Overcoming adversity comes naturally to Eric “The Natural” Kelly.
While having an Americanized surname would lead some to think he had a privileged childhood, he is actually a true-blue Filipino raised by a chayote farmer in the town of San Tomas Central, located within the populous Baguio City.
“My father’s real surname is ‘Kille,’ but since he was offered to change it to a more American-friendly spelling, he took the chance,” the 35-year-old says.
Like many families in that small town community, his parents made a simple living planting crops, and their children were expected to follow the same career path. That was not a life Kelly wanted to lead.
In addition, besides not wanting to jump into the family business, the eldest Kelly child was also not much of a role model for his six other siblings. Though he later introduced his brother Edward “The Ferocious” Kelly to martial arts, he originally chose a life on the streets after graduating from high school in 1999.
“I became a tambay (a Filipino slang term for slacker) in Baguio — drinking and hanging out in bars,” he candidly recalls.
Recognising the dangers of such a lifestyle, “The Natural” wisely joined a kickboxing gym so he could learn how to defend himself.
Little did he know, the day he walked into the gym, his lifelong passion for martial arts would be ignited, and his life would change forever.
Universal Gym’s George Lusadan saw potential in the young Kelly, and urged him to take training seriously. That meant quitting his bad habits and vices, and instead dedicating his time to strengthening his body and developing his martial arts skills.
This much-needed discipline steered him away from the life of a slacker, and even brought him to the cusp of national glory.
Kelly joined the National Wushu Team in 2000, where he became a teammate of another Filipino martial arts great, current ONE Lightweight World Champion Eduard Folayang. He had a promising career in the sport, but in order to be a part of the team, he had to make certain sacrifices.
“When you enter the (Filipino national) wushu team, they have a culture where when you are with them, you cannot be anywhere else,” he says. “So during my time with them, there were trainings and scholarships that were offered to me that I had to turn down, because they would not allow it.”
Despite his dedication and devotion, his dreams were soon crushed due to injury. While training in China in 2004, Kelly unfortunately tore some ligaments in his groin during sparring.
The doctors at the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) told him that his only choices were to inject steroids, undergo a risky surgery, or take time off from the sport. As all the choices meant he would not be able to compete, the wushu team sent Kelly home, and ceased his funding.
With his only source of livelihood gone, it was back to square one for Kelly.
“I went home with literally nothing, so I drove a taxi in order to support myself,” he says.
Despite this, Kelly was determined to follow the doctors’ advice to rehabilitate his torn ligaments by riding a bicycle around the steep slopes of Baguio.
After a year of enduring the pain of being away from competition and healing his body, he tried his luck in Manila. He searched for a gym to train at, and went to the city with nothing in his pockets and no network to speak of.
Fortunately, he found a home at the Yaw-Yan Ardigma gym run by Chef Christopher Romaine, better known as Chef Ro.
“Chef offered me shelter in the gym, and even provided me with food and allowances,” he shares. “That is why, even to this day, I consider him as my second father.”
With a renewed chance to train, the wushu athlete added other disciplines to his arsenal with the support and faith of Chef Ro. That was when Kelly really came into his own as a martial artist.
Kelly made his professional mixed martial arts debut on the Filipino regional scene in 2009. He won his first five bouts via submission, and displayed the innate cage ability that officially earned him the nickname of “The Natural.”
That led to an invitation to compete in ONE Championship’s inaugural event, ONE: CHAMPION VS. CHAMPION in 2011, and he continued to decimate the competition, defeating the likes of Mitch Chilson via rear-naked choke and mixed martial arts legend Jens Pulver via TKO.
Although Kelly had a strong start in the sport, fame got to his head. His record currently stands at 12-3, and he is coming off a pair of losses to former ONE Featherweight World Champion Narantungalag Jadambaa and ONE Lightweight World Title challenger Ev Ting.
While circumstances had gotten him down before, he admits it is his fault that his career took a downward turn. “I got a bit crazy with the money I got back then,” he says with a chuckle.
During this time, he also tried his hand at business and sales. He has experienced a fair degree of success outside of the cage, but his passion for competition still burns. The featherweight takes that lead from a Filipino boxing legend.
“I see Manny Pacquiao, and think that despite all the money that he makes, he still continues fighting because of passion,” Kelly says. “I feel the same way, because when your body gets used to training, it will constantly seek it.”
At 35, Kelly is similarly motivated, and is grounded by the wealth of experience life has taught him at this stage of his career.
While championship gold has always been his ultimate goal, he does not want to rush into it like he would when he was younger. Instead, he wants to earn it one match at a time, and that quest begins on 5 August by defeating Kotetsu “No Face” Boku at ONE: KINGS & CONQUERORS in Macao.
With back-to-back losses in 2016, he is off the title radar. However, if there is one person who knows how to overcome adversity all the way from the bottom, then that is Kelly. After all, he’s done it time and time again.