I’m Lucky enough to catch up with a relatively old friend of mine from a different life, Ben Kelleher.
Ben is one of Australia’s top Kickboxers and MMA prospects and has been touted as one of the next UFC hopefuls.
We talk life ahead of his kickboxing fight tonight in Australia for King Of The Ring.
#TheUW – Hey Ben, thanks heaps for the chance to catch up! Hope you’re well. For everyone at home, tell them a bit about your background, your career so far and any heroes you may have!
Kia ora! Thanks for having me.
Well I grew up in Auckland, I’m the oldest of 4. I started training kickboxing at Elite Thai Kickboxing (ETK) in NZ 6 years ago at the age of 20.
My first fight was with a 110kg Tongan truck driver after 6 weeks training. Roger Earp asked me if I was keen to fight on a Sunday show. I was playing Rugby Union for the North Harbour Colts at the time so I went and played in the Waikato that day, and got the team bus to drop me at the fights that night.
I had a good win and fell in love with the sport.
I fell in love with Mixed Martial Arts too, the small gloves and rawness of it. So much so that a few years on when I moved to the Gold Coast to play (Rugby) League and my manager at the time told me I had to ‘stop fighting or they wouldn’t pay my salary’.
I quit playing League and decided to try and make it as a fighter!
I’m still not sure which discipline (I enjoy the most) yet. I just love it so much.
For a while I forgot why I fight, and the reasons have changed as the years have gone on but ultimately, as long as I can have a scrap I’m happy, but my wish to make it to the highest level! So far I’ve fought in China, Korea, Thailand, all over Australia and New Zealand and have met amazing people and made lifelong friends.
Heroes of mine in the sport would be Badr Hari, Tyrone Spong, and I like a lot of MMA fighters, namely Thiago Alves and Mark Hunt. I really respect the guys with a good work ethic like Georges St Pierre and Rich Franklin. I have a few heroes, or people I respect a lot, on the local scene too, that I will probably end up fighting. I think Ty Williams, the current WKBF Cruiserweight Champion is brilliant. Israel Asedanya is great too, I’m not saying I’m a fan of either, but I love greatness.
#TheUW – Tell us about a typical week for you right now, how you train, when, where and how often.
I don’t really have a half speed, and the absolute truth is that I’m either at the gym teaching, and eating donuts and drinking milkshakes and Jack Daniels, or I am in beast mode.
Even with no fight coming up my typical week will be a 5am strength and conditioning sesh, and in the evenings my Thai boxing or MMA. I always train a hundred miles an hour or not at all. The good thing about being up here in Darwin is because I’m in the select few who are pursuing fighting at the top level, that people make time for you. There is some brilliant talent up here and if you do the right thing they are kind and willing to pitch in and help. I have people who owe me nothing but take the time to make me better which is awesome.
I train at Performance Gym in Darwin, but if Michael (Siebert) my coach has his kids – and we have a fight coming up and want to do extra, often I go to his place. He’s got a massive block and a gym setup at his place too so we get it done wherever we need to.
My strength is done at SNAP Fitness in Palmerston, they take good care of me and let me go whenever I want, day or night, like I said awesome people up here. It’s fight week so I’ve dialled back the strength work and spend a lot of time working on my cardio, my game plan, and my mental toughness. I’m a huge believer in spending time on the mental aspect as of late so I guess that could be called training too. At night I have a bit of a regime I go through with regards to visualising what I want. That’s only really come about in the last 9 months or so and I love it.
#TheUW – How does that compare to a typical week when you’re in a fight camp?
During fight camp, I really try to focus on smashing my body and recovering as quickly as possible. Again this has all come about as of late with my recent loss to Dan Kelly and my injury, I guess I hit a point where I needed to decide if I’m all in with this fight shit or if I’m just going to let my natural abilities carry me, and be happy with mediocre.
The saying that ‘hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard’ rings really true with me.
I think a combination of both, if you have the drive to do more than your opponent, is what one needs to be the best.
Unless I’m away with Boyd (Clarke) and the Phuket Top Team lads, I don’t really have a “fight camp” as such. I still work 6 days a week, and I have a small business that I run too. I still tend to my home life, I still spend time teaching and with my friends and their kids. So I just make sure I utilize my time as best I can. While you sleep I am usually grinding, in one way or another.
#TheUW – From your experience in the Australian MMA and fight scene, what steps do you think we need to take in New Zealand to get ourselves on par with them? Some people have commented that NZMMA is at least 5 years behind the AUMMA and possibly 10 years behind the US and Canada. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think that’s true at all. The stand-up fighters in New Zealand, particularly the Thai Boxing scene, are some of the toughest and most skilled, I’ve ever seen – on par with the Dutch. I think we have some awesome grapplers, look at Steve Oliver, Gareth Ealey, Douglas Santos – these guys are beasts and I’m sure there are many more.
We have a large Brazilian contingent in NZ too, it’s awesome. I think where we lack if at all is the Australians back their fighters. Top level fighters are on the TV and in the papers every second week here. In NZ it’s barely ever until recently, with guys like Mark Hunt, Jamie Te Huna and Daniel Hooker being put in for their UFC appearances. In saying that, we treat it in NZ like a sport, like a past time as opposed to the be all and end all. Those kiwis that chase it and accept no alternative to being at the top always make it. Jason Suttie, Ray Sefo, Mark Hunt, Daniel Hooker, Luke Jumeau, Israel Adesanya, to name a few, are examples of that. I know I’m using k1 as an example and there are many more too but it shows that we aren’t behind, we are just a smaller place, and the number of top level athletes in the fight game per capita is always going to be less. We hold our own and everyone knows not to fuck with kiwis.
The only other thing I will say about the topic is we need to nurture fighters from a younger age. Americans have wrestling, from young. Aussies have Judo and stuff, we need to put it to the younger athletes in the singular fight sports that there is an option to mix them up and become an MMA fighter, and that it can pay the bills and there is an opportunity to be one of the greats at it!
We need to push MMA as a mainstream sport alongside Rugby (Union and League) and Cricket if we wish to see it grow in NZ and Aussie.
#TheUW – Recently The UFC held their inaugural MMA event in New Zealand at #UFCFightNightAuckland. That event sold out with almost 9,500 tickets sold and grossed almost $1,000,000 USD. Do you think that NZMMA has been put on the map properly now?
Absolutely, and it’s a matter of time before we see an Ultimate Fighter series with NZ, and use it as a prelim to another UFC card.
The only thing I worry about with regards to MMA in NZ is tall poppy syndrome. That fucks everything.
If we want to grow the sport in Australasia we need to do it as a collective and leave the competition to the cage/ring.
#TheUW – What do your friends from back in the day and your family say when they find out that you’re now a professional MMA fighter and one of the top prospects in Australia?
To be honest, I only have a handful of real friends that I maintain contact with from back in the day.
I think as I’ve grown up, my perception of what a friend is changed, and with that I left a lot of people behind that don’t align with what my goals are. My mum recently watched me fight for the first time, I gave her $50 dollars to get some beers and relax and watch and she had one lemonade, watched me fight, and left, keeping the money for her smokes and some phone credit! She always asks when I am going to stop, she worries I will get hurt.
The rest of my family are always proud of me no matter what, my dad is a big supporter of my fighting, and my uncle Will follows me diligently too. I’m very blessed in that respect. As for everyone else, fuck em. I used to worry so much about what everyone thinks of me, and it really wasn’t good for me in a lot of ways. I hold a grudge, and to all the people who are haters or think I can’t make it either as a sports person, or anything else, they get me up in the morning when it would be easier to sleep.
I love being grown enough now to channel the hatred I carry, there’s a fair bit [laughs] in a positive way! And the fact I have a few true friends, loving family and an amazing community that support me, is a bonus. Everyone else is kidding themselves if they mistake my kindness for weakness.
#TheUW – What would you call your greatest victory in any fight-sport and why?
My greatest victory hasn’t come yet, but I have a certain win in mind that I would like and its coming to me. The fight that I am most proud of to date is beating Ray Dimatchki for the WKN K1 Australian title. I fought Ray once, and I was 85kg, he was 105kg Heavyweight. I fought the week before, and had had about 3 kick fights. He bashed me and stopped me in the 4th round with leg kicks. He was 10-0 with 9 KO’s. To come back 10 fights later and defeat him meant a lot to me. I made a good friend there too, he’s choice.
#TheUW – What would bring you back to New Zealand full-time to train and live?
That’s a hard question. For me it depends on financial stability. If I was able to support my family and my mum before then I would consider it, because I miss home, and I love it there.
Credit: Discovering Australia – Darwin, Northern Territories
But truth be told I fuckin love D tow (Darwin), it’s a beautiful place, and I have a group of friends here who are closer than blood. Also it depends on the fight opportunities. I just want to become better and have the chance to fight the big fights wherever that may be.
#TheUW – Now, tell me about your lowest point in the last 18 months, what happened and how you’ve overcome it!
My lowest point was recently, I lost my AFC fight to Dan Kelly who was fresh out of the house, no disrespects but I truly think I am a better athlete and fighter than Dan.
The occasion got the better of me and he was fantastic. His superior grappling won on the night and he implemented a great game plan and he deserved to be the winner. That being said, it was my fight to lose I think.
Two weeks later I backed it up on TOP FC in Korea – and in the first ten seconds I threw a hard leg kick and sustained a bad injury, my patella displaced and I tore some ligaments. I got 2 different opinions and one was 6 months off, one was 4. At that point I questioned whether I wanted it as much as I tell people I do. I had a bit of a bender, suffered some pretty low points. I had people who really care about me pick me up and make me stronger now than I was before that loss and injury!
I guess I overcame it by staunching it out and I recently applied through the WKBF to fight for a South Pacific K1 title against Ramegus Te Wake (21-7) and knocked him out in the first round.
Going back to my bread and butter (kickboxing) and training so hard and overcoming injury against the odds in less than 2 months, really reminded me that ‘it’s mind over matter’, and I feel more confident than ever!
#TheUW – Lastly, where to from here for Ben Kelleher? Where can people catch up with you if they want to follow your journey and jump on your bandwagon with me??
I would like to assert myself as the top 86kg K1 fighter in Australasia. I think I can beat TY and Israel that and everyone that competed at King In The Ring in Auckland earlier this year. It was an absolutely stacked 8 man with Slava Alexichek, Pati Afoa and young Zane (Hopman) also competing.
I follow all of the guys I might one day meet in the ring. I would like to be a part of the next one and take it out. Nothing like beating champions all in the same night, win or lose it would be a privilege to even fight any of the 8 who qualified.
With that, if I could prove to myself I am at that level in NZ and Australia I would love to compete in Glory World Series. Mainly because I want Tyrone Spongs autograph.
Above all else, I want to fight in the UFC.
I really think I can mix it with the top Middleweight strikers in Australia and The UFC, and I am aware my grappling is what lets me down, and until recently I had on or off nights depending how my emotions were. I’ve since fixed that issue. I would like to make it into the next ultimate fighter or into the UFC Australia/NZ card and I am working on my weaknesses every day. As long as I am fighting I’m happy, I guess. But everyone wants to be the man. I’ll just keep grinding and see what happens. It’s hard enough staying out of trouble on a Saturday night.
Just quickly though, thanks for the interview bro and thanks to all the people who constantly have my back. You know who you are. Churrrrrr!!
– Ben Kelleher stoppage MMA KOTC Oct 2013