When Patrick Kelly was winning a New England wrestling title at the University of Maine more than three decades ago, the aches and pains inherent in that achievement surely suggested that such combat endeavors weren’t going to become a lifetime sport like golf or tennis.
So even as Kelly continued to enter grappling tournaments 15 and 20 years later, much of his competitive side inevitably turned to a highly successful coaching career at his alma mater, Camden Hills Regional High School, where he has contributed to 15 state championship teams as a head coach or as an assistant.
He was inducted into the Maine Amateur Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame in 2007, but try telling Kelly — or anyone he has sparred with in mixed martial arts — that his playing days are over.
On June 17, when Kelly scored a three-round unanimous decision over previously undefeated Rafael Velado to win the New England Fights amateur lightweight championship at Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston — at age 52.
As Velado put the title belt around the new champion’s waist, those who supported Kelly celebrated while those either neutral or hoping for a different outcome celebrated, too.
“Pat Kelly is as fierce a competitor as they come,” NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson said. “His dedication to health and fitness and his endless quest to challenge himself is inspiring.
“The fact he was able to capture gold and remain undefeated as a mixed martial artist is further proof of his belief that age is just a number. The man knows no limits — and it’s an amazing mindset to witness in action when he performs.”
The victory improved Kelly’s record to 4-0 since he first entered the cage in 2014.
“He’s a machine, a legend,” said his coach, Chris Young, co-owner of Young’s MMA in Bangor. “What can you say about a guy who’s 52 years old and out there winning amateur titles and is still hungry for competition. He’s a rare breed.”
Even Kelly didn’t anticipate this degree of athletic renaissance when he discovered mixed martial arts.
“I wouldn’t have imagined this,” he said. “I think 15 or 20 years out of college wrestling was dying off, and I just resigned myself to coaching kids and maybe doing a triathlon or a marathon.
“But MMA came into view and I looked at it as an opportunity to train differently and get back into shape. I found that I enjoy the training of it, I enjoy the mental aspect of it, I enjoy the physical piece of it and I really enjoy being locked in a cage with another guy going, ‘Hey, let’s see what happens.’”
Satisfying an urge
Kelly’s introduction to combat sports began with a stellar wrestling career at the former Camden-Rockport High School during the late 1970s and early 1980s where he won an individual state title as a senior.
He went 116-20 at UMaine, with his 1986 New England title leading to a berth in that year’s NCAA championships.
Kelly soon joined his older brother John on the Camden-Rockport coaching staff and helped the Windjammers win 10 Class B state titles between 1990 and 2002 before becoming head coach in 2003 and guiding the program to a 117-5 record and three more state crowns.
He stepped down in 2006, but he returned as head coach in 2012 and has guided the Windjammers to two more state titles.
Among the wrestlers he coached was four-time state champion Tim Boetsch of Lincolnville, now a veteran middleweight in MMA’s top worldwide promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“PK’s a highly competitive individual, obviously, and that’s where I learned a lot of my competitive stuff,” said Boetsch, now 36. “He obviously did a heck of a job because things have been going pretty good for me on this end, too.”
“I just hope I don’t have to be fighting when I’m as old as he is. I don’t think my body is going to hold up as good as his has.”
Kelly’s MMA debut produced a first-round submission victory over Frank Dellasala at NEF 14, also at Lewiston.
Two more wins followed, wedged between family life, teaching science and driver’s education and coaching wrestling.
Little seemed likely to stop Kelly from continuing to satisfy his competitive urge until his body finally protested.
“I was planning to fight again that September , but about a week out from the fight, I tore medial meniscus in his knee and had to pull out,” Kelly said.
Kelly opted against surgery and required a year to rehabilitate the injury.
“I couldn’t go out that way, it’s just not me,” he said. “I knew even though it was tough and I had some tough days that I’d be back in the cage against somebody.”
By mid-2016 he was back in the training groove, with late-night runs and 500 push-ups and sit-ups a day complemented by a strict diet that left Kelly not only with a chiseled look but eager to test himself again.
“I’d run at 3 in the morning or at midnight so it would have the least impact on my kids,” Kelly said. “We’d go out and do whatever we were going to do and then I’d put the kids to bed and go downstairs and they’d just think dad was going to relax but I’d get a flashlight and reflector vest and I’m out for a 5-mile run.
The training intensified last winter as he coached the Camden Hills wrestling team, and by this time his mind was geared not simply on a return to the cage.
“Since last fall I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a champ and I knew I could do it so I created my own wacky routine,” Kelly said. “Then I started getting back to Young’s here and there training with Ryan [Sanders] on Sundays. Eventually I told [Young] I was interested in fighting. I told him, ‘I don’t really care who but I’ll tell you who I’d like to fight.’”
That was the 38-year-old Velado, the reigning NEF amateur lightweight (155-pound) champion from First Class MMA in Brunswick.
“Even though I hadn’t been in the cage for two years, the last year from sparring with those professionals my game got better even though nobody saw it live in the cage,” Kelly said. “It was my secret weapon, that I had gotten better even though nobody knew it.”
Kelly mentioned the possibility of a title fight against Velado to Peterson last winter, and by late April the match was made.
“I got a Facebook message from Matt offering the Velado fight,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t get my fingers on the computer fast enough to say, ‘I’m there.’”
A strategic victory
The belief going into the fight was that Kelly would match his wrestling background against Velado’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt pedigree, meaning the battle would quickly be taken to the mat.
“The dilemma was you’ve got one guy whose strength is wrestling and another guy whose strength is jiu-jitsu, and wrestling is good at taking someone down but not necessarily great at finishing them once they’re on the ground,” Young said. “So how as a wrestler do you finish someone who specializes on the ground like a jiu-jitsu guy?
The answer was something new for Kelly — to stay off the mat.
“Chris said he saw this fight standing up as much as I could and that sent alarms through my body because if I can get my hands on somebody as a wrestler for 35 or 40 years I feel comfortable,” Kelly said. “Standing up and throwing punches in the cage I’m not as comfortable with because I’m not a good striker, although I’ve heard people say I’ve improved in my striking.
“I so badly wanted to rush him, but the evolution of an MMA fighter is to look at an opponent and say, the dude is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, he can make you think you’re doing OK and then get you an armbar and it’s all over.”
Kelly quickly got back to his feet once the action went to the mat and dominated the striking battle to win all three rounds on two of the three judges’ scorecards with a 2-1 edge on the third.
So what’s next for the new champ?
“I won’t be surprised if he says he wants to fight again,” Young said. “I don’t know what’s going finally keep him from wanting to come back. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.”
Kelly’s immediate future will involve a blend of relaxation, recuperation and reflection.
“Before I defend the belt, I’m going to wear the belt and I’m going to wear the belt with pride,” he said, “not just for me but for my teammates and for Young’s and for the sport in general because this is a sport where if you don’t just want it but you pay the price good things can happen.
“I think I’m going to keep people guessing for a while.”