How BJJ Superstar Danielle Kelly Overcame Personal Tragedy To Reach The Pinnacle Of Submission Grappling

Danielle Kelly celebrates her win against Mariia Molchanova

Undefeated across a trio of thrilling submission grappling matches in ONE Championship, elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Danielle Kelly is now on the precipice of greatness.

On Friday, September 29, the American will take on reigning IBJJF World Champion Jessa Khan for the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight Submission Grappling World Title at ONE Fight Night 14: Stamp vs. Ham on Prime Video.

Set to air live in U.S. primetime from the Singapore Indoor Stadium, that historic matchup will be the first-ever Women’s Submission Grappling World Title contest in ONE, and it could propel either athlete to global superstardom.

Before the action gets underway, we take a closer look at Kelly – and the trials and tribulations she faced throughout her combat sports journey.

Falling In Love With BJJ

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kelly was a shy and reserved child. Her father, wanting his daughter to find a healthy outlet and after-school activity, first introduced her to martial arts by way of karate at the age of 10.

But after a few months, the commute to the dojo became too problematic for Kelly’s parents, forcing them to look for something closer to home. A quick Google search brought them to a local BJJ school.

Grappling for the first time – almost exclusively against boys – the young Kelly quickly discovered she had a knack for the sport and was immediately hooked.

She recalled:

“I tried my first jiu-jitsu class … there was another girl too, but she was a few years younger than me, so I couldn’t really go against her. So I went against the boys, and my coach at the time just figured it was a good idea to show me a few moves, and I clicked it like right away.

“We did a little two-minute sparring class, and I just took down all the boys, and you know, I just fell in love with it.”

With Kelly’s natural gift for ground fighting, she entered her first competition just four months later.

That set in motion a lengthy career in professional grappling that’s made her one of America’s biggest and brightest stars.

Finding Friends In Martial Arts

For the Philadelphia native, BJJ provided her with much more than just exercise and tools to defend herself.

Around the time she discovered the martial art, Kelly’s family had recently relocated to a different suburb, where the shy youngster struggled to meet new people.

She explained:

“I like being involved in something. I think you know, even as a kid, a lot of people think kids will just get over things, whatever. But you know, mentally, I was this new kid in school, and I didn’t really have any friends.”

The transition to a new school with new classmates was anything but easy on the quiet and introverted Kelly, who resented the family’s move.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, though, proved to be her savior, giving her an outlet for her emotions, introducing her to new friends, and generally building her fragile self-esteem during that difficult time:

“I was able to kind of take out all my frustration or my anger or whatever I had just from moving, because I didn’t want to move. And I met my friends, like my friends there at my first jiu-jitsu school, and I felt welcomed.

“I felt like my confidence was getting better over time, and my self-esteem was getting better too, because I was kind of a chubby kid, and sticking with jiu-jitsu kept me in shape.”

‘Doing This For My Parents’

The young grappler rapidly rose through the ranks of professional BJJ, making a name for herself thanks to her aggressive submission-hunting style that focused on brutal leg locks.

But behind her incredible success was personal tragedy. As a young adult, she lost both of her parents due to illness after extended struggles.

Growing up with sick parents certainly wasn’t easy. To cope, Kelly turned to martial arts:

“Jiu-jitsu and training was more like my escape, you know, to deal with things at home.”

Now an established world-class black belt competitor and one of the most feared submission artists in all of grappling, Kelly has used the loss of her parents and all the difficulties that came along with that as fuel for motivation.

She said:

“It just kind of sucks because seeing someone you love struggle and then eventually, you know, they’re not the same person, really puts a toll on a child. And still, that’s why I do jiu-jitsu. I feel like when I compete, especially right now, being under ONE, there’s a fire inside me. 

“I think looking back at my old matches, I was totally different. I’m doing this, and I’m here for a reason. Doing this for my parents, and it’s really motivating. Unfortunately, they’re not here, so my motivation just kind of goes towards showing them what they’ve done for me, and I can prove myself, and improve over time.”

Her Biggest Supporter

When Kelly thinks back on her childhood – both good and bad parts – one memory stands out above the rest.

Her father, she says, was always her biggest fan, and his unwavering support stays with her today:

“Whenever I did sports, my dad was always there for me. He was like my own coach and my dad. So it was really, really cool and great to have a big supporter and someone like by my side and want me to get better.”

The 27-year-old vividly remembers her father gushing over her early tournament performances.

She knows he’d be immensely proud to see where she is today: grappling and winning at the highest levels of the sport and soon competing for the most prestigious World Title in submission grappling.

Kelly explained the lasting impact her father has had on her career:

“That’s one of the reasons I stuck with jiu-jitsu. Because every day, I’m reminded of him and his motivational words to me, every time I come home from a big tournament or something and I won.

“He’d be really excited to see it play from the camera and all my matches. Just seeing him smile and be really happy that he sees I’m enjoying this and I’m improving. That would be one of the greatest memories.”

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