Danielle Kelly has officially debuted for ONE Championship.
A native of Philadelphia, Pa., the 26-year-old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt had her first grappling match inside the circle at ONE: X on March 26, 2022, when competing to a draw against Mei Yamaguchi. In the evening’s main event, ONE Championship 115-pound Atomweight champion Angela Lee triumphantly returned against Stamp Fairtex.
Before finishing the Thai with a second-round rear-naked choke submission, Lee attempted an ever-rare twister but couldn’t quite pull it off as she did in 2015. The moment left Kelly excited and inspired with her own hopes of scoring the difficult maneuver one day.
“I’ve been working on it,” Kelly told MMAMania.com. “It’s pretty satisfying because you’re basically crushing someone’s spine. I think it’s even cooler when you hit it off MMA because it’s actually probably easier because you get to punch them and then they’re more worried about the punches in their face then you just hit off the twister. That’s my goal. I hope I hit off a twister in one of my matches. Hopefully, knock on wood, I don’t get it done to me (laughs).”
If it were easier to pull off, Kelly might consider it her favorite submission. Instead, that label goes to your classic rear-naked choke for the New York resident.
With the promotional debut out of the way, the mixed martial arts (MMA) community eagerly awaits Kelly’s journey into the sport. She doesn’t have an exact idea of when that venture will begin, but the overall skillset has been getting honed for the past two years and counting.
“I wanted to feel out the circle, I wanted to experience the whole thing,” Kelly said of her ONE Championship debut. “I know the match kind of came to me pretty fast but I didn’t want to say no. I see an opportunity, I want to go after it, it was like one of those things. Hopefully, when I do MMA, because I’ve been back to working my striking and [getting in] my rounds, all my coaches can come with me. It’s gonna be my first ever fight so I would like to be more prepared. My next one will definitely be submission grappling but with that, I’ll still focus on my striking.”
Kelly is no stranger to taking on MMA fighters despite having yet to actually fight in the sport. Most fans may remember her late 2021 encounter with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 115-pound Strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Originally scheduled to face current UFC titleholder, Rose Namajunas, Kelly instead defeated Esparza when a slam from the savvy wrestler led to a head clash leaving Esparza cut over the eye (watch here).
While there are some differences stylistically to taking on MMA fighters in grappling matches, Kelly notes the overall perception to be a bit more offputting than anything.
“It kind of annoys me because I feel like when a grappler goes against an MMA fighter, they don’t really give the grappler too much credit,” Kelly said. “There have been matches where there are MMA fighters who are currently fighting who are competing in grappling matches and tournaments and they’re placing first, second, or third. I’m sure Carla has beaten up other girls or trained with other girls who are black belts, seasoned grapplers. So it’s kind of unfair but it’s just the game. I think MMA fighters deserve the same respect as grapplers do, or vice versa.”
Kelly will obviously have to get used to these types of discussions and claims as her career continues in ONE Championship. Understanding of that position, she’s fine with the noise... just don’t expect her to be seeking double champion status if everything goes according to plan.
“I’m kind of done going up weight classes because that’s what I’ve had most trouble with, girls who are 125 [pounds], 130,” Kelly said. “They say weight doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter all because I’ve definitely beaten some but at the same time it’s just not worth it. I don’t want to get injured trying to prove a point. That’s why I kind of retired from the Absolute divisions.”