Eric Kelly is facing a familiar foe at the ONE FC: Return of Warriors mixed martial arts (MMA) event in Malaysia next month, with Honorio Banario sharing much more than just their nationality. The Filipino fighters come from the same town and have trained together, sparred together and know each other well.
With the inaugural ONE FC World featherweight title on the line, the stakes could not be higher for either man, and according to Kelly friendship will not be a factor when the two are staring each other down from opposite ends of the cage on February 2.
“Yes I know Honorio well because we are both from Baguio and I trained with his team sometimes before,” Kelly told the Post.
“I want to be ONE FC champion, that is my dream and my destiny, and if someone is standing between me and my dream it does not matter what country he is from, I must defeat him.”
The fight is taking place at the 16,000 capacity Putra Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, the city Kelly now calls home. He left Baguio last year in search of a better life for him and his family and believes he has found it in Malaysia.
“In Baguio, I used to drive a taxi before and it was more difficult for me to make money except from fighting. Now I work as trainer at Muayfit Gym, so even if I do not have a fight I can still earn some money. MMA is very popular in Malaysia now because of the ONE FC and I am quite famous here,” he added.
Despite becoming one of 12 million Filipino workers overseas, Kelly is still fiercely patriotic and proud of his heritage having made a triumphant homecoming last August when he stopped former UFC champion Jens Pulver in the second round of their fight at ONE FC: Pride of a Nation in Manila.
That event took place at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the same venue that hosted the legendary “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which lasted for 14 brutal rounds. For Kelly, getting to fight in front of 16,000 fans in the Philippines was one of the highlights of his career.
“That was a very good moment for me because the stadium was full of my fellow Pinoys – they all cheered for me – and because Jens Pulver is very famous for being the [Ultimate Fighting Championship title holder]. I have been watching his fights on TV for a long time so to fight with him and beat him was a big honour for me.”
The Philippines has produced more than its fair share of boxing champions, but Kelly and Banario will be the first mixed martial artists from the country to compete for a world title in MMA. The fight may be taking place in Malaysia, but it has been making headlines in the Filipino media, so Kelly expects a lot of interest from back home.
“When I talk to my friends in the Philippines, they tell me that there are a lot of stories in the newspapers and I think a lot of people will watch this fight on the internet because it very big moment for Filipino MMA,” he said.
“Really I prefer to fight a foreigner instead of my fellow Pinoy, but to be ONE FC champion, I will fight anyone. It does not matter what their name is or where they come from.”
To get to the brink of becoming world champion, Kelly has beaten every opponent he has faced up to this point, running up a 9-0 record. He has won three fights out of three for ONE FC and emerged as one of the stars of the Singapore-based promotion.
With success has come recognition. Kelly’s fights are now regularly broadcast by ESPN Star Sports and he has a big fan following, particularly in the Philippines. The 30-year-old has worked hard to get to this point, but now that he is just one win away from firmly establishing himself as the best featherweight in Asia, he realises that the pressure is really on,
“I have never lost a fight before and I do not want to start now. ONE FC is the biggest MMA organisation in Asia, winning the belt would change my
life and my career so this is a very big opportunity for me. But I just have to perform my best on February 2 because I know that I have the ability to beat Honorio.”
ONE FC: Return of Warriors also features top Asian fighters Rey Docyogen, Shinichi Kojima and Adam Kayoom.
The entire event will be streamed live on the internet.