Damien Stelly isn’t like most other mixed martial artists. His first battles didn’t come in a cage, with gloves, an opponent and a referee to ensure his safety. His battles came in the dry rugged mountainous terrain in Afghanistan, oftentimes in the pitch black dark of night not always knowing who his enemies actually were. Stelly served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. He and his fellow troops were one of the first groups to be deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom following Sept. 11, 2001.
Stelly’s time in Afghanistan fighting for our country may be over, but that doesn’t mean his battles are. Throughout his time in the Army, Stelly built upon his wrestling base learning the other aspects of MMA, and now he’s putting those skills to the test in Bellator’s middleweight tournament. This Friday night, May 29, Stelly will face the toughest challenge to date in his professional fighting career when he takes on Hector Lombard in the semi-finals at Bellator IX.
We had the opportunity to talk to Damien about everything from his time in the Army to his upcoming fight against Lombard. Our discussion follows.
Ed note: On this Memorial Day, on behalf of the MMAConvert.com staff, I’d like to give a special thanks to Damien Stelly and to all the men and women in the US Armed Forces, past and present, for everything they do to help protect this country and our freedoms. Thank you.
MMAConvert.com: You have a unique background as an Army ranger. Tell us a little bit about that, and how that introduced you to mixed martial arts.
Stelly: Before I ever started training for mma and jiu-jitsu and all of that, I never really knew anything besides wrestling. That’s why I joined the army. So everything other than wrestling I’ve pretty much learned while in the Army just in between employments and training. Trying to find the time to do it. I joined in 2000 right after high school so I started off pretty young I guess and I’ve been in it nine years now.
MMAConvert.com: What made you decide to join the army in the first place?
Stelly: I actually joined because I loved the idea of being able to be soldier but at the same time being able to still wrestle because the Army also has a wrestling team – it’s part of their recruiting push. The army wrestling team uses freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling – they go to the Olympics and stuff like that so they are good enough. That’s really what was the incentive to join. I was told about the Rangers and being an airborne Ranger and stuff, which just really spoke to me, you know. After I heard that, I was hooked and I knew it was what I wanted to do.
MMAConvert.com: You’ve been to Afghanistan a few times. What kind of mental advantage do you think those experiences give you in the cage and how do the psychological effects compare between being on duty and being in the cage?
Stelly: I think it helps, definitely. It was a little bit different because out there in Afghanistan there were certain times when it’s pitch black, you’re about to go on a mission and you’re scared because there’s a chance that you could die. I’d say in MMA there is still that chance of dying but with the referees who are right on top of things, you’re a little bit safer, as far as your life is concerned. You kind of know a little bit more about what to expect in MMA. The guy’s gonna come at you and hit you and try to beat you up. But over there it’s more of an asymmetrical warfare. I guess what I’m saying is just that you don’t really know who the enemy is sometimes and it’s just all about the element of surprise with them. It’s a type of unconventional warfare so that part of it really confuses the armed forces.
MMAConvert.com: Are you still in the Army right now or are you now a full-time fighter?
Stelly: I’m in the Army still. I’m an E6 right now but I actually just made the E7 list so I’ll be promoted to E7 in a couple of months, which means that I’ll be a sergeant first class. I’m a staff sergeant right now so it’s just a higher grade of rank.
MMAConvert.com: There was an Air Force Times article that said you twice turned down the opportunity to fight in the UFC. Is that accurate and, if so, why?
Stelly: I never really saw an actual contract but I was given the opportunity to fight in the UFC on two occasions. But, unfortunately, I had to deploy so when you get deployment orders and you’re in your unit, you gotta go – there’s no choice really. So unfortunately, I had to say no. I really wish circumstances could have been different to where I would have gotten a chance.
MMAConvert.com: Well, there’s still a lot of time so there’s still the chance you could get the opportunity to fight for the UFC someday.
Stelly: Yeah, you know I’m 27. I’ve still got some years in me.
MMAConvert.com: So whom do you train with and what’s a typical day of training like for you?
Stelly: I train a lot with the guys in the Army. Sometimes guys just show up from other units around the country and around the world – like Tim Kennedy. There are some other really tough guys like Andrew Chappelle – he’s a very good standup fighter. He’s like a light guy though; he fights at 170 and 165. But the talent pool as far as fighters in the Army is pretty good. It kind of surprises people because there are a lot of guys who are in good shape and they’re tough. They’re just not able to devote as much time as a fulltime fighter could. But they’re very good fighters.
MMAConvert.com: I’ve seen a couple of your Army fights online and you can definitely see that the level of competition is good. You’ve fought other guys in organizations outside of the Army and they’re comparable.
Stelly: Yeah, there are also guys who join the army as a way of getting US citizenship. We get a lot of guys from Brazil who are in trouble of losing the ability to stay in America so they join the Army. You can fight whenever you get the chance as long as you do your job first. There’s a good opportunity to fight and have a career in something other than fighting. In case fighting doesn’t pan out or you get injured, you’re still doing another job and you still have a steady job. It’s hard to compete with, especially with the economy being so rough right now.
MMAConvert.com: What are your impressions about Bellator? How do you like the way the company has treated you so far?
Stelly: I’m very impressed with Bellator. They’re exceeding my expectations and it’s such a great experience to fight for them. I really feel like they bring out the best in me because they’re such a first-class organization.
MMAConvert.com: Is your fight with Hector Lombard secured? Are you for sure going to be fighting him?
Stelly: Yeah, it’s for sure. I’m fighting Hector Lombard on May 29th, in Montreal, Canada. I’m pretty sure its gonna be the main event of that Bellator show…that’s the rumor. I’m not 100% sure but I’m about 75% sure that fight will be the main event. [Ed note: The event has since been moved to Monroe, Louisiana]
MMAConvert.com: Hector’s pretty tough. Do you have a game plan for him?
Stelly: Oh yeah, he’s like dynamite. He’s a small package but he’s explosive. So I’m gonna be careful and not let him capitalize with his explosiveness and his quickness. I’m working with some southpaws trying to get me ready because he’s a very good boxer. Even though Hector’s an Olympic Judo guy, his boxing is up there with professional boxers. He’s fast. He’s dynamic. That’s the best way that I can describe him.
MMAConvert.com: You won some kind of golden gloves award too, didn’t you?
Stelly: Yes, I was just the Georgia golden gloves 2004 champion.
MMAConvert.com: What would it mean to you to win this tournament and if you don’t mind me asking about the $100,000 prize – if you beat Hector up do you have any idea what you would spend it on?
Stelly: Oh wow man. I definitely believe that Hector’s the toughest guy in the tournament so that would really just give me a big huge wave of momentum for the rest of the tournament. If I did win, I’d try to stay humble and not get crazy. I would try to be smart because I know I’ve got a lot more fights in me and I want to represent Bellator, in a professional way. I won’t really do anything rash.
MMAConvert.com: Are you a bachelor or do you have a family, Damien?
Stelly: I’ve got a family. I’ve got a wife; Adora is her name. I’ve also got two daughters. Their names are Heaven and Serenity. They are one and two years old so that’s where I’m at when I’m not training. I really appreciate them, too. They spend a lot of time with their daddy being away from home so they have to deal with that. It’s a very hard thing for the wives and families of not just fighters but the military too. It’s almost like I’m doing double action as far as being gone from home. Not only is it the fighting when I’m gone a lot, it’s the military as well.
MMAConvert.com: What are your long-term goals in mixed martial arts?
Stelly: Oh, I want to be a world champion. I want to beat a lot of good people, like Hector. I want to really make a good name for myself and just accumulate a great career when all is said and done with.
MMAConvert.com: Is it true that you’re the duck-calling champion of western Kansas?
Stelly: I think that was just sort of a side joke. I’m not really a duck-calling champion but I do have a deep seated hatred for Chuck Norris (laughs).
MMAConvert.com: What’s your best Chuck Norris joke?
Stelly: I’d say he’s got a few good ones. I’ve heard that he sleeps with a pillow under his gun. I’ve also heard that his house doesn’t have doors, just walls that he walks through. No, I’m just kidding around. I’m sure he’s a great guy but you know…friggin’ Chuck Norris.
MMAConvert.com: Anything you would like to say to your brothers still fighting overseas?
Stelly: Oh man, I’d just say god bless you. You know I’ve got some buddies who aren’t with us anymore and I still think about those guys everyday. I love them to death and I really appreciate what they’re doing. Hopefully they can come home and have some great opportunities and live life the way that they deserve, you know.