From Taking Down Schoolyard Bullies to ONE X Debut Dominance: Get to Know Danielle Kelly

Rising grappling star and Silver Fox BJJ representative Danielle Kelly has never been afraid of pushing the pace on anyone – and her debut against ONE Championship MMA veteran Mei Yamaguchi at the March 2022 ONE X show proved no exception. “I went in with the mindset of ‘maybe I can take her down and work my jiu-jitsu game from there,’ because I didn’t think her ground game was all that,” Kelly tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “But after the match went on, and she wasn’t really engaging with me, I kind of just gave up the wrestling thing and pulled guard, because I forgot, we’re in the cage, it’s a grappling match, there’s no points, so if she wasn’t going to engage with me, then I should just make the first move.” 


Like fellow ONE Championship grappling debutants Kade and Tye Ruotolo, Kelly was wary of the ways that her more experienced – and very MMA-savvy – opponent might use the walls of the ONE Circle to fluster a younger and less seasoned ONE athlete. “[Yamaguchi] still wasn’t giving me anything, but she was good at doing cage work stuff, because she’s an MMA fighter, and she’s been doing MMA for a while,” explains Kelly. “So she was trying to pin me against the cage, and prevent me from making space, which was really smart on her part. But then I tried to do an armbar from there, because that’s what I’d been working on a lot. And I believe [that’s when] they reset us, gave her a warning card [for stalling], and from there, I pulled guard, played my game, let her engage with me, and that’s when I tried to take her back and basically stayed on top the whole time, trying to submit her.” 

Easier said than done – Yamaguchi, though not necessarily a submission grappling whiz of Kelly’s caliber, had been toughened by the rigors of her MMA background, and displayed a defensive game that proved difficult to penetrate. While she’s certainly not the first MMA fighter Kelly’s faced, Kelly believes that opponents at Yamaguchi’s level all prove themselves to be unique puzzles to solve: “[Yamaguchi] was kind of what I was expecting,” she acknowledges, “but all the girls I’ve fought at a high level are a little different. The first two [MMA fighters] engaged with me a little more, and the last two – Carla [Esparza] and Mei – they weren’t really engaging. And the first three also weighed about 130 or 135, so I was going up about three weight classes to go against them.” She offers a wry grin. “And then in the last one, I got slammed, so that was a wake-up call!”

The main challenge that MMA fighters give to grapplers, according to Kelly, is a combination of their physical strength and their wary reluctance to play into the A-game of a sport jiu-jitsu specialist. “The MMA fighters are all really strong, but they’re strong [in part] because they don’t really engage much,” she observes. “They’re very good at staying in tight – but that also goes for some of the high-level grappling girls I’ve gone against.” She smiles. “I hope I go against some of them again. Overall, I feel like they’re more likely to engage with you. Some do have styles that depending on waiting for you to engage, but I feel like it kind of varies.” 


“I feel like MMA fighters are getting more well-rounded with their jiu-jitsu,” adds Kelly. “Yeah, grapplers can probably take out a lot of MMA fighters [in pure submission grappling], but recently [in a grappling match], a grappler lost to a legit fighter, so I think it goes either way now. You can’t just depend on the grappler always winning, because the MMA guys are getting smarter too.”

Her most recent experience throwing down with Yamaguchi has taught Kelly valuable lessons that she intends to exploit against future opponents in the ONE Circle. “I was a little nervous at first, because that was my first ever match where I was grappling in a cage,” says Kelly. “In previous matches, or tournaments, there were no cages, no rings or anything, so it’s made me work a lot now on technique that [involves] a cage. So I’ve been working on that, and also just my finishing mechanics – because I want to go for a submission, and not waste a lot of energy or time during the match.” 

Though the match technically ended in a draw, Kelly dominated from start to finish – and impressed ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong so much that she still took home a fifty thousand dollar bonus for her performance. “Honestly, I felt really emotional [earning that bonus],” confides Kelly. “Because I wasn’t expecting it at all. And in a way, I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t get the finish, so I feel like a bum.’ I really wanted the finish. And then I get that bonus, and I’m like, ‘Wow, all this hard work that I did really means something to someone. Chatri’s a really great person, and I’m happy to be working with him.” 

In summary? “It was a lot of adrenaline, and then just crying,” says Kelly bluntly, with a self-deprecating laugh. 

“People ask me if I can relax, now that I’ve signed with ONE, now that I’ve got the bonus, and it’s kind of weird,” she adds. “How people assume I’m just going to be on vacation mode now or something, and I’m kind of sitting here like, ‘No, once I got back from Singapore, it was back to work.’ I’d get up at six or seven, go to competition class, teach – I do a lot of teaching now – and then a lot of training and drilling. It’s just a lot of motivation now, because I’m in a big promotion, and I want to put the best work that I can out there.”

So, who’s at the top of Kelly’s wish list for potential opponents? Of her fellow submission grappling standouts, she immediately names AOJ phenom Jessa Khan and 10th Planet ace Grace Gundrum. “I’d love to have rematches with them – respectfully!” She grins. “I think Jessa got signed [with ONE] recently, so I was really excited. It’s also boosting women’s grappling at the end of the day, so I really appreciate that, but I also think it would be an exciting match if it ever happens. So that’s one of the matches I hope to get.”

The decision to sign with ONE herself wasn’t a difficult choice for Kelly, who sings the promotion’s praises: “I just really love how [Chatri Sityodtong] treats his fighters and grapplers, so that really motivated me to sign up with ONE Championship. I also really love what they represent as a sport – at the end of the day, it’s all about respect. I just feel like that makes their promotion way higher than other promotions, because other promotions kind of focus on trash talk.”

“I think the biggest thing, also, as a female, is that ONE Championship respects the women a lot,” Kelly is quick to add. “And in other promotions, women aren’t really respected. I’ve been in the sport almost seventeen years, so I can kind of see these things.”

For Kelly, part of ONE’s appeal was also the opportunity to dip her toes into the MMA world. “[MMA] is something new, and it’s something I’ve found that really excites me,” she says. “I want to get better at it, so it motivates me to do better. And I’ve always told myself, ever since I was a kid, that I wanted to fight. So if I’m going to have my first MMA fight – which I am – it’s going to be under ONE, which is really what I’m excited for. Plus, a lot of these well-known grapplers are signing [with ONE], and might be fighting [MMA] too, so that’s really exciting, and motivates me a lot.” 


While Kelly may still be waiting for her official MMA debut, she’s no stranger to fighting – and recounts no less than three schoolyard brawls she got involved in during her younger years. When asked about the childhood bullying she once endured, her answer is immediate and sheepish: “Well, the first three bullies, I already fought them.”

“Hopefully, they learned their lesson,” says Kelly with a smile. “Some of them actually watched my [matches] and ended up supporting me, like on the Internet, so they changed.” 

So, what exactly happened during those three fights? “My first fight was in seventh grade,” recalls Kelly. “I went to a big school before transferring to a smaller one, so the grades were like seventh to ninth, and it was this big junior high school. I was in seventh grade, and this girl was in eighth grade. I don’t know what it was, but the Internet was just getting big, and there was always some stupid rumor going around. I was always the quiet kid, and [the rumors] tend to go after the quiet kids. I couldn’t have done anything, because I was just super quiet. But I remember she tried to shove me in the hallway – and I’d just started doing jiu-jitsu and wrestling at the time – so then my muscle memory just clicked. So as she tried to shove me in the hallway, I did a quick double leg on her, and I remember she tried to kick her feet at me, so I went for a double under pass, and threw her legs across, and started beating her face.” 

Kelly laughs, looking a little embarrassed. “The lunch aid was there, so I got in trouble, because I – well, I didn’t start the fight – but I got in trouble.” Mostly because, simply put, Kelly was so clearly winning the fight that the older girl had started. She grins widely. “But then my dad took me to get ice cream at an amusement park, so it was worth it.” 

The second fight, as Kelly recalls, took place at a bus stop. “The one girl was following me to the bus stop. And I told her to leave me alone – I was telling her to leave me alone and walking away. And then she got closer, and I remember doing another takedown on her – I think it was a bodylock takedown – and hitting her face a little bit. It was at the bus stop, so there were people around us, and it only lasted like two seconds because I was on top of her. Then the cross guard pulled me off and blamed me for starting the fight.” Kelly sighs, clearly a bit exasperated by this repetitive series of events. “I don’t know why it’s like that. But I explained the whole thing to my parents, and they told me I did the right thing.”

The third and final fight took place in Kelly’s junior year of high school. “It was a smaller school, and I forget what drama it was – a lot of the girls were kind of snobby.”  Things really started going south when another girl confronted Kelly in the bathroom, prompting a verbal altercation that started a rumor spiral, at which point an older girl from another grade chose to get involved. “I was a wrestler at this school, so [the older girl] was calling me manly, talking about how I was a man and shouldn’t pick on girls, and just saying some really mean stuff.”

“So the next day, when I was in science class, while the teacher was talking to someone outside, that girl just walked into the classroom to try and put her hands on me,” Kelly remembers. “And at that moment, as she walked toward me, I just went into wrestling jiu-jitsu mode again, and I dragged her across all the school tables. I just remember throwing everything I had – and I did it in front of her [classmates] too, which felt really great – and we’re actually pretty good friends today.” Kelly smiles again. “She has a family, she checks all my stuff, so I guess it all worked out. We actually didn’t get in trouble [for the fight], just because she had a mark on her face, but she was already graduating in May. So instead, I wound up being the cool kid for that whole six, seven months.” 


The lesson from all this? Kelly laughs. “Just don’t pick on me! Don’t pick on people.” 

Taking on a more serious air, Kelly elaborates, “I feel like some people in high school probably act like they’re all that when they beat someone up, but I was kind of like – it was self-defense, I wasn’t trying to be cool about it, you know? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt: they probably felt bad, and they wanted to be friends with me, so I hope they’re doing well.”

Kelly has also developed a sharp eye for inappropriate behavior within the combat sports community itself – particularly toward its female members, who remain a noteworthy minority in the sport. “Fortunately, I’ve never experienced sexual assault, and I’m sorry for any girl that had to go through that,” says Kelly. “But you know, when I started, it’s kind of weird because I can see things from a mile away, and when you’re around certain gyms, and you see how people act, the women and the men, you can kind of see these things coming. And it kind of shows what people do to try and take advantage – especially if someone’s newer, girls who are white belts or blue belts, they’re always being taken advantage of.”

“As I got older, I started seeing the signs like, ‘Okay, you need to stay away from that person,’” she continues. “And it’s unfortunate, that you kind of have to have that in the back of your head, because as a woman, you kind of just want to show up and train, and not have to worry about the instructor or a teammate or someone that’s trying to harass you.” She allows, “There are some people, whether it’s male or female students, who do try to step over the line with instructors. There are a few cases of that. But the majority of the time, it’s not that. So at the end of the day, just leave the female students alone, you know? Just let them train. We’re all training here.” 

There’s also the matter of carving out a career as an elite female athlete in a male-dominated combat sport – which, according to Kelly, also means finding a gym that will truly invest in its female students. “When you’re joining a jiu-jitsu school, especially as a female, at the end of the day, environment is what counts.” says Kelly. While she’s tactful about sharing too many details, she describes one experience at a previous jiu-jitsu academy in which she felt as though female students weren’t valued in the same way as their male peers. “At one point, coming up [over there], I did have good attention, but – because it’s a male-dominated sport – as the other guys were catching up and getting fights, they kind of became more favored. Maybe we can agree to disagree, but I was one of the few girls, and I wasn’t getting the right attention, so I think I made the right move [to change schools] because everyone gets equal attention and respect [where I am now]. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to respect, so if I’m not respected somewhere, I’m not gonna stick around.”

“I think the main thing with my story is that as long as you’re around the right people, anything can be possible,” says Kelly. “People that motivate you, good environment, good family – and I know some families aren’t as supportive, which is where the jiu-jitsu family comes in. That’s why I always stress that if you’re at a good gym with a good environment, that’s the most important thing, and that can really take you far.” 

Kelly comes by her hard-won self-respect honestly, and with the advent of her growing fame, she’s as keen as ever on keeping it real. “There’s a lot of good people in this sport – good human beings, not just people who are good at jiu-jitsu,” she says. “And I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. Just because you’re good at jiu-jitsu doesn’t mean that you’re a good person. Growing up in this sport, I had a lot of people who helped me along the way – so I want to take that, and pass it on to other people. Maybe I can help them, you know? I’m in a position where I think I can. And at the end of the day, that’s what makes me feel great. I don’t think stardom or anything really means much to me – if I have it, I want to use it for good reasons, not to put down other people.” She laughs, and adds half-jokingly, “Unless they’re putting me down!” In which case, watch out.  

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