The Filipino featherweights will both return to action against South Korean opponents this Friday, 12 April in Manila, Philippines when Eric takes on “Pretty Boy” Kwon Won Il, while Edward faces Sung Jong Lee in back-to-back matches on the card.
The siblings from Baguio City have become two of their country’s favorite athletes in the last decade, but they have both taken wildly different roads to their current positions in The Home Of Martial Arts.
As children, the two eldest sons of chayote farmers were not that close, which is something that Edward has some regrets about.
“When we were kids, we really weren’t that close,” the 35-year-old says.
“Still, as a younger brother, sometimes I’m envious toward other siblings who have an intimate relationship, and I sometimes wish I had the same with my brother.”
It didn’t help that at an early age, Eric decided to leave home to make a living for himself, which created an even greater distance between him and his siblings.
“Every older brother would want to grow close with his siblings, but I guess it depends on where your life’s story would take you,” he explains.
“Mine took me everywhere just so I could find a way to survive on my own.”
Despite their differences, it is almost inevitable for the younger Edward to admire his older brother from afar.
“He is my idol,” he says.
“When I stopped my fighting career, I saw all his hard work to elevate his name in the martial arts scene. That’s when I admired him the most, because I saw him come down to Manila with practically nothing, and yet he was able to make a living.
“I appreciated his dedication to his craft, which helped him become a champion in the local scene.”
The Team Lakay representative was inspired to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and learn martial arts, even if he was discouraged from doing so.
“I remember back in high school, he actually discouraged me from pursuing it as a career,” reveals “The Ferocious.”
“It was a time when he was just starting in amateur local tournaments, and maybe he figured there was not much income coming out of it. He told me not to pick it up, and that I should just study.”
“He pushed me to pursue a degree in college, and it really stuck with me, which is why I studied hard with the support of my parents, but I also trained a bit – even if he said he didn’t want me to.”
Eric may not have always been the best role model, but his siblings still looked up to him, and he knew he could influence them somehow, and guide them down the right path in life.
Though he was not able to pursue a degree, he stressed the importance of education to Edward.
“I told him before that education must always come first,” the 36-year-old says.
“However, I told him that martial arts could be a way to help him with education, and he did just that by excelling in wushu to become part of the university’s wushu varsity team.”
Over the years, Eric spent time in Manila while Edward was in Baguio, but when Eric was forced back to Baguio by an injury, Edward had moved away with his family to Bataan.
Because of the distance between them, they were never that close, but that changed a little when Eric reunited with his brother in Bataan. Older, wiser, and experienced on the global stage for martial arts, he became even more of a mentor when Edward competed.
“I really appreciated his help and guidance back then,” Edward says.
“It’s not from his words, but I can feel it through his actions, especially when I competed in small events there. He would make the effort to come and watch my matches.
“In my first matches at ONE, he helped me prepare and was in my corner the whole time.”
Their reunion would not be for long though, as the brothers decided to part ways after Edward’s first two bouts in The Home of Martial Arts.
“The Natural” is something of a mixed martial arts nomad who never trains in one place for long – preferring to travel to constantly learn new skills – whereas he thought his brother would benefit from a stable environment.
“I felt like the way I trained was not the best fit for his talents,” Eric admits.
“I thought that going back to where he started with Coach Mark [Sangiao] in Team Lakay would help him improve and grow as a martial artist.”
“There, he would be able to sharpen his skills better, because he would be with our fellow Igorots who I know are skilled in the sport.”
Despite taking different paths, the Kellys are closer now than ever. Even when they are miles apart in geographical terms, their common experiences in martial arts mean they have a deep connection.
“Going through the same pains and sacrifices that we must make as martial artists, we can relate to each other a little bit better now,” Eric explains.
Edward echoes that sentiment.
“When we were younger, we were almost always fighting,” he says.
“Now that we’re older, we may not be able to talk much, but we can both feel the sincerity we have for each other, especially if one of us is in need.
“[Eric] opened a world of possibilities for me. I saw my brother take a chance on himself, and he became a part of the Philippine Wushu National Team, a professional fighter, and showed that he can live a life outside of farming.”
“He may not have gotten a degree in college, but he was able to buy a house here, and can proudly claim that he made it.”
After all they have been through, the younger brother is not the only one who looks up to his sibling.
After seeing everything “The Ferocious” has achieved on the global stage for martial arts, Eric is inspired to continue to work hard toward rediscovering his best form in ONE.
“There are times that I want to stop getting back in the cage, but I’m always inspired by my brother who always finds a way to get back up and continue fighting,” he said.
“I see him growing and growing, so I’m doing everything that I can so that I can improve myself as well.”