Zak Kelly looks to stay unbeaten as a professional as he headlines Art of War Cage Fighting 3 (AOW 3) this Saturday October 14th at Lanco Fieldhouse in East Petersburg, PA. Kelly both trains and coaches at Gracie 717 in Mountville, PA. Kelly took time for a chat with Fighting Stance Media during his fight week to give our readers a sense of his mindset, the transition to being a pro fighter, and the benefits of coaching.
You are 3-0 as a professional fighter and have won by KO, submission, and decision. What do you attribute to your ability to win in a variety of ways?
I’m obsessed with improving as a mixed martial artist, so I’m constantly training in all areas so that I’m comfortable wherever the fights take place. My coach Damione Puopolo has put together a great program at Gracie 717.
How has your transition from an amateur fighter to a professional been mentally?
Mentally at first it was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I made the transition–probably because of how long my ammy career was. I would frequently get asked when I was going pro, so when it came time I guess I just was very nervous. As far as what I’ve done differently…not too much. There were certain techniques I couldn’t use in ammy MMA in Pennsylvania such as head kicks, knees to the head, and elbows, so I just added those into my game; but that wasn’t really too hard. What is different is how I approach the rounds. Amateur rounds were just 2 minutes, while the pro rounds are 5 minutes. So I feel there was a lot more of a sense of urgency as an amateur to maintain a good position and win rounds, where as a pro I’m able to fight more relaxed and have fun.
Your amateur career had mixed results (5-7 record); what did you learn from that process, especially the losses?
I’ve had a rocky career as an amateur for sure, but I’m not one to quit when the going gets tough. I just had to make some changes and take some time off to let some injuries heal up. I wasn’t training properly and I just had to distance myself from competition and make those adjustments. My coach Damione was a huge part of that process. Also, not taking fights on a week’s notice or three days notice has helped out as well. I would just never say no when I’d get the call to take short notice fights. I’d take fights before even approaching my coach, whereas now I don’t do anything without talking it over with him.
How do you handle being the main event on a card?
Being the main event on the cards has been an honor. That being said, I hate it. I’d much rather be the first fight of the night and corner all my teammates. I’m not a fan of sitting in the locker room playing the waiting game.
How is coaching at Gracie 717 helping you as a fighter?
Coaching has become a huge passion for me. It’s helped me revisit some techniques and lessons I learned. It’s a pleasure to pass those on to my students. It’s also kept my fundamentals sharp. You have to practice what you preach!
In what aspect of MMA are you most comfortable training and fighting?
Since I’ve turned professional I haven’t been anywhere in a fight that I wasn’t comfortable. When I started in MMA back in 2012, I was just a striker coming over from kickboxing. It’s been a long process and a lot of trial and error, but like I said earlier my coach Damione has put together a great program where every night we work our striking, grappling, wrestling and how to tie it all together. I enjoy all areas of MMA.
What is the most helpful thing a coach has told you? What coaching mantra or mindset do you want your students to take from you?
My kickboxing coach Greg Pritchett told me “The mind tires before the body”–and that has stuck with me ever since. I make cardio my friend and just always push. I’d like my students to just remember to trust the basics and to always listen to your coach.
How do you balance your full-time job and your training? Do you like having to focus on something else besides fighting?
I’m a machine operator at a factory. I’ve been working there for almost 7 years now. Thankfully my job is first shift so it never interferes with training, which takes place in the evening. When I’m at work I focus on work, but as soon as I punch out I head to Gracie 717. It makes for a busy work week but I love that grind and I really enjoy being busy.
Tickets for AOW 3 can be bought at the door; fights start at 7pm. Stay updated on Zak Kelly’s journey by following him on social media.
(Photos courtesy of Zak Kelly and Art of War Cage Fighting.)