Ex-Sunderland player turned boxer shares inspirational mental health story ahead of potential Stadium of Light fight
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The Sunderland-born fighter has been a professional for half a decade, with an amateur career spanning the majority of his childhood, teenage years and early adulthood.
Kelly competed at the 2016 Olympics and in the European games, where he won a bronze medal before collecting the Commonwealth title and a trinket from WBA whilst fighting at welterweight.
This Saturday, Kelly is set to face Argentine puncher Lucas Brian Bastida in the North East for an international title live on Channel 5 from the Vertu Motor Arena in Newcastle.
The fight has been made a weight class higher at super-welterweight and marks the second bout in Kelly’s comeback after suffering a crushing loss to David Avanesyan. The beatdown was shown live on Sky Sports to a massive audience.
Kelly showed flashes of quality but the Russian was too strong and forced a stoppage in round six of their European title fight. But how do you deal with such a big loss? It is the darker side of the game that is rarely spoken of.
Kelly didn’t look right that night. Something was off. He reveals that has nothing to do with ability, speed, reactions or timing. The problem lay in his mind. His mental health had been suffering for some time.
Drawing inspiration from UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett’s impassioned speech to the world regarding men’s well-being, Kelly broached the subject of his own struggles for the first time.
“It was deep what he said… men should speak more,” Kelly said of Pimblett. “Women talk, but men don’t, and especially in a masculine sport of boxing and fighting you need to be ‘Mr Tough’.
“I think every athlete suffers mental health problems, and you bottle it up, then it comes back to bite you heavily. That’s what happened with me.”
Kelly is the picture of good physical health, as you would imagine a boxer to be. His eyes are bright, his body toned and his stature one of confidence.
To look at him would provide no clue of the battles he has faced within himself, which sadly is so often the case when it comes to men and their deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. There is a stigma which needs to be ripped down.
“I was in a bad way,” Kelly said, reflecting on how he felt before the Avenseyan fight. “I’d be looking at the mini-bar on a Wednesday to do anything to give myself a bit of rest and get myself to sleep.
“I’d be fighting on the Saturday thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ and I couldn’t get over thinking I was getting ill all the time. It was never about the fight, but I constantly worried about needing to be right, and do what I need to do.”
It is crazy to think of Kelly, such a confident and talented young man, suffering so much. Yet his story is sadly not unique and the problems he has faced are shared by many. By Speaking out, Kelly hopes he can help others to do the same.
Kelly continues: “To go on and speak about things like Paddy was speaking about, it touches base a lot because if I didn’t seek the help then I was heading to a deep place.
“I suffered some deep moments myself. Speaking out is definitely the right thing to do, especially in a fighting sport because people think you need to be some tough guy, but you’re already tough stepping in there.
“It was such a big time in my life, having two young kids as well and seeing it could affect them, so I thought I should speak about it.”
In the minutes leading to our meeting with Kelly at the Stadium of Light for this article ahead of his fight on Saturday, I was greeted at the main reception by his nan and grandad.
Beaming with pride, they tell me that they would like to see their grandson become a world champion whilst they can still witness it and talk of their fondness for their great-grandson, Roman.
They are lovely, genuine people and are kind enough to provide a few little-known facts regarding Kelly. He has always been a winner and highly competitive and he could have been a footballer and was on the books at both Sunderland and Hartlepool United as a child.
“When I was a kid of 9,10,11 years of age I was playing for Sunderland,” Kelly adds when asked about his sporting past. “You have them aspirations to play for Sunderland and you think to yourself ‘ It could be me one day’.
“I was obviously doing my boxing side-by-side and when I was dieting to keep my weight down as a fighter, these kids were growing so much bigger and were so mature that I just couldn’t keep up with them at football which led me to side with the boxing.
“I’m fighting now instead of football, but it’s nice to be back (at the stadium). They’re a huge support, they’ve always been there for me.”
Kelly has begun to visualise a megafight at the Stadium of Light, although he insists he isn’t looking past his dangerous opponent on Sunday.
“The possibility of fighting here is mental. It felt a bit like a Conor McGregor moment when he mentioned manifesting all this stuff, I feel like it’s starting to come to a head now. I’ve been thinking about fighting here for so long, I’ve got it written down and things like that.
"Walking out onto that pitch, I could see the place full up and it would be absolutely amazing. That would tick a massive box in my career if I could, it would be like a bucket list thing for me.
“It would be unbelievable, and the ring walk would be to the old school ‘Dance of the Knights’ anthem. When I was watching Sunderland as a young lad that was the song I remember, that was the tune. It would be electric.
“I’ve got a lot of support from the Sunderland lads, but I’d be buzzing. You walk the streets, and you feel like you’re home. I know everywhere, and all the childhood memories come back to you.”
But what of his opponent on Saturday? Brian Bastida is a stranger to British boxing circles and has never fought outside of his native Argentina.
The unknown makes him dangerous and he threatens to derail Kelly’s comeback at super-welterweight following his return win against Peter Kramer in Liverpool earlier this year.
“The best version of me beats the best version of him, so I just have to turn up. It’s a WBO international title I’m fighting for and it gets you into the top 15, it gets you straight into them rankings.
“Once you start fighting amongst that then the belts start to appear in your sights. I believe I can push myself to the top and get myself into a mandatory position to get a shot at that world title.
“I’m mixing with the world's best all the time in sparring, and I’m sharing the ring with all the top guys, and I can hold my own with everyone. I know where I’m at in the gym,
“I just need to do it on fight night now. I’ve got true belief in myself that everything that has happened is in the past and I’m moving on to some big things, especially at 154lbs. I feel so strong, and healthy and fit; just powerful at this weight."
You have to think that even if Kelly wins on Saturday, he has already conquered his biggest battle to date.