A Manchester mixed martial arts fighter has won a medal at the sport’s amateur European Championships and has spoken about her ambitions to reach the professional ranks.
Kelly Staddon brought home a bronze medal from the 2022 IMMAF European Championships in Italy after reaching the semi-finals.
A former British number one in judo who competed for Great Britain at world level on the mat, Kelly has only been fighting in the cage for around a year or so.
However, having reached the top level of one combat sport she is pulling out all the stops to make it big in the professional ranks of MMA as well.
European Championships success for Manchester fighter Kelly Staddon
Kelly, from Audenshaw, travelled to Italy for the 2022 IMMAF European Championships as part of an 18-strong Team England contingent.
And it was a successful trip as they placed third in the overall medals table.
Kelly secured a medal by beating home fighter Martina Corradi in a unanimous judges’ decision after three rounds, but had to settle for bronze after losing a semi final battle to Germany’s Songuel Karatorak.
Nevertheless, as she had only had three MMA fights before heading out to compete in the straw-weight division for European honours Kelly regarded the Italian journey as a successful step on her path through the world of mixed martial arts.
Kelly, 27, said: “It was a good experience in all and a long-awaited championships for me. It had been a while since I had a fight. I couldn’t go to the Worlds in January and then we had the Four Nations but three of the UK girls pulled out and I didn’t get to fight, so it was good to get out there.
“It was a good fight in the quarter final. She was a lot better on the ground than I thought she would be. She got me in an armlock for about a minute but I refused to tap and I got the win.
“A lot of people watching said the semi final could have gone either way. I think she won the third round, I went for an ambar and she got top position for the last 30 seconds of the fight.
“She’s a good fighter, she’s 4-1 so she’s got more experience than me. It was a good scrap.”
Kelly said competing in a championships with an elimination format is quite different to an MMA promotion’s show where fighters only step into the cage once in a night.
She said: “In the UK usually you have a fight and then that’s you done, but here you had to weigh in the next day and when you were sore and tired fight again.
“It was a good experience, I got what I wanted. The team environment was amazing. Team England was so supportive of each other. None of us knew each other before but you would have thought we had all known each other for years. They were all really good people.”
How did Kelly become an MMA fighter?
Her European Championships exploits mean Kelly now has an MMA record of 3-2 (three wins, two losses).
She might still be fairly new to the cage, but Kelly has been doing combat sports for most of her life, taking her first steps onto a judo mat when she was just four.
Her dad had trained in the martial art himself and Kelly said he took her along for a combination of building confidence and because doctors had told him his daughter would probably not be sporty after she had open heart surgery when she was very young.
She certainly defied that medical prediction, becoming the British number one in her weight category for a few years and competing at the European Championships.
However, she never got to showcase her skills at either the Commonwealth Games or Olympic Games and stepped away from judo in 2019.
Her absence from combat sport, though, did not last long.
Kelly said: “When I finished judo, it was a strange time mentally because my life was doing sport. I did an office job and absolutely hated it. I needed to do something else.
“I set up my own business doing sports nutrition and massage so I could earn money to start doing sport again. I built it up to a fairly decent level and I can sustain being a full-time fighter and having my own clients, which is perfect.”
Kelly’s fiancé George Smith is also an MMA fighter signed to leading British promotion Cage Warriors in its middleweight division, so when the gyms reopened after the Covid-19 pandemic Kelly started going to sessions as well.
It wasn’t long before she was asking to join the fight team and, in her own words, she “hasn’t missed a training session since”.
However, stepping from the judo mat into a cage wasn’t entirely straightforward. While her expertise in judo meant the grappling and submissions side of MMA posed no problems at all for her, mixed martial arts fighters are also able to employ boxing and kickboxing styles such as Muay Thai in pursuit of victory.
Kelly said: “I had literally never thrown a punch in my life. I was pretty shocking at first on the striking side, it was difficult. I bit down on my gumshield and took some shots.
“It took a couple of months of getting help from people in the gym, but now I’m pretty confident in my striking, though I’m nowhere near where I want to be.”
What ambitions and hopes does Kelly have for the future?
Before going to Italy Kelly had three fights from which she emerged with a 2-1 record, with two victories followed by her first loss on a Cage Warriors Academy bill against highly-rated young London prospect Shanelle Dyer.
Kelly said: “She was a lot bigger than me and has been a top Thai fighter. I probably shouldn’t have taken the fight but I was never going to say no.
“I lost in the third round with about 20 seconds to go. I had wanted them to let me see it out, I didn’t go down, but the referee stopped it.
“I only had about six months of striking at the time. I probably shouldn’t have got in there with her but I learned a lot.”
Her next goal is to get to the IMMAF World Championships and become a global amateur champion in MMA.
From there the professional ranks could beckon at a time when women’s MMA is growing fast in popularity, with this year’s huge Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) shows in London making stars of fighters like Liverpool flyweight Molly ‘Meatball’ McCann.
However, although she currently fights in the amateur ranks as a strawweight Kelly admits she would prefer to turn professional a weight class down at atomweight.
Currently, though, this is a weight division the UFC does not have on its roster, which means Kelly could be looking at starting out in the pros in a promotion like ONE Championship which is based in Singapore.
She will then have to cross her fingers and hope that MMA’s biggest organisation will introduce a belt and rankings for 105lb fighters and come calling.
She says her experience in judo of competing at global level means she has the ambition to reach the top in her second combat sport, but also admits that she can see a cut-off point for her career in the future.
She said: “In judo I worked my way to the highest point and I don’t see any difference with MMA. I put the work in every day, I’m dedicated. My ability to pick things up is pretty good and I can see myself going all the way.
“Hopefully I can get there before 35 so then I can stop and have a baby. I can’t fight all my life.”
‘Seeing your girlfriend get punched isn’t very nice, but he’s very supportive of me’
As Kelly’s fighting career develops she can be sure of unwavering support at home, something she says she has particularly appreciated in recent months as her fiancé George is on the comeback trail following a health issue.
She said: “George has had heart surgery. He was diagnosed at the start of this year with atrial fibrillation. It explained a few things about how he had been feeling in training and they said that instead of being on tablets he needed surgery.
“He’s running the Manchester Half Marathon because he wants to raise awareness for protecting athletes with heart conditions.
“He’s looking to fight next year and he’s a good prospect to go all the way as well. Especially while he’s been ill he’s been really supportive of me, when he’s not been able to train having trained his whole lifetime.
“Seeing your girlfriend get punched isn’t very nice but he’s very supportive of me.”