How Danielle Kelly’s Philadelphia roots helped mold her into a world-class fighter
She began karate at 9 years old after getting bullied. Now, she's on an all-female card being streamed on Amazon Prime on Friday.
Suzie Pepe thought she recognized the girl going up against boys at her Philadelphia-area Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio — “a wiry little thing,” in the words of her father, Joe.
One night after training, Pepe noticed Danielle Kelly right across the street from her house.
That short distance evolved into a battle-tested, battle-ready friendship.
Kelly, 5-foot-5, 115 pounds, got her start in martial arts and combat sports with karate at 9 years old. A victim of bullying at school, she wanted to learn self-defense.
“Growing up in Philly, I felt like I had to suck it up at a young age … and if you didn’t, you kind of just got left behind,” Kelly said. “I feel like I found my confidence. I had to be strong at a young age. I had to defend myself against bigger girls, mean people in general.”
Kelly, with the help of her parents, eventually found a coach who encouraged her to get into grappling — that way, she could defend herself, even when taken down. That skill set helped her tremendously before she ever stepped in a competitive ring.
Kelly continued to progress as a fighter and eventually began to rack up achievements, all witnessed by Pepe. She’s been in her corner from a distance from the start.
After serving in the Army, Pepe attended Penn State Abington to finish her degree. She always expected the same thing during her overnight shifts at Wawa: Kelly showing up in the morning with her little Nutella cup just to chat and keep her company. During those chats, Pepe learned that Kelly’s ferocity on the mat wasn’t quite a reflection of her day-to-day self.
“She’s timid, but I don’t think it hinders her at all,” Pepe said. “I think it makes her a better fighter and makes her fights more interesting.”
Kelly will compete on the main card of ONE Fight Night 14 at 8 p.m. Philadelphia time on Friday. It’s streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video and is free for all Prime subscribers and will be ONE’s first all-women’s headlining card on Prime Video.
Kelly (20-7-1) will be facing ONE world champion Jessa Khan (18-11-0). They will be facing off for the women’s atomweight submission grappling world championship, and Kelly has previously lost to the 4-11, 108-pound Kahn.
Atomweight in ONE is for fighters between 105-115 pounds.
As Prime Video has continued growing as a sports streaming platform, promoting an all-women’s main card like this is important to Kelly.
“When I started back then, women’s combat sports, especially jiu-jitsu, wasn’t known; it wasn’t taken seriously,” Kelly said. “Some promotions didn’t put women’s fighting on at all. People thought it wasn’t worth it.”
Pepe, for her part, has watched Kelly positively influence smaller girls (in age and stature) to get into fighting and to fend for themselves.
“The art of her fighting moves people of any age,” Pepe said. “Little girls look up to her, and that’s big for her.”
Pepe believes in the “Nutella-loving jiu-jitsu fighter from Northeast Philly” she’s always known and thinks she has what it takes to get revenge on Khan. But for Kelly, this fight is about more than just winning at ONE Fight Night 14. It’s about affirming who she is as a person and taking pride in her experiences — for others, and, most of all, for herself.
“My wish for her is that she sees herself how I see her,” Pepe said. “I’ve always been mama. But I always tell her, ‘You’re the mama today; you’re gonna kick [butt].’ ... When she fought [Khan] before, she was unprepared. But now, I believe [Khan] is going to be surprised when Danielle takes the belt from her.”
Kelly’s notoriety and Philadelphia ties got her an invite to the red-carpet premiere of Kelce, the documentary following the life of Eagles center and Philly sports legend Jason Kelce. The film premiered on Prime Video on Sept. 12.
Kelly got to walk the red carpet and meet Kelce — she made sure to keep the Sharpie ready. Kelly received some classic words of wisdom from the former Super Bowl champion when they spoke.
“He told me to not give up,” Kelly said. “It was a really cool experience.”
Kelly also got to meet offensive tackles Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson at the event.
She got a plus-one, and thought of no one else but Pepe, a longtime Eagles fan.
“It meant a lot to bring [Pepe] because she saw me go through the hardship,” Kelly said.
That night, Pepe wanted to help Kelly break out of her shell. Kelly has always struggled to talk about herself and isn’t the best trash-talker, either — she prefers to let the ring talk. But, with Pepe’s help, Kelly’s quiet voice — and strong Philly accent — are ready for prime time.