Best I Faced: Kevin Kelley
Kevin Kelley will be best remembered for his all-action style that often saw him win by knockout – or be on the receiving end of one. He also, in typical New York fashion, talked a good game.
Kelley had a brief but successful amateur career that saw him narrowly miss qualifying for the 1988 U.S Olympic team.
“[I was] number one in the country, three in the world,” Kelley told RingTV.com. “I won a lot of tournaments; I had 70 wins and five loses. I was going for the Olympic team but couldn’t make the weight the last year.
“I moved to featherweight and had to re-qualify. I re-qualified, I made it the trials, I lost in the semi-finals to Carl Daniels, who became junior middleweight champion of the world. I dropped him twice and they gave him the fight (Daniels won a 3:2 decision).
“I was very frustrated. Politics in amateur boxing is worse than the pros. When that happened I got so frustrated I turned pro. I only boxed amateur for four years.”
Kelley attributes his frustration of amateur boxing to his seek-and-destroy mentality in the pros.
“I think that’s why I was so anxious to get guys out of the ring because I didn’t like judges to much,” he said. “Never in my whole career, I never cared for judges. I felt I had to be in control of my destiny, not the judges. That’s why I had so many knockouts.”
Once he had turned pro, “The Flushing Flash” was extremely active.
“I was averaging 12 to 14 fights in a year. I fought twice in the same week one time,” said Kelley. [Note: As a reader pointed out, this is a slight exaggeration on Kelley’s part. His busiest year was 1989, when he fought 10 times. Also, although he had two fights very close to each other on many occasions, his record shows no instance of fighting twice in the same week.]
His manager also worked with Regilio Tuur, who would go on to become WBO 130-pound champion. Kelley often fought in the Netherlands (where Tuur was from) and elsewhere in Europe.
He won his first 36 fights, beating the likes of former champion Troy Dorsey in what he says was his hardest fight (According to Kelley, both guys threw a combined 2,806 punches in the bout) and world title challenger Jesus Poll.
Much like Marvin Hagler, Kelley was long recognized as one of the leading lights in his weight class, unable to get a world title shot. Ranked No. 1 in the world for two years by the WBC but was widely known as a dangerous fighter none of the champions wanted any part of. “I was a lefty, I was fast and I could punch,” he said. “I felt the politics of boxing working against me. At that point I knew if something happens I’m not going to get a title shot.”
He finally got his long-awaited chance when he met Gregorio “Goyo” Vargas for the WBC featherweight crown in late 1993. It wasn’t an opportunity he would let pass.
“In my mind at that moment, nobody could beat me,” the southpaw boxer-puncher said of his coronation. “I understand it was important to who had a belt to keep me out of the circle because I was hunting. No matter what champion I fought they were going to lose their title.
“I was very relieved, I finally won the title, it was personally long overdue.”
In early 1995, after two defenses and two non-title bouts, he headed for San Antonio, Texas, where he surprisingly lost his belt and unbeaten record against unheralded Alejandro Gonzalez. His Mexican opponent would force Kelley to retire with severe eye damage at the end of the 10th round.
“It wasn’t he was a good fighter because he only kept it for one defense,” said Kelley. “I was tired, I was 41-0, the push for me to be champion was so hard that when I got there if i think about it now I should have taken a break for a year.
“I was fighting nearly 14 times a year. I was very frustrated. I wanted Tom Johnson, I wanted (Eloy) Rojas (in unification fights). I wasn’t motivated to fight guys that were challengers to me. I did that to get where I got to. I wanted the bigger events.
“I thought maybe I need this loss to motivate me. You never want to lose but I needed the loss to rise again.”
For the next three years Kelley stayed active, initially drawing with Bones Adams before besting grizzled former world champions Louie Espinoza and Jesus Salud. Sandwiched in between was a highlight-reel KO over future featherweight titlist Derrick Gainer.
Then Kelley turned his attention to the precociously talented Naseem Hamed.
“People don’t know I went to England to challenge him,” claimed Kelley. “I was looking for an opponent. I had beaten everybody in America at the time. I was 47-1 and I saw this guy in a magazine and thought, ‘Why isn’t he fighting me?‘
“I got on a plane and flew to England and I challenged him, and Frank Warren said he didn’t need me because he was doing his thing in England and making a great deal of money doing it their way. I can understand that.
“When I heard he’s coming to America, I challenged him again. With me in America you fight the best.”
The two met the week before Christmas in 1997, having exchanged barbs at the press conference. Much was expected of their encounter and it didn’t disappoint. Each man was on the canvas three times in a real donnybrook of a fight.
Kelley felt he had Hamed where he wanted before getting stopped in a wild fourth round.
“My mistake was, a way to get knocked out is to try to knock somebody out and that’s exactly what happened.” he said ruefully.
This weekend Hamed will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Kelley was pleased to see his friend inaugurated.
“I’m very glad for him,” he said. “I was shocked when they inducted him before me. I was pro before him and pro after him. A lot of people had question marks on him because in America when you lose a fight, they rate you off the loss and how you come back. When Hamed lost, he had one fight and retired.”
Kelley remained active for over a decade. His best days were behind him, but it still took a good fighter to beat him. He met Erik Morales on late notice, getting stopped in seven rounds in 2000. He would beat future three-weight champion Humberto Soto in 2002 and parlayed that into a fight with Marco Antonio Barrera, who stopped Kelley in four rounds in the spring of 2003.
He continued winning some, losing some before bringing down the curtain on his 20-year career after a loss against Olympian Vicente Escobedo in 2009, with a record of 60-10-2, 39 knockouts.
Today Kelley, 47, lives in Las Vegas with his wife and three children (he has four children from his previous marriage). He works a day job in timeshare as well as for HBO, where he covers the international feed.
Throughout his storied career Kelley fought a who’s who of his generation at featherweight. He kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak to RingTV.com about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
[Goyo Vargas] hit me so hard … he landed on my arm sometimes I could feel it in my bones.
BEST SKILLS – Derrick Gainer – He’s tall, rangy, 6 feet [tall], a lefty, boxing skills are extraordinary. He knew how to utilize his attributes well. I would say he’s the best boxer I ever boxed.
BEST JAB – Gainer – ‘Cause of the way he’s built, he’s 6 feet, a lefty. He had a good stiff jab, he neutralized my southpaw size. When a lefty fights a lefty he’s on the right-hand side. Hamed was number two, but Gainer would be number one because he was taller, longer and a long reach, 74 inches.
BEST DEFENSE – Gainer – I hit them all but I would say the hardest to hit had to of been ‘Smoke’ again. The Prince I found very easy to hit; he was a lot more hittable than a lot of opponents because he had his hands down, which makes it more accessible to land punches on. Most of the fighters I didn’t have a hard time hitting, I’d find my way in. I’d say Gainer was hard ’cause he kept holding. He kept sticking and moving and it’s hard to catch up with him.
BEST CHIN – Troy Dorsey – All day, best chin of all time. You could hit him with anything, kick ’em, punch ’em, shoot ’em, [He won’t] go down. I think Troy Dorsey had one of the best chins in boxing. He fought many, many men and they’ll tell you that. Oscar De La Hoya will tell you that.
BEST PUNCHER – Goyo Vargas – He hit me so hard, he landed on my arm sometimes I could feel it in my bones. I told Floyd Mayweather when he was fighting him, I said, ‘I believe he’s the hardest puncher you’ll be in the ring with,’ and at that point in his career he said, ‘Yeah, I agree, this guy can really crack.’ Where he got the power from you couldn’t figure out. When he hits you couldn’t figure it out. He didn’t have muscle definition, he had this crazy punching power.
They all could punch but you said which one really caught my attention. Hamed could punch, Barrera could hit really hard, I thought Morales was OK [but] I didn’t think it was that great compared to Barrera. I fought some punchers and I think Goyo Vargas, when he hit you it was a little different. Punching power is a perception. I thought Hamed didn’t hit as hard as Goyo Vargas.
FASTEST HANDS – Naseem Hamed – Prince and Smoke Gainer, I would give Prince the lead on that one. I had to stay in motion, stay moving, be real cautious because like I say he’s got that snap power like I have, so there’s a lot of similarities and I thought, ‘How would I beat myself?‘ Gainer had very fast hands. I didn’t fight many fast fighters, I fought guys with my hand speed but I’d say Gainer and Prince, definitely.
FASTEST FEET – Gainer – ‘Smoke’ Gainer and ‘Prince’ both were on the same level. Gainer was a mover, a mobile boxer who wasn’t going to try to let me on the inside but the ‘Prince,’ he didn’t mind if I got on the inside. I think it was the height. ‘Prince’ was 5-foot-4 and Gainer was 6 feet, so it was understandable why he wouldn’t let me on the inside.
SMARTEST – Erik Morales – I think Morales was very smart. He knew how to pick his moments. Also I would say Barrera. They both knew I was dangerous and they weren’t reckless. I fought them last minute, I fought them after my prime – that’s one thing I don’t regret but wish I could have did it, I could have got a better look at them. I fought them way after I fought ‘the Prince’ at featherweight. I was no longer featherweight so if I could, I could have boxed them in ‘95, ‘96, I could have got a better look at them.
STRONGEST – Vargas – [I’ve] got to go with Goyo Vargas again, strength-wise. He was like a solid rock. He was like fighting (Roberto) Duran – you can’t overpower him. I had to box him very smartly.
BEST OVERALL – I don’t think there is any best, all fighters are different. You have to customize yourself for everyone you’re fighting. They all have their own attribute,s every single one of them. They all grew me and made me and I learned something from all of them. There’s no best fighter, ’cause they’re all different. ‘Prince’ put his hands down, he had great agility, he’s a lefty, punches from different angles. ‘Smoke’ was a mover, sticker, jabber, he never stayed in one spot. Troy Dorsey had a phenomenal chin, he kept coming, throwing punches over and over. Jesus Salud could stand up to my punching power and deal with it very well.
Champion after champion that I faced they all had their own attributes and I knew what their best was and I had to find a way to neutralize them. With ‘the Prince’ it was more or less me being patient. The difference between me winning that fight and losing that fight was patience and I got impatient and I lost that fight. He was a heck of a fight but I rolled the dice. My trainer told me not to go after him and I did.