at and living your dream,” he said.
Time seemed to stand still on fight day. To help it pass, after breakfast and his pre-fight shake out to go over some combinations and work up a sweat, Kelleher went for a walk, got his customary power green smoothie, and did some reading in his hotel room.
“You’d think with everything going on in the world it would have been weirder than it was,” Kelleher said of preparing to fight during the pandemic. “But the fighting is so extreme, I really can’t even think about all of the other things going on in life. It actually brought a little bit of normalcy for me. I was glad I was able to go to work.”
Only two fighters were brought from the hotel to the arena at a time. Each was given their own locker room, whereas normally it would be shared between multiple fighters. Kelleher arrived at the arena about an hour-and-a-half before his fight. Kelleher and his corner were not allowed out of the locker room until call time. When they left, they had to take all of their bags and belongings into the hallway so the cleaning crew could immediately begin disinfecting the room for the next fighter.
Kelleher then made his way into an empty arena.
“It was a surreal experience to walk into this huge arena that was completely empty and kind of just focus on the task at hand,” Kelleher said.
Back home in Selden, New York, Matt and Jen Kelleher were watching from the comfort of their living room. The usual in-person friends and family viewing party for fight nights went virtual with a Zoom video conference that included Kelleher’s girlfriend, Alison, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
“You’re looking at them in this little square on a computer screen,” Matt said. “I turned my laptop towards the TV for whoever wasn’t able to watch. We told them, ‘When this fight starts, we’re not going to be paying much attention to you guys. If he wins, we can all go nuts afterwards.’ And sure enough, after the fight I was screaming so much I lost my breath.”
During the fight, all was quiet on Zoom, just as it was inside the arena.
“I was able to hear everything: my corner, his corners, the commentators,” Kelleher said. “Everything was crystal clear.”
Perhaps too clear, at times. Kelleher is known to start slow in the opening round to get a feel for his opponent. Azure countered by coming out aggressive, throwing longer combinations than Kelleher anticipated. After one strike, Kelleher heard Azure’s corner shout that Kelleher’s nose was broken.
“I have adrenaline. I can’t feel it. I started feeling my nose and started seeing something in my peripheral vision and I thought my nose was crooked and sticking out,” Kelleher said. “So, I started thinking he really did break my nose.”
Kelleher’s corner confirmed after the first round that his nose was not broken. Kelleher relaxed. And the second round was “Boom” time.
“I get better as the fight goes on,” Kelleher said. “I showed that in the second round.”
Not far from Matt and Jen’s house, Brian’s older brother, Keith, whose previous post-fight living room celebrations have gone somewhat viral, was screaming at his television. His wife, Natalie, FaceTimed her sister and friend so they could see the fight. Keith and Natalie’s five-year-old twin sons shouted “Uncle Champ! Uncle Champ!”
“We wish we could have had family and friends over like we usually do,” Keith said. “We know the house would have been going crazy when he won. I still ran around the room screaming when he got the knockout.”
While watching film of Azure before the fight, Kelleher’s corner noticed his tendency to throw one-off kicks with his hands down. Kelleher was waiting for it, prepared to seize on the opening.
When Azure threw an inside leg kick with just under 1:30 remaining in the second round, Kelleher dipped left and countered with what he (a righty) later called a “picture-perfect left hook.” It caught Azure cleanly across the jaw, instantaneously sending him to the mat, making for a highlight that would soon be tweeted by SportsCenter (shown below). Like a baseball player who knows damn well he just connected on a towering home run, Kelleher entered bat flip mode. He prematurely raised his arms in victory, before realizing the ref hadn’t stopped the fight. Kelleher delivered a pair of hammer fists to complete the knockout, improving his UFC record to 5-3.
“I wondered after the fight what that would have sounded like with a full arena of fans,” Kelleher said. “Everyone would have exploded with that left hook. I’m a little bit upset that I missed out on that part, but it was still pretty cool for all the important UFC higher-ups to be able to hear everything crystal clear.”
White certainly heard Kelleher’s post-fight call-out crystal clear. It was reminiscent of Kelleher’s fight in 2015, before he made it to UFC, back when he was living in the back of a gym and using a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation. White at the time was in the crowd for a Ring of Combat event in Atlantic City to scout talent for his show “Looking for a Fight.” Kelleher won by knockout after delivering a spinning back fist to the face of his opponent (a move he also attempted in Jacksonville in a full-circle type of moment). With his opponent still down in the ring, Kelleher ran out of the cage and approached White in the crowd, telling him to give him his chance in UFC.
Five years, eight UFC fights, and four $50,000 bonus prizes later, Kelleher and White now come face-to-face quite regularly as boss and employee.
“In my last fight, I was literally fighting for my job,” Kelleher said of his victory in January, a first-round submission over Ode Osbourne that earned him a new contract with UFC. “Now here I am with one of the biggest wins of my career with Dana sitting by himself front row.”
When Kelleher exited the cage after defeating Azure, it was White who approached him. He told Kelleher that after the first round, his live betting odds dropped, making him a major underdog.
“Dana said his childhood friend was texting him going nuts saying he was going to drop a huge bet on Kelleher going into the second round,” Kelleher said. “So, the guy drops this bet on me and right after I knock this guy out, he won a huge amount of money. I was like, ‘Dana, I want a percentage of that, buddy.’”
And also, Kelleher added, a pair of Tie-Dye shorts for his next fight. Another jab at O’Malley.
“He’s a star in the making,” Kelleher said of O’Malley. “So, I want to beat this guy and steal all that hype and put myself in position to be the new star in the making and the guy that’s going to eventually challenge for a title.”
The post-fight process was expedited to get the fighters and corners out of the arena and back to the hotel as quickly as possible. Kelleher’s departure, however, was delayed because he required stitches in-between his toes. While receiving them, he made a series of FaceTime calls: to his girlfriend, his brother, and his parents.
He then met with the media in attendance, who were situated a safe distance from Kelleher, and then a conference call with additional media. Kelleher and his corner then grabbed their belongings in the hallway and headed for the bus back to the hotel.
There they ordered room service, watched the rest of the fights and then, of course, re-watched Kelleher’s fight before going to bed.
“After the fight, it’s very hard to sleep,” Kelleher said. “There’s a nonstop rush of adrenaline and excitement.”
The following morning, they got back on a more-crowded-than-you’d-expect airplane, walked through a mostly empty airport, and got a ride home from Kelleher’s girlfriend.
The two-week quarantine for Brian and Mak began.
Mak, who lives a few towns west of his family, stayed with his parents so he wouldn’t put his girlfriend, who has asthma, at risk.
“We mostly stay outside or in our bedrooms upstairs, and when we come down we all wear masks around the house,” Mak said. “Brian is already getting back to training. I saw him hitting the bag in the backyard. He wants to keep the momentum rolling.”
There is no downtime when trying to rise up…although with Kelleher being hailed by some as the best hip-hop artist in the UFC, he may use some time in quarantine to write music and post a new song on YouTube.
But Kelleher’s primary focus is on his next fight, for which he hopes there will be fans back in the stands, a pair of Tie-Dye shorts around his waist, and another post-fight conversation with Dana White.
“The persistency is everything,” Kelleher said. “In this sport, there are so many ups and downs, so many times where you can quit on yourself and just go get a regular job. But you gotta just keep going and good things will happen.”