Silver Fox black belt Danielle Kelly has made a major splash on ONE Championship’s nascent submission grappling promotion, where she’s currently riding three victories on one of the biggest combat sports stages in the world. On Friday, September 29, she’ll make history alongside old rival, AOJ black belt, and current IBJJF world champion Jessa Khan, who will battle Kelly for ONE’s first ever women’s world title in submission grappling.
ONE already has a couple of its own submission grappling world champions in the men’s divisions: there’s Kade Ruotolo, who reigns at lightweight, and Mikey Musumeci, currently king of the flyweights. But the ladies have yet to crown their queen – and Danielle intends to change that on Friday night.
“I’ve actually been studying [Jessa] for a long time,” the Silver Fox black belt reveals. “I would say I’ve been preparing for her since my last match that I had in February. And I’m really glad I’m going against a jiu-jitsu person this time,” she adds with a cheeky grin, having previously faced two MMA fighters and a sambo champion on the ONE stage.
She’s got particular respect for Jessa Khan’s leglock game – which she remembers being a formidable weapon in the AOJ star’s toolkit the last time these two met on the competition mats.
Kelly’s longtime friend, training partner, and sometimes mentor Jay Regalbuto, has previously observed that for Danielle, this upcoming title fight is less about the title and more about the opponent. While Danielle wants to be world champion – and wants it badly – what truly motivates her is the opportunity to avenge her old, painful loss to Jessa Khan back on WNO.
“It sucks, because it was probably my worst match ever,” Danielle tells me bluntly.
The time that’s elapsed between that clash on WNO and the upcoming title fight on ONE, however, has given Kelly plenty of time to reconsider how to pick her opponent apart – and to sharpen her own skills.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance, but I hope [Jessa] and her team are studying that match,” says Danielle. “I had to watch that match, actually, recently.” She gives me a steely look. “It’s definitely not gonna be the way it was before, this time. So I’m looking forward to going against her again.”
Those are far from empty words. A self-described “slow learner,” Kelly takes her jiu-jitsu practice one step at a time, ensuring that each area of her game is as well-developed as she can [possibly make it. She’s meticulously crafted her training regimen over the years to encompass everything from leglock shootouts to wrestling exchanges and back take wars; there’s seemingly no piece of the game she won’t study.
Kelly may claim to be slower-than-average to pick up new concepts and techniques in the sport – but if that’s even true, the Silver Fox ace has built a well-rounded competitive style that hides those shortcomings extremely well.
“I feel like we’ve changed a lot,” notes Danielle, reflecting on lessons learned from her first showdown with Khan. “I feel like there’s some things I do remember that she does that she still does in her matches, whether it’s gi or no-gi. I’m nervous for every match, but I’m pretty confident that this time around – I can’t wait to prove people wrong, and show the improvements I’ve made since the last time we competed against each other.”
“I’m still taking [Jessa] seriously,” Kelly reminds us. “But I feel like there’s some things I’ve gotten better at, and I think it’s gonna be a fun match regardless.”
She’s also deeply honored by the bookends to her experience as a trailblazing female athlete for ONE. “I was the first women’s grappling match for ONE, and I’m going to be the first to compete for the women’s title match,” Danielle points out. “So I’m really looking forward to everything, and I’ve been excited for this for a while.”
This history-making title match between Danielle Kelly and Jessa Khan will take place at ONE Fight Night 14 on Friday, September 29.