When I ask Jay Regalbuto what to expect from Danielle Kelly’s upcoming performance in ONE Championship’s first ever women’s submission grappling world title match, he answers without hesitation.
“Every morning when her alarm goes off, and she wakes up, it’s that face – her face from that match, so that she wakes up every day remembering what happened. She’s an incredibly motivated competitor.”
Regalbuto, a black belt instructor at the Illuminati Grappling Club in New Jersey, has had a front row seat to Kelly’s growth as a grappler ever since she first exploded on to the jiu-jitsu scene years ago. Though he’s quick to demur that he doesn’t consider himself a formal part of her coaching team, the Silver Fox superstar has cross-trained with Regalbuto and his team on a semi-regular basis for years.
“I run competition rooms and stuff like that, and I help Danielle with contracts, things like that – but then she’ll also come down and do competition sessions with us, which she’s done a bunch of over the years,” he explains.
The two first met at the end of 2018, when she visited Regalbuto for extra competition prep. “I always had a decent amount of female grapplers around, and she was getting ready for – I want to say it was an EBI match, I believe – so she had come in to get some rounds,” he recalls.
“And then, in early 2019, she came in to do a training session, and I ended up talking to her about going to the West Coast Trials for ADCC. And it was, maybe, that weekend, or the next weekend – and she ended up going, and doing amazing, especially for someone who hadn’t trained for it! She was a brown belt at the time, and made it to round eight, and lost to one of the top four competitors that year.
“But after that, we started working together on helping her get matches, helping her get sponsors, and things of that sort. But I’ve gotten to see the evolution of her through working with her in those aspects.”
It gives him some unique insight into the evolution of Kelly’s game. “It’s funny because [when she started out], everyone said she was a wrestler,” he remembers. “You know, she had a wrestling background, and she would just be taking everybody down – and even at EBI, she had some really, really good takedowns, she’s just really aggressive.
“But then she started leglocking people.” Regalbuto chuckles. “And now everyone’s like, ‘Dude, she’s a leglocker!’ And then she started taking people’s backs, and strangling them from the back, so it’s not so much that she’s a specialist in anything. I think she’s become so well-rounded by going through stages in her competition where she was a heavy wrestler at one point, and then she was leglocking a ton of people, and now she’s passing and getting to the back, or using her guard to get to the back.
“So she’s turned into one of the most well-rounded athletes in the female division. Wrestling, leglocks, and getting to the back: that’s as well-rounded as you get. And when it comes to it, she’s among the top at all [of those skills] for female athletes in the world.”
So what does that mean for Kelly’s shot at a world title – not to mention vengeance against Jessa Khan?
“I believe that the rivalry is one hundred percent [based on how much] Danielle wants that win back,” says Regalbuto. “She dislikes losing more than she likes winning, you know what I mean? She wants all her losses back. And that is one hundred percent her motivation.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, she also wants that belt – she’s had three really tough matches [at ONE], really good matches,” he adds. But his take on the state of affairs is clear: the true fire lighting up Danielle for this title fight is her desire to beat Khan.
“Honestly, in the time that I’ve talked to her since the match was announced, it’s never been about the belt,” Regalbuto tells me bluntly. “It’s really about winning against Jessa.”
What are Kelly’s odds at avenging that loss? Regalbuto predicts a tough scrap for both women. “Jessa hasn’t done a ton of no-gi; she competes mostly in the gi. But it’s not like she’s not going to be prepared. And the AOJ coaches are known for what they’ve done in the no-gi world, so no doubt, Jessa’s going to be prepared for this – she has to understand that Danielle wants this win more than anything.”
Still, Jessa’s resume – which is stacked with several major wins in the IBJJF in both gi and no-gi – make her a formidable foe. All of that, so far as Regalbuto is concerned, simply makes the matchup even more exciting.
He believes that the ruleset and venue, however, might favor Kelly – who’s already had three matches under the ONE Championship submission grappling ruleset. ONE’s judges heavily favor “catches,” or submission attempts, over traditional IBJJF or ADCC scoring positions. The cage wall also adds a dimension that Kelly’s already familiar with – which Khan will have to adjust to.
“Danielle has a pace as well – she doesn’t really have a slow, methodical style,” observes Regalbuto. “She’s incredibly technical, but she does it at a pace. She’s going to exhaust you.”
Regalbuto notes that Jessa, on the other hand, tends to wait and lure her opponents into her game at a more cautious pace, creating an interesting stylistic clash against Kelly. “Maybe it’s something [Jessa’s] worked on, but typically, she’s not trying to wrestle up – she’s trying to drag you down into her world on the ground in that bottom game. And I don’t think Danielle’s one to back down from that challenge. I think she’ll say, ‘I’ll pass your guard from here then.’”
Regalbuto also believes that the evolution of both athletes since their previous showdown adds a wrinkle to the rematch. “I feel like Danielle’s a very, very different grappler from when they went against each other the first time. I don’t see a ton of difference in Jessa’s game from that time – but we’ve mostly seen her in the gi, and [AOJ] is incredibly smart and strategic with no-gi, and I’m sure they’ve developed a game plan for everything they think can happen.”
Ultimately, however, Regalbuto gives the edge to Danielle Kelly: “I really think that Danielle’s experience in ONE, in the cage, in the ruleset – the fact that she knows exactly what the judges are looking for, and knows exactly the pace that the ref is going to push it at – will [make the difference].”
“This is really exciting for jiu-jitsu in general,” he enthuses. “It’s amazing that it’s happening in ONE, but this is a match where everyone has wanted to see a rematch for a long time. As soon as that poster went up, everyone was like, ‘Yes! We get to see Jessa and Danielle again!’”
Tune into ONE Championship’s inaugural women’s submission grappling world title match on Friday, September 29 as part of ONE Fight Night 14.