Those who know Tony Kelley as an MMA fighter from the MTV show “Caged,” and even many who know him better than that, don’t realize he once thought he would be a rock drummer.
He grew up doing many of the other things kids of Shreveport, La., liked to do, such as biking, skateboarding and exploring in the woods. But he was perhaps most passionate about the drums, which he thought would be his future.
They weren’t. But some of the moves were.
“I think it has a lot to do with rhythm, which you need (for fighting),” Kelley told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “You have to use every limb, and it’s about all parts of the body moving at once.
“You really need balance, which I need now.”
And now, Kelley (1-0) has found balance in his own life while trying to take advantage of his MTV notoriety and overcome any negative perceptions created by the show. His next chance comes on Friday in his second professional fight, when the 26-year-old Lake Forest, Calif., resident takes on Kody Thrasher (1-1) at a Hilia Fights show in Kenner, La. The event is available on Fight Now TV and select pay-per-view providers.
Kelley heads into the fight after ending a difficult period. In January, he was found not guilty of a battery charge, the Shreveport Times reported. The process had cost him plenty of grief, even as he won his professional MMA debut this past September following a lengthy amateur career that included his “Caged” appearance.
With a newfound focus, Kelley is hoping to continue building his MMA career that has roots in a friend encouraging him to start jiu-jitsu classes when he was 19 years old.
“I’m riding this as far as I can go,” he said. “This is important to me, and I’m ready to show people what I’m made of.”
Finding a path
Kelley was born and raised in Shreveport, which provided both the usual comforts of a bigger city but also plenty of room to explore for him and his friends.
He remembers learning an early work ethic from his parents that he said still drives him in his career.
“My mom would walk us miles to a babysitter and then keep walking onto her job,” he said. “She would come get us on the way back home, which was such a long day for her. My dad constantly worked, and they tried to instill that in all of us.”
Smaller than many of his classmates, Kelley said he didn’t participate much in contact sports growing up. He spent most of his time playing the drums, which he thought would be part of his future profession.
“I loved music,” he said. “I had beats in my soul.”
But as he entered his teen years, he described his life as diverging into questionable decisions made to impress others while trying to be like others. After awhile, friends and family members became concerned, and a friend encouraged the then-19-year-old Kelley to get involved in a local jiu-jitsu class to provide some structure.
It worked immediately. He had grown into playing football and lacrosse in high school, so he liked the contact, but he also liked the discipline. Once he got a taste of what it involved, he wanted to do more. He looked for a chance to fight, which came quickly.
“There was a guy I trained with who said there were some fights coming up, and I had been training for about four months,” he said. “I decided to just give it a shot.”
It eventually became much more than he thought it would.
When the MTV officials first came to his part of the state and did interviews for a show about MMA hopefuls, Kelley didn’t make the cut.
He was bummed, but life moved on. He was moving through a substantial amateur career – one he now feels he might’ve entered too quickly, which is why it took time to work out his faults.
Then he got a call that changed things. The producers asked him if cameras could follow him around. He still doesn’t know why they needed someone else, but he decided it was something he wanted to do.
The experience obviously had its benefits. He became known throughout the country as people viewed his life and his MMA skills. But, like with anything, there were some negatives.
“I think some people saw it like we were these hick-town boys in Louisiana who liked (MMA) but weren’t taking it seriously,” he said. “Some people thought were just goofing off and thinking everybody can do it.
“That’s not the way it was at all, but people see different things. It was a great experience, and I’m so thankful for it.”
Then in March 2012, Kelley was accused of assault by a female at a club. It took the better part of a year for the case to move through the judicial system and Kelley to receive the not guilty verdict.
In the meantime, he finished his 19-fight amateur career, which ended in a 15-4 record. Feeling he had ironed out the rough parts of his fighting, he turned professional in September with a victory to start 1-0.
Now with his next pro opportunity, he said he wants to continue moving forward in his career as he hopes to shake off any negative perceptions created by the MTV show.
“I got some stuff off my shoulders, and I’m ready to move on with what I’m doing now,” he said. “I just have to keep my head up and believe in myself.”
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.
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